Opinion | Politics

Mark Trahant: Investing in our Native candidates for US Congress

Congressional candidate Victoria Steele leads in the Little Money race. What would it take to make that a competitive metric? Photo from Victoria Steele for Congress / Facebook

#NativeVote16 – Little dollars could turn the world of politics upside down
Measuring contributions of $25 or less
By Mark Trahant
Trahant Reports

Let’s turn the world upside down.

A “normal” political story might examine finances for political candidates starting with who raised the most money, where it came from, and what that means for their prospects at the ballot. Money equals success.

I am not going to do that. Instead I am going to start by reporting who’s winning the battle for little dollars. Which one of the seven Native American candidates for Congress are getting money from people who might be giving up a dinner out. Then sending $25 or less to a candidate for Congress. And “sending” isn’t the right word. It’s investing.

Let’s measure how American Indians and Alaska Natives are investing in our our candidates, in our future, in ourselves.

We can’t control who gets the money from Political Action Committees, casinos, or even many tribes. But we can decide for ourselves who is worthy of our investment.

So who does well using this measure? Victoria Steele in Arizona. Of the seven active Native Americans running for Congress she has the most small donors, 86 to be precise, who invested $1,924.00 That’s not a lot of cash. But what if that idea could be expanded across Indian Country? What if our values, and then our actions, rewarded candidates with lots of little donors?

Of course this is exactly what happened on the presidential level. First, Barack Obama, and now Bernie Sanders, showed that you could raise tens of millions of dollars from small amounts.

Indian Country could do the same thing. If even a small fraction of American Indian and Alaska Native voters sent money to Native American candidates the total could be significant.

Indian Country's $25 challenge: Little money donations are flowing to three Native candidates for U.S. Congress. Image by Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

So, borrowing an idea from my manager days, I am going to start capturing this data. (You change what you measure.) Starting with the April 15 Federal Election Commission filing, I am charting on a spreadsheet which Native candidates earn the most support at $25 or less.

For now I am just looking at the reports for congressional candidates, but the principle ought to be for every candidate for every office. Especially those running for state legislatures. (Previous: The hidden history of why Native Americans lose elections and what to do about it)

Over the years I have heard from so many candidates who said they did not get any financial support from the Democratic or Republican Party or even wealthy individuals who give to just about everybody. (The Washington Post recently reported that half of all Political Action Committee donations come from just 50 people.)

But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can take that authority away from the parties, tribal enterprises, casinos, even fat cats, all by sending little dollars. (There are even easy third-party online tools to send money in small amounts, such as ActBlue for Democrats, or ActRight for Republicans.) As I have written before it would be great to see a Native American version of these kinds of groups that bundle, report, and pass along donations to candidates and causes.

I don’t want to discount candidates who are raising serious money. Kudos to Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, who’s raised more than a million dollars, or Markwayne Mullin in the same state. Both incumbents have primary challengers. Cole is Chickasaw and Mullin is Cherokee.

Montana’s Denise Juneau is breaking fundraising records for Democrats in her state. She has raised $626,741 as of March 31. Most of her money has come from Montanans and about a third has been in increments of less than $100. “From farmers and nurses to software engineers and teachers, the excitement and momentum for our campaign comes from every corner of Montana,” Juneau said. “Montanans are ready for a leader who puts them first, and they know I’ll be that leader in Congress.”

Indian Country's $25 challenge: Bigger money donations are flowing to three other Native candidates for U.S. Congress. Image by Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

But Juneau is also resetting the bar higher in terms of donation from a wide cross-section of Indian Country. She has received donations from tribes and tribal enterprises, including from Barona Band of Mission Indians, the Lummi Indian Nation, Oneida Indian Nation, Puyallup Tribe of Indians, Quinault Indian Tribe, Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, Squaxin Island Tribe, Stockbridge-Munsee Community, Suquamish Tribe, Swinomish Tribal Community, and the Tulalip Tribes of Washington.

Arizona Republican Carlyle Begay has already raised $39,906 in his bid for the first congressional district. He has few individual contributions, but his report shows contributions from the Mississippi Band of Choctaw, Barona Band of Mission Indians, Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation and the Porch Band of Creek Indians.

One of the challenges for Native American candidates is that they need to reach a minimum level of funding before they will get financial help from the national political parties.

Joe Pakootas is the former chairman of the Colville Confederated Tribes in Washington. He is now a candidate for Congress in Washington’s 5th District. He remembers when politicians would approach the tribe for donations. “We’d interview them and make sure they were going to support the issues that were important to us. That happened and we would throw some dollars at them,” Pakootas said. “Well, when I got into this race in 2014, I thought, this is going to be easy. I can go around and talk to all the tribes, I am Native American, and one of them, and maybe they will support me graciously, handsomely. I was completely wrong on that issue.”

Pakootas said he received about $39,000 from tribes. He said he thought it was a lot until he talked to some of the other candidates, non-Indians “who let me know he had received $80,000 from tribes. It was kind of disappointing.” He said this time around he hopes to change that, even if dollars aren’t flowing in just yet.

Joe Pakootas, the former chairman of the Colville Tribes, is running for the House of Representatives in Washington’s 5th district. Photo from Facebook

The national party has not helped the Pakootas campaign. He said when he started running he was told he would need to generate about $500,000 in revenue before the Democrat’s congressional committee would help him raise more money. (Previous: Six seats Natives can win to flip Congress)

One of these days we will find a way to reduce the role of money in political campaigns. I have long thought we should come up with a better alternative, such as taxpayer-funded campaigns, that level the playing field. But that kind of reform is far off.

“It’s sad that money plays such a huge role in winning these races,” said Denise Juneau. “We have to raise money to make sure we get the message out about my record of accomplishment, my ideas for moving forward, how I am going to include everybody in the path that goes to Congress.”

Juneau said you don’t always need a lot of money to win. Sometimes even selling t-shirts helps a campaign. “It doesn’t take a lot of money to make a significant difference. Because, just like votes .. we gather up every little vote in Montana and it comes in aggregate and we win.”

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

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