Though Indigenous people have long fought for representation on the local, state, and national levels, America has never had an Indigenous governor. Paulette Jordan, who served in the Idaho House of Representatives from 2014 until February 2018, is aiming to change that. She’s challenging fellow contenders A.J. Balukoff and Troy Minton for the Democratic candidacy, and then she plans to go toe-to-toe with whomever wins the Republican primary.
Jordan is facing an uphill battle: Idaho voters haven’t elected a Democratic governor since 1990, and the GOP currently occupies the majority of Idaho’s political field. But in a time when people are rising up and fighting to maintain the integrity of the Constitution, could she become the nation’s first Indigenous governor?
To answer that question, Jordan spoke with Bitch about why she’s decided to run, what she hopes to achieve if she’s elected, and how we can better preserve Mother Earth.
For years, people have been pushing you to run for office, but you resisted it because it wasn’t the right timing. What made you decide to finally run for governor?
It was more about getting experience. I come from a family that [has] really strong integrity, and I believe you should understand the people and the functions that you are seeking to serve. So, it was more [about] getting enough experience in the Idaho House [of Representatives], and then really getting to know the entire population of the state. Coming from a rural perspective, I felt it was important for me to understand the businesses around both northern and southern Idaho and get to know the people, by and large, from every single background, including the younger generations, the retiring generations, and everyone in between. I [wanted] to see what the needs were for those who are struggling to make ends meet and those who are wealthier or better off, so we can best address everything and provide a solution. So, it wasn’t just a matter of holding off because of [timing]; it was wanting to have more experience, doing the research, and building up a better vision to best serve each and every Idahoan.
You previously sat on the Tribal Council—the government of your tribe—and were the youngest person on it. How integral was that experience in deciding to run for office? And what did being on that council teach you about how to effectively lead?
When I was younger, my uncles held a ceremony for me, and [one of them] pointed out that I was starting my path forward at a very young age; he said, “You could be off in sports or doing this and that, but instead, you’re focusing on the people. And that [is] very honorable.” I was basically lead [to] this path, and my family, friends, and community at large all supported my decision. But it was a decision that was influenced by my elders: They saw me as a young voice who was going to lead the way, and they stood with and behind me. They made me their voice of the council even though I was the youngest elected member. My experience grew from [having a] seat on the council, and I grew a national voice. I was working as a representative of the Northwest tribes. There were 56 tribes that I was elected to represent through gaming, which is the core of our economy.
And then I was elected to the National Board, where I served as a senior executive of the National Indian Gaming Association. I was appointed as the finance chair and then, later on, as the energy chair, to bring about greater opportunities for all the tribes in the country that would also impact the states. I was then positioned to drive legislation through Congress and the White House, basically to benefit everyone, whether it was tax reform or working on issues for the environment. We covered a whole range of concerns that benefitted both states and tribes. And then, coming back to Idaho, that’s where I started beginning a different kind of conversation.
People were noticing my impact and seeing the effectiveness of my leadership. That doesn’t sound very humble, but people were telling me, “We see what you’re doing. We want to see that brought to the state level.” There was open seat in my district, and people were encouraging me to run. I gave that some thought, and then went back to my elders and mentors. They said, “This is your path. This is what you need to do for everyone, not just for us, but everybody. And you’re the one to do it.”
That gave me a great deal of encouragement. In my cultural upbringing, when you’re taught or told to do something by an elder, especially someone who is much wiser than you, you listen. And I listened to my elders when they said, “You are the only one who can do this. We even feel a lot of our values and a lot of our visions, and you’ve been good at collecting and listening to the voices.” And a true leader listens to all of the voices, because that’s how you build a greater vision.
When you’re running for higher office, you should know what sort of vision or blueprint you’re going to work with.
You said that if you’re elected, one of the very first things you’ll do is expand Medicaid in Idaho. Why is that important to you? And what else would be on your legislative agenda if you were to win the primary and then the general election?
[Idaho’s] governor has refused to expand Medicaid in the state, which has left people out in the cold. It’s an injustice that some Idahoans don’t have access to quality healthcare, or just simple primary healthcare. So expanding Medicaid is one initial issue that we need to address. I’m very much in favor of universal healthcare, so I would love to petition that at the national front to ensure that we are representing our state well, and to ensure that we [stand] with other governors who believe in universal healthcare. Others may see [this] as socialized healthcare. I don’t. Everyone has the right to have access to quality healthcare, so I would tell the opposition that they’re more in line with corruption of healthcare by putting health insurance companies before people when, in fact, people should come before the government itself. The government should be there to represent them.
