Special to ICT

Candidates for state Legislature in Washington state hope to boost the number of Indigenous people serving in the state’s House and Senate.

Of the state’s 147 legislators — 98 in the state House of Representatives and 49 in the state Senate — only one is Native American: state Rep. Debra Lekanoff, Tlingit, of the 40th District.

“Our state legislature would benefit from having more Indigenous representatives and senators,” said Lekanoff, who is unopposed for a third term.

“The understanding of how tribal government works in Washington state – and there are 29 of them – is really a strength not many candidates would have. When you are Native American and belong to one of those tribes or work with them, you bring a skill set of understanding how tribal governments contribute to local governments and state government at a fiscal level, to the workforce and as a playing partner in growing those communities and building safe communities. And they bring valuable insight to the decision-making process.”

She added, ‘’That’s the table that I’ve built – working on where we can find common pathways and common directions that best represent the values of our district but also protect our lifeways. Whether we’ve lived here since time immemorial or lived here four or five generations, it’s about economic stability, the safety of our communities, the education of our children, and building a prosperous workplace.’’

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Also seeking election to the state House in the Aug. 2 primary are Laurene Contreras, Yakama, an Independent and one of two candidates in the 14th District; Chris Stearns, Navajo, a Democrat and one of five candidates in the 47th District; and Daryl Williams, Tulalip, a Democrat and one of four candidates in the 38th District. Claudia Kaufman, Nez Perce, is a Democrat, one of three candidates for the state Senate from the 47th District.

Benancio ‘’Benny’’ Garcia III, who identifies as a Black Seminole and Latino descendant, is a Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives from Washington state’s 4th Congressional District.

Washington state has a top-two primary, meaning the top two finishers in each race, regardless of political party affiliation, will advance to the Nov. 8 general election.

Contreras served as president of Yakama Nation Tribal Head Start, president of the Yakima County Legal Secretaries Association, and secretary of the National Association of Legal Support Professionals’ Education Committee. She also served as a Yakama Nation Children’s Court judge; and voting member of the Hanford Advisory Board, a U.S. Department of Energy panel that develops policy recommendations related to the Hanford nuclear waste storage site in Richland, Washington.

Contreras earned an undergraduate degree in technical communications at Arizona State University and a graduate degree in oil, gas and energy law at The University of Oklahoma.

Contreras “has committed her life and career in working to protect, preserve and enhance strong family and community values,” she wrote in her candidate statement in the state voter guide. “As an Independent candidate, she will work with both parties to improve and strengthen laws that fit the needs of all our families and communities. … Her personal and professional experience has prepared her to communicate, problem solve and take action.”

Kauffman served as state senator from the 47th District in 2007-11. She is one of three candidates in the primary. She is intergovernmental affairs liaison for the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, former chairwoman of the Green River College Board of Trustees, and co-founder of the Native Action Network. She earned a certificate in project management at the University of Washington School of Business.

“I want everyone to have access to opportunities and the ability to move up with hard work,” she wrote in her candidate statement. “Our community faces real challenges — record inflation, increasingly unaffordable housing, a rise in crime, children struggling with mental and behavioral health issues after the last two years, and a homelessness crisis that continues to get worse. We can’t continue to uphold the status quo and expect things to change. We need leadership that isn’t afraid to try a new approach.”

Kauffman said she’ll work to improve public safety and relations with historically marginalized communities, lower property taxes for seniors and those on fixed incomes, support home ownership programs for first-time buyers, lower the cost of living, invest in public schools, and fully fund mental and behavioral health services.

Kauffman received the endorsement of the Pulitzer Prize-winning alt weekly, The Stranger, which wrote, “Back in 2006, this south King County district elected Claudia Kauffman to serve as the first Native American woman in the state Senate. We want her back in Olympia because she proved herself to be more knowledgeable on the issues than her Democratic competition … We also think Kauffman’s positions on those issues will make the 47th a greener, more affordable place to live.” In her earlier term as state senator, Kauffman “supported ending new highway construction and lifting the statewide ban on rent control,” The Stranger wrote.

