In a year when the rights of indigenous people have been under assault, from Standing Rock to the president’s Twitter feed, a largely unknown politician is pushing back by launching a campaign to become the country’s first Native American governor.
Paulette Jordan, a 37-year-old Idaho state representative and member of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, is running as a progressive Democrat to try and become state governor.
“We’re blessed with land. We’re blessed with the goodness of what the land gives back to us, and what makes us prosperous and so I think we as leaders can enhance that — enhance the image of Idaho and all these ways,” Jordan said in an interview. “I want people to trust and believe that I can make this difference.”
Jordan was born and raised in north Idaho and has ancestry from several local tribes. A former member of the Couer d’Alene tribe’s council who comes from a line of tribal chiefs dating back to her great-grandfather, Jordan sees her heritage and time in tribal leadership as a key piece of her identity — and it plays heavily into her politics.
“I was the youngest person on that council,” Jordan said. “To be able to be in a room with these elders, listening to their needs and their perspectives, their stories and their values — that’s something you don’t ever want to take for granted.”
Among her most emphasized political priorities is her commitment to environmental protection and conservation, which she says comes directly from her family’s commitments to stewardship of the earth and protecting it at all costs.
“My grandfather said, ‘never forget your contract with Mother Earth. You always have that contract with Mother Earth as indigenous people,” Jordan said. “And that is to protect her at all costs. That means to keep our air clean. To keep our water clean. Protect our land and ensure she’s always respected. If we grow, we harvest, and we take the gifts that she gives us, but we don’t ever try to hurt her.”
Jordan said in an interview that she also feels a strong personal connection to one of the biggest political issues in Western state politics right now: the conservation of federal lands and national monument sites that the Trump administration is determined to sell off.
Recently, President Donald Trump went against the wishes of locals in the conservative state of Utah and drastically reduced the size of federally protected Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to open them up for oil and gas drilling.
“We have this president who decides to open up [monument sites] for oil and gas extractions to basically to ravage the land in every way possible for the benefit of the corporations,” she said. “Now that, to me, is not only unlawful but goes back to being a detriment to the people.”
The will to protect federal lands from privatization has typically been bipartisan in western states. In Montana’s special election in May, both Democratic candidate Rob Quist and Republican candidate Greg Gianforte came out strongly in favor of keeping federal public land public. But private industry has lobbied the Trump administration to oppose popular sentiment on the issue.
“The truth is, in fact, that we’ve created hundreds of thousands more jobs through clean energy developments than we have through fossil fuel developments,” Jordan said. “The president is choosing to lie to the general public for these reasons, for his own sake to take from the public. Take from the people. And that is wrong.”
Jordan’s environmentalism is bolstered by her lifestyle as a sportswoman and devotee of Idaho’s rural outdoor culture.
“I grew up riding bareback, horseback riding and grew up in the country,” Jordan said. “I’m from a farming family on my mother’s side and on my father’s side it was a very strong, lengthy ranching heritage.”
Before Jordan can mount a Democratic campaign for governor, she’ll face a competitive primary in the state against Boise businessman A.J. Balukoff — who previously ran for governor in 2014 but lost to incumbent Republican Governor Butch Otter, who is retiring and will not seek re-election in 2018.
Balukoff, who donated to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns in both 2008 and 2012, is running as a pro-business moderate candidate to win over swing voters in the conservative state.
Progressive organizers in the state, however, claim that the grassroots energy in the state is firmly behind Jordan’s candidacy.
Stephanie Rohrbaugh-Ayers, a local organizer with the north Idaho and Eastern Washington chapter of the group Indivisible, said in an interview that she and other progressives in the area have been energized by Jordan’s candidacy.
“I’m really excited about it,” Rohrbaugh-Ayers said. “[Balukoff] is not really progressive.”
Luke Mayville, co-founder of the group Reclaim Idaho, which launched a campaign to expand Medicaid in the state, thinks that Jordan’s campaign has the potential to rally an energized electorate, and win the kind of unlikely victory that helped propel Republicans to power in several blue states in the 2010 midterm elections.
“There are groups all over the state that popped up after the presidential election,” Mayville said. “And a lot of those groups are eager to participate proactively in elections because for years they’ve been working mainly against something — namely to block awful legislation — and now they see these elections as a chance to work for something.”
Jordan, who describes herself as “very progressive,” says that, if elected, she will move immediately to expand Medicaid in her state. Idaho’s Republican governor Butch Otter and the state legislature have resisted this move for years. She also believes that the Democratic party needs to “remodel itself to be more progressive” in order to engage future generations.
