Recently, Joe Pakootas announced his candidacy for the fifth congressional district seat in the state of Washington. Most experts think he has little chance against incumbent Cathy McMorris-Rodgers.
A member of Speaker John Boehner’s leadership team, she has served ten years and last time out defeated her Democratic opponent, 62% to 38%.
Besides, Pakootas is a Native American, a member of the Colville Nation and conventional wisdom is faux Americans do not elect first Americans to high public office. Occasionally there is a rare exception.
Coloradoans elected Ben “Nighthorse” Campbell to two terms in the U.S. Senate, where he served from 1993 to 2005. A member of the Northern Cheyenne Nation he eschewed pursuing a third term.
And voters in Idaho elected Larry Echohawk, a member of the Pawnee Nation, to the Attorney General’s office in 1990 and in 1994 he came within a whisker of becoming the first Native American to be elected governor of a state. Idaho was also one of the first western states to elect a Native American to its State Legislature with Chief Joseph Garry of the Coeur d’Alene Nation serving in the State Senate for the 1967 and 1968 sessions.
Another member of the Coeur d’Alene Nation, Jeanne Givens, was one of the first Native American females to be elected to a State House of Representatives, serving from 1985 through 1988. She left the Legislature to challenge then First District congressman Larry Craig, but was soundly defeated in the November, 1988 general election.
Pakootas should not be dismissed lightly. A former tribal chairman and now head of the Colville Tribal Enterprises, he has a Master’s in Business Administration from the University of Washington. He took over the Tribal business operations when they were deeply in the red and within a year had the operations in the black.
He is smart, articulate and savvy. In his initial expression of candidacy he clearly lifted a page from Republican campaign uber-strategist Karl Rove that says go after your opponent’s chief area of strength. Pakootas said he would go after the congresswoman in farm country.
Smart move. All over this nation farmers are angry with their incumbent largely Republican representatives because of their so far abject failure to get together and pass a new Farm bill. It is especially true in Washington’s 5th. For years they were represented by Tom Foley who was thoroughly familiar with the most arcane parts of farm law. On his way to the Speakership he also served as chairman of the House Ag committee.
Pakootas is following in the footsteps of two former Colville Tribal Council members, both active in the political arena nationally: Mel Tonasket and Lucy Covington. Tonasket became chairman of the National Congress of American Indians and then challenged Foley in a Democratic primary. He lost badly but turned his challenge into an independent candidacy in the general, garnering 15% of the vote and holding Foley to a plurality and less than 50%.
Pakootas should not have any problem raising money, either, as it is expected the nation’s various gaming tribes will contribute heavily to his effort. Time will tell. He is a candidate with real potential and a solid message regarding the incumbent’s non-performance, but whether he will appeal to a broader base of traditional Democrats and independents who have delivered the 5th to Democratic presidential candidates in the past also remains to be seen.
Win or lose one can count on not having heard the last of Joe Pakootas. He is one of several potentially attractive Native American aspirants to higher political office who have decided it is high time that they reinvested in their historic homeland.
Another is Alaska’s Byron Mallot. A former chairman of the Alaska Federation of Natives and the phenomenally successful chief executive of the SeaAlaska Native Corporation, he is the presumptive Democratic nominee for governor running against incumbent Governor Sean Parnell. Long a player on the Alaska political scene, he is admired by Natives and non-Natives alike, but part of his challenge will be to enlist other Native corporations behind him who are still influenced by Big Oil’s money in Alaska and Big Oil is of course with the Republican incumbent..
Like Pakootas, Mallott is articulate, thoughtful, and attractive and many think will present a formidable challenge to Parnell who originally inherited the office when Sarah Palin resigned in mid-term. Mallott should have no trouble raising funds. Both he and Pakootas might not succeed, but they will certainly blaze a path. The message they are sending to the generations coming behind them that Natives should seek leadership and reinvest in their country of origin can only be a positive development in politics.Share on Facebook