Aside from that, I’ve always promoted revitalizing our economy through investments in technology, tourism, and rural infrastructure. We’ve lacked leadership for far too long, and we have to get back to the progressive-minded thinking that we can do more. We don’t have to stay in this regressive mode of taxing the poor to give to the rich. We have to look at what it means to provide a livable wage, and get to the fulcrum of that issue. It’s not just about providing the lowest-wage jobs, which is what our state is known for. We’ve left people out in terms of training-program opportunities. We’re not connecting [people] to STEM education and career-advancement opportunities in jobs that we have available in this state.
With the retiring generation of Baby Boomers, and other folks who are transitioning out of the workforce, we have yet to prepare the next generation to transition in. So that will be a problem for many of our businesses and our corporations in this state. We lack transportation that connects rural and urban areas of Idaho, so we have to start looking at investing in a reliable rural transportation system, which will help keep money in the state. And it will help build up those rural Main Streets, which we need to revitalize because those small businesses need our support. Those small businesses connect rural families, schools, and our universities. We have to do a lot more in all of these arenas.
So I was really confident and comfortable with how they were guiding me by saying, “We believe in you, and running for higher office or running for a state office is your next step.” When I was comfortable with that, I ran. I did not win my first time. I lost by a small margin. We were redistricted, and I was an unknown in the greater part of the district; I’m from the rural part of Benewah County, but [Palouse] is where the more progressive voices are. It’s just a whole new part of the state that I was not used to or familiar with because I didn’t grow up there. It took me a year to get to know that part of the district. I ran again and won, beating the incumbent at that time. And of course, the seat had only been held by Republicans at that point, but I turned it Democratic. I ran again for my second term and won, and so here we are.
I’ve done a lot within those two years: I’ve and trained in other fields. I’ve gone across the world. I worked at every single level of government for a reason: Wwhen you’re running for higher office, you should know what sort of vision or blueprint you’re going to work with. We’ve developed a good plan, and that’s why I feel comfortable running.
You’ve said that one of the things your grandfather taught you was to always have a contract with Mother Earth. On a state level, how can folks in Idaho better protect Mother Earth? Does that come through legislation or changing how we perceive the places where we live?
Thank you for bringing that up. It’s one of my favorite lessons from him: He was carrying over the voices of our ancestors, saying that we have to fight to respect and honor all people, and defend and protect natural resources. It’s not just about protecting Mother Earth; it’s [about] defending all of humanity. We’re all connected, but if you lose sight of that connection, you’re losing sight of the future. We think in terms of the next seven generations. And I think that’s beautiful, because it teaches us selflessness. It teaches us to be leaders with a vision. If you lack leadership, you lack that vision and ability to protect. And if you’re not able to defend, then you should not be in higher office, being a voice of the people.
My grandfather’s teaching is about holding the balance. We have to balance our industry; we have to balance our environment. And that means by legislation, not eliminating standards. Some of those standards [are] higher water-quality protections and stronger air-pollution protections. We [shouldn’t be] fracking people’s lands, fracking our public lands, and wasting clean water to utilize that as a resource to continue to frack and pollute our water systems. We’re not going to stop mining, but [it] needs to be done more responsibly. If there are no protections or limitations, then we’re allowing corporations to ravage [our] land for their own benefit. And then we’re stuck cleaning up their messes. For me, it’s [about] seeking a way forward for clean energy renewables, and providing stronger regulations to support clean water, clean air, and soil conservation.
We also have to look at balancing sustainable lifeways. [We need to] protect certain wildlife, and we have to make sure we are taking care of our forests, and thinning where necessary. We have issues with fire suppression; the fact that we’re not managing our forests as best as we could is a major problem. When I look at clean energy renewables, we’re not expanding research in geothermal in the state. We have not provided a path forward for solar or wind, [but] that would certainly benefit our agriculturalists, our farmers and ranchers.
So that’s my position around clean energy: I want us to phase out coal, oil, petroleum, and natural gas. I know there are a lot of natural-gas companies that are fighting to frack in the Southern regions of Idaho. That’s become problematic, because you’re looking at taking over people’s private properties and cutting over into mineral rights. It’s also not fair to school districts, property owners, and local community members. Then there are the toxic chemicals that are shot in with the clean water to frack, and all that goes into the groundwater. As governor, you have to have strong leadership to stand the ground in terms of protections for long-term sustainability.
I love that you focus so much on environment because it’s the one thing that we should all care about.
There’s gonna be a point of no return. I don’t want our children to have to inherit this mess that we’ve created out of greed. We’ve allowed the corporations to have so much control. We’ve been put in the position of being puppets to corporations. They’ve been able to take as much as they can, but now it’s time for the people to [push] back and fight for whatever is left. And if we can protect that and conserve it as best as possible, then we can be proud and have something to hand off to future generations.