While Jordan’s political leanings are to the left of a traditional Idaho candidate, she does hold several positions that are not typical of progressive candidates nationwide. She says that she is personally “pro-life,” but supports a woman’s right to choose.
“I was raised by a Catholic and I’m very spiritual,” she says. “So when I say pro-life I don’t want to over-politicize it. It just means that I’m respectful of all life,” Jordan said.
She also claims to enthusiastically support the rights of lawful gun owners in her state. These beliefs put her among a new crop of self-identified “progressives” in red states who adopt populist positions on issues like health care, but take more moderate or conservative stances on issues like abortion and gun control.
Even with her carefully moderated stances on issues like abortion and gun rights, Jordan is set to face an uphill battle running as a progressive in Idaho, a state which hasn’t elected a Democrat for governor since 1990, and which Trump won by more than 30 points in 2016.
But after Doug Jones’ historic win of Alabama’s senate seat, Democrats are newly emboldened to go after statewide elections in deeply red jurisdictions.
Jane Kleeb, a board member of the progressive group Our Revolution and Democratic party chair of Nebraska, says she believes 2018 could be the year for a new kind of populist Democrat to win in conservative territory.
“What I’m seeing on the ground in Nebraska and other red states and rural communities is a clear stance from voters saying they want their politicians to actually be in that job because they want to help people,” she said in an interview.
“I think there’s this task for Democrats in red states to essentially communicate to voters that the Democrats are the ones on the ‘helping people’ train — that we believe in expanding pre-K, making child care more affordable to families and having a path to Medicaid expansion — that’s where I think this could be a different type of year.”
Should Jordan win her primary, she will likely face off against Republican Rep. Raul Labrador, who announced in May that he’ll be stepping down from his congressional seat next year to run for governor. Labrador, a member of the House’s staunchly conservative Freedom Caucus, has the lowest approval ratings of any member of the state’s congressional delegation. Labrador’s reputation with his state’s Republican Party is also less than sterling after he endorsed a challenger running against Idaho’s popular incumbent Republican governor in 2014.
“Our president lacks humanity. He lacks respect. He lacks honor.”
Jordan, meanwhile, is focused on emphasizing Labrador’s ties to big business and corporate interests.
“He listens to corporations. And that’s where he goes wrong,” she said. “Because there are even right-wing conservatives I know, who are my neighbors and dear friends of mine, who don’t value Big Pharma or don’t value Big Agriculture. They don’t value corporations who are trying to run their lives.”
The influence of agricultural lobbyists is of particular concern to many progressives in Idaho. A 2014 ag-industry-backed law made it illegal for journalists and animal rights activists to film the working conditions and animal treatment in factory farms across the state, which advocates say hampers their ability to expose industry abuses.
Jordan says she plans to distinguish herself to voters by emphasizing her independence from corporate influence.
An election face off between Jordan and Labrador would also be a significant step for a state with a history of harboring racist hate groups. Idaho was once home to one of the country’s most infamous white supremacist movements, the Aryan Nations. In 1998, members of the Aryan Nations brutally attacked a Native American family, shooting out the tires on their vehicle, running them off the road and threatening to kill them. After the incident, the family sued the Aryan Nations in a case that forced the white supremacist group to abandon their Idaho compound.
Twenty years later, Idaho remains one of a few states in the country that is overwhelmingly white, while the country as a whole becomes more diverse. Were Jordan to face off against Labrador, who is Puerto Rican, Idaho would not only have it’s first Native American candidate for governor, but would have one of the only statewide races in the country where both major party candidates are people of color.
The importance of representation in the Trump years isn’t lost on Jordan.
“Our president lacks humanity. He lacks respect. He lacks honor,” she said. In November, Trump offended multiple tribal leaders by referring to Senator Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas” at a ceremony honoring the Navajo Code Talkers.
“For him to disrespect World War II veterans and to be the only president to have done so in the White House is disrespectful of the White House,” Jordan said. “For him to bring in a U.S. senator, as he does, and try to slight the indigenous people of this land who have stood up for freedom and for this land for generations. I think that’s the travesty. And that’s what people should be thinking about.”
Should she win the Democratic primary, Jordan’s candidacy could be seen as a direct challenge to Trump’s anti-Native American rhetoric and xenophobic policies.
“I always think that, in the end, what it comes down to is fighting for your community and fighting for what’s right,” Jordan said. “And if you want to do more, you have to move up.”