Lekanoff is vice chair of the House Energy & Environment Committee and the State Government & Tribal Relations Committee. She co-chairs the Joint Legislative Taskforce on Water Supply and serves on committees that propose legislation on agriculture, natural resources and rural development.

Lekanoff earned an undergraduate degree in business administration and finance at Central Washington University, and worked for the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community as its governmental affairs director.

In the House, Lekanoff has worked for environmental protections, economic recovery, and investments in public infrastructure. She was the prime sponsor of legislation that created the country’s first alert system for missing Indigenous women. She also supported a transportation bill that will make public transit in Washington more accessible and environmentally friendly.

‘’My ability to work across the aisle, and my understanding of how all governing bodies coordinate and work together, has led my 40th District naysayers to understand I am qualified, that I do bring experience and I do bring home results and funding back to our community,’’ Lekanoff told ICT.

“I’ve been able to have really hard discussions on issues that impact our district — whether it’s water, agriculture and salmon, or public safety, or how we address behavioral health and opioid addiction in our community.”

Lekanoff talked about how she works to bring sides together on such contentious issues as agriculture and salmon habitat restoration by helping them recognize their common interests.

‘‘We live in a valley where you have salmon eggs in one hand and agricultural seeds in the other. This is what Washington state consists of,’’ Lekanoff told ICT. ‘’Let’s be really clear: we need a broad overview of what and how we are going to address our environment and natural resources for the entire state of Washington. We can’t live in Washington state without one or the other.

‘’We need cool and clean water in order to have habitat. In order to have habitat, we need pollinators. In order to have pollinators, we need clean air. Go back to the habitat — once the salmon dies off, whatever is in that salmon are the nutrients that make some of the healthiest agricultural growing areas in the state of Washington. So, farmers and fishermen need to work together to coexist, because we cannot have one or the other.’’

Stearns is the first Native American elected to the City Council in Auburn, a Seattle suburb of 88,000 people. He is one of five candidates for state House from the 47th District.

Stearns is a Cornell Law-educated lawyer who served as director of Indian Affairs in the U.S. Department of Energy during the Clinton administration. He chaired the Seattle Indian Health Board and the Washington State Gambling Commission, and served on commissions and task forces that address affordable housing, mental illness, drug dependency, and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People.

As a city council member, he helped strengthen the city’s working relationship with the Muckleshoot Tribe, whose historical territory includes Auburn. “There’s a greater sense on the council of why it’s important to work with the Muckleshoot Tribe and how the tribe views our city,” Stearns said, “and understanding protocols and the government-to-government relationship at the local level.”

Stearns wants to develop housing solutions on the state level and pointed to solutions that are working in Auburn: emergency and transitional housing with on-site services such as meals, laundry and access to employment assistance, health care, substance abuse treatment, and transportation.

The city also established a community court, which provides defendants a pathway to having charges dropped if they participate in services that can help them overcome their challenges.

“We need more affordable housing options,” Stearns said. “The goal is to get people back into their homes, but we also need to help them avoid being homeless in the first place. The price of housing is still rising and there is a shortage of actual housing. Those factors are huge contributors to homelessness. We need to find ways for the state to increase the number of available homes and increase the number of affordable options. That’s just critical.”

Other priorities include environmental protection and habitat restoration.

As a legislator, “I’ll continue leading on workforce development, economic opportunity, protecting civil and women’s rights, and safeguarding forests, salmon and natural resources.”

Williams, natural resources policy representative for the Tulalip Tribes, is one of four candidates for state House from the 38th District. He was appointed by then-Gov. Gary Locke to the Puget Sound Action Team, which works with federal, state and local agencies to implement environmental improvements and protections; and by Gov. Jay Inslee to the Washington State Conservation Commission, of which he is chairman. He has an undergraduate degree in business administration from Columbia College.

As a member of the House, “I’ll use my expertise and experience to deliver meaningful policies that tackle these three main issues: chronic homelessness and mental health services, living wages and economic justice, preserving our environment and way of life,” Williams wrote in his candidate statement. “Through my 45 years working on environmental and other policy for the Tulalip Tribes, I know how to get things done in Olympia.”