You have said that you support the rights of lawful gun owners in Idaho, and I think that’s important. Given the recent mass shooting in Parkland, what do you believe has to happen on both the state and the federal level to ensure that lawful gun owners have their rights protected, and innocent people who are just in school or at movie theaters are also protected?
[Idaho’s] current governor, Butch Otter, said in a recent interview that we have done what we can do. And I [was] disappointed because, as a mother of two and a gun owner, [I know] we can do more to prepare for and deter mass shootings in Idaho schools. It would be a disservice to our children if we were not preparing and protecting them. We have to find a solution to prevent these mass killings, and we can’t expect our teachers to be gun owners or gun carriers. Not one single child or educator should feel unsafe going to school. Despite what [Idaho’s] governor has said, this is our opportunity to do more: We can put some sensible laws in place that would enforce or reform [Idaho’s] current gun laws. And this should be done without infringing on the rights of law-abiding gun owners.
We should be banning bump stocks, because what’s the necessary use for them? I think there should be a deeper conversation about assault rifles. But ultimately, whether we’re banning or allowing stricter regulations, it will come down to deploying laws that hold gun owners more accountable. While everyone has the right to own a gun, not everyone has the right to pull the trigger. We have certain laws that are surfacing that would actually remove ownership of guns from people who have been held accountable for domestic violence. We should all be held accountable and be more responsible about gun ownership in the future.
I know that a lot of citizens of Idaho will stand firm about the amount of guns they’re allowed to own or where they’re allowed to carry. Again, because I’m from rural Idaho, I know that the point of gun ownership [is] for subsistence hunting. And we’ve been subsistence hunters for many generations. I don’t see the purpose of having multiple machine guns or assault rifles.
There’s still a dearth of people from marginalized communities—people of color, LGBTQ people, people from rural communities—running for office and winning seats. What has to shift so that these candidates have the resources to run and the support to win elections?
Your reputation precedes you, so [it’s important to have] grit, good character, and integrity. If they are considering running for office, I would say to seek out mentors who have been there and done that, other women who have risen up in levels of public office. And there’s quite a few. The first one that comes to mind is [Georgia gubernatorial candidate] Stacey Abrams. There are a lot of women in this country who are very powerful and very strong, and the best way to build up your network is to reach out to every single elected woman for whom you have a deep regard or would love to sort of emulate.
For me, it’s always been about utilizing the experiences and perspectives of my mentors, because you can inherit that experience from them. You can also inherit a perspective, because they’ve gone through the fire already. I always tell young women of color that this is the way we move forward together. We help each other out. And sometimes you’ll get to some other areas where women get very competitive, but I say we’re all in this together.
We should be working toward a unified front so that we can help one another up this ladder as we’re building this house together. We will certainly be able to help each other and help our communities rise because our voices have been left out of many conversations, especially when it comes to the growth of our government. What has that done to impact our communities? A lot of resources have been flying over or going around us, so this is an opportunity for women, as long as we can build trust amongst ourselves.
If you lack leadership, you lack the vision and ability to protect. And if you’re not able to defend, then you should not be in higher office.
You also have to know that being in public office is a different arena. People have to fundraise, hold meetings, and get through the doors to meet folks. And always have a vision. Have solutions for the needs of the people. I get a lot of young women who approach me wondering, “What do I do from here? I’m in college,” or “I’m interested in running for public office, but I don’t know what the first step is.” And I always say, “Get more invested into your community. Figure out the voices. And then, once you listen to all the voices, you’ll find the needs. And then once you figure out the needs, you’ll be able to find a solution to address those needs. That’s what makes you a leader: You’re operating with integrity and good character if you actually want to do something that’s effective for the people, rather than just being a voice and showing up with privilege and not wanting to do anything but simply have a title.”
We need more voices of people like ourselves from our communities to rise up. I would even put myself out there to say that I am a resource, because I’m all about helping everyone else rise as we rise together.
What would it mean for you and for all the children who are watching you if you were to become America’s first Indigenous governor?
As a person of color, and coming from my background, it’s more about teaching people to lead beyond the parties. And that’s what I love about my vision: I’m very progressive and rural, but I also come from a strong one-party-driven district and state. I’ve been able to show people how to invest in our government through leadership by having compassion for humanity and showing kindness. That is what we need to build in the next generation. And if they see [me become America’s first Indigenous governor], that would be influenceable—not just in terms of how we change our states, but in how we can change this nation and change the world.