Could Paulette Jordan of Idaho Become the Country’s First Native American Governor?

LAS VEGAS, NV - JANUARY 21: State Rep. Paulette Jordan (D-ID) speaks during the Women's March "Power to the Polls" voter registration tour launch at Sam Boyd Stadium on January 21, 2018, in Las Vegas, Nevada. Demonstrators across the nation gathered over the weekend, one year after the historic Women's March on Washington, D.C., to protest President Donald Trump's administration and to raise awareness for women's issues. (Photo by Sam Morris/Getty Images)

For BuzzFeedAnne Helen Petersen profiles Idaho gubernatorial candidate and former state representative Paulette Jordan, whose left-of-center views are an anomaly in a region that has been a Republican stronghold for decades. She’s a woman of color in a state that is 82% white, and at 38, nearly half the age of A.J. Balukoff, her opponent for the Democratic nomination. Jordan grew up in a ranching family on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation, began her political career on a tribal council, and developed a reputation in the state legislature for reaching across party lines. She’d become the U.S.’s first Native American governor if elected; Petersen describes how Jordan represents a new model of leadership.

When people meet [Paulette] Jordan, they often assume she’s younger than her 38 years. But she emphasizes that she has more than a decade of experience, on the local, state, and national levels — it’s just that much of that experience was tribal, and often ignored as a form of governance, leadership, or service. Words like “tribal” and “Indian” aren’t included within the (white, male-dominated) spheres of “experience,” especially when it comes to preparation for political office. (Natives aren’t the only ones who see their experience cut out of those definitions. As A’shanti Gholar, political director for Emerge America, told Newsweek, “When people think about a successful candidate, they still tend to imagine a straight white man as the person to get the job done.”)

“I have ten years of elected experience,” Jordan emphasizes. “For [opponent] [Balukoff] to try and suggest otherwise is dishonest. I think women — and men! — should be disgusted for him to say that a woman with leadership experience should step aside. That I should ‘wait my turn.’”

“I think we’re done with that,” Jordan said. “This is a generation that says, we’re not going to tolerate old white men telling us to step aside anymore. This is when it’s time for us to take action — and to lead.”

As much as her name, and her campaign, is preceded by “first Native American woman,” Jordan doesn’t see herself uniquely in those terms. “I never really bring it up,” she told me. “Other people do. Maybe they like the idea. Which is fine. I want people to see beyond my race and my color and know that I actually have had a strong career. I want them to understand that when I do make a decision, they might slightly disagree, but they’ll know why I made it.”

The chance to support a history-making candidate is an effective hook, and one that Jordan’s own campaign has embraced in its online rhetoric. Sometimes, however, it can elide, or displace, her greater policy ideas. When asked what they liked about Jordan, attendees at her Boise fundraiser responded with variations on, “Wouldn’t it be incredible for Idaho to have a female governor?” and “I like what she stands for.” Most also identified as progressives and early supporters of Bernie Sanders, who won the Idaho Democratic caucus with 78% of the votes.

While Jordan’s policy positions have been labeled progressive, she resists comparisons to Sanders. And it’s hard to evaluate the aptness of the comparison, as Jordan’s positions, like many candidates still in the primary, remain vague. She’s for increasing the minimum wage in the state, which is currently the lowest in the West, but is more focused on promoting educational training opportunities for highly skilled, more sustainable jobs. She wants to invest more in education, especially in rural areas, as a means of attracting businesses and sustaining the rural economy. She vows not to “shy away from the topic of discrimination” and to “promote legislation that ensures people feel safe and heard.”

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