Seminole descendant running for Congress

Benny Garcia is one of eight candidates – seven Republicans and one Democrat – seeking to represent Washington’s 4th District in Congress. The field includes the incumbent, Dan Newhouse, a Republican who has represented the district since 2015.

Garcia served in the U.S. Army in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom, earned a law and justice degree at Central Washington University, and served as a city treasurer and on a county veterans program board.

His priorities: Strong laws against crime; resources for victims of violent crimes; a pathway to citizenship for immigrants brought to the U.S. as children; and bolstering agriculture, which he considers critical to national security for the food it produces.

“I will work to cut costs to fertilizer, diesel and taxes that are crippling our small farmers and ranchers,” he wrote in his candidate statement. “I will advocate for new technology and farming methods, and to reduce the financial burden faced by our farmers who are reliant on H-2A workers as their labor force. I will protect our agricultural lifeline, the Columbia Basin dams.”

Growing presence, big benefit, but low representation

Washington state is a melting pot of Native peoples – people Indigenous to this land, people driven here by government policy, others drawn here by opportunity.

Of the state’s 7.6 million residents in the 2020 U.S. Census, Indigenous peoples — Native Americans, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders — comprise 1.3 percent of the state population. But that number climbs to almost 7.5 percent if you count people of Mexican heritage, one third of whom identify as Indigenous, according to the Pew Research Center.

Tribes in Washington are economic powerhouses and helped to buoy local communities during the pandemic-induced economic downturn. Tribal government enterprises directly employ more than 37,000 people and 1 in 86 jobs trace back to tribes, according to Washington Tribes, an educational program of the Washington Indian Gaming Association. Tribal government enterprises paid $1.2 billion in state and local taxes, paid $1.5 billion in wages and benefits, and purchased $2.8 billion worth of goods and services.

In addition, tribal governments invest millions of dollars each year in habitat restoration, according to the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, and with the state are co-managers of the state’s fisheries.

Despite the growing Indigenous presence, economic influence and environmental responsibility of tribes, fewer than two dozen Indigenous people are in public office outside of tribal government. Among them:

  • Lea Anne Brooke, Lumbee, Snohomish City Council.
  • Ashley Brown, Nooksack, Everson City Council.
  • Bob Iyall, Nisqually, Olympia Port Commission.
  • Debora Juarez, Blackfeet, Seattle City Council president.
  • Debra Lekanoff, Tlingit, state House of Representatives, 40th District.
  • Raquel Montoya-Lewis, Isleta Pueblo, associate justice, state Supreme Court.
  • Juan Morales, Indigenous Mexican, Mount Vernon City Council.
  • Steve Oliver, Lummi, Whatcom County treasurer.
  • Chris Roberts, Choctaw, Shoreline City Council.
  • Chris Stearns, Navajo, Auburn City Council.
  • LaTrisha Suggs, Jamestown S’Klallam, Port Angeles City Council.
  • Jennifer White, Makah, unopposed for election as Clallam County treasurer.
  • Several Indigenous persons serve on school boards in Washington state. Among them: Chandra Hampson, Ho-Chunk, Seattle Public Schools; and Cindy Webster-Martinson, Suquamish, North Kitsap School District.

Roberts, the Shoreline City Council member and former mayor, has long worked to encourage Indigenous people to run for office outside of tribal government. He said it’s important for state and local governments to reflect the diversity of the people they serve. In addition to better policy and better intercultural relations, “It builds trust in the system,” he told ICT in an earlier interview. “And it’s inspiring. You see the people serving in government and you say, ‘I can do that job.’ It’s important that the diversity of voices are being represented.”

Lead photo: Washington State Rep. Debra Lekanoff, Tlingt and Aleut, is advancing bills in the state's Legislature to address the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous relatives. Photo courtesy of Debra Lekanoff

This story originally appeared on July 28 in ICT.

Richard Arlin Walker, Mexican/Yaqui, is an ICT correspondent reporting from Western Washington.