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Coeur d'Alene Tribal Leader Challenges For Governor

Paulette Jordan

Idaho is one of the reddest and the whitest states in our country, but change could be in the air this November.  It’s a long shot, but Democrat Paulette Jordan could become the state’s first female governor and the country’s first Native American.  

When Paulette Jordan takes to the microphone at a recent house party, she starts telling a story.

"When I was a kid growing up with my grandparents, I would often wake up before the sun rose," she starts.

It’s a personal and intimate approach.  It comes naturally  to Jordan.

"I would always see my grandfather kind of on a ledge like this and he would just be watering the plants and he would be look overlooking our farmland, which is wheat mostly and some Timothy (hay) and some pulses," she continued.

The small backyard crowd leans in and listens carefully. Jordan is a 38-year-old mom and leader within the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. She served in the state legislature before announcing her historic bid for governor. She says she wants to represent underheard voices in the state

"These people, all across the board, they need to have a seat at the table," she said.

Jordan supports a bunch of issues favored by liberals and Democrats in this state: Medicaid expansion, more funding for education, universal health care. But it’s her general persona that seems to be exciting young voters, women, and minorities.

"We need leadership that is determined and destined to do right by the people," Jordan said. "We’re just ready. It’s well overdue for true representation of the people to be leading in this state office."

Notice how Jordan talks in terms of “we” and “the people”? Jasper LiCalzi is a political scientist with the College of Idaho. He says that’s her way of captivating audiences.

"When she says 'we,' everybody can say 'yeah that’s me too,'" LiCalzi said.

Still, he doesn’t see a lot of specificity in her policy proposals.

"She’s kind of an empty vessel for people… not in a bad way." People can project what they want to see, he said.

"For some people she’s the progressive Bernie type, whereas others she’s the woman who’s running and they identify with that, others she’a a minority," LiCalzi said.

"She’s the most amazing person I know."

That’s Troy Hank Palmer. He went to high school with Jordan and is now volunteering for her campaign. He says as a teenager, Jordan was fierce at basketball, serious about school, and a good listener.

"Instead of going out and doing fun stuff with some of us, you know she would actually be with her elders. She would be talking with them, and would always choose that," Palmer said. "I think that’s part of why she’s such a wise soul."

A wise soul who, according to her supporters, really listens. At one gathering at a rural ranch that was on display, a voter approached Jordan to bend her ear about his passion, fracking.

“And you heard from me a bunch of times because I was writing to a bunch of people in the legislature about oil and gas," he said.

This guy talks for about ten minutes. There’s a line of other people eager to meet Jordan, but she doesn’t brush him off. She listens, intently.
This willingness to take her time with supporters has led to some criticism, namely, she’s chronically late.  But Jordan has an answer for that.

"My grandparents raised me the very best way to be respectful, which is why I take the time to listen to every single constituent at every single one of these events," she said. "So yeah, we’re gonna be late because there’s going to be over 100, 200, 300 people at every event."

Tardiness isn’t the only criticism she’s dealing with. Her campaign’s decision to ask staff to sign non-disclosure agreement became a huge controversy. At the same time there were some staff resignations and soon after that, the Idaho Statesman reported that her campaign had questionable links to a tribal super PAC.

Marc Johnson is a former aide for Idaho’s last Democratic governor, Cecil Andrus.

"All of that just make for distractions that I think really dilute the focus and have unfortunately have contributed to an image whether it’s real or not, contributed to an image of turmoil and, frankly, incompetence in the campaign," Johnson said.

Not fair, says Jordan. She sees another reason for all the criticism.  

"You tend to get the hard brunt of everything because you’re a woman, especially when you’re the first, or when you’re a woman of color, or when you’re from a rural area or when you’re this or that," Jordan said.

She says she’s ignoring the negativity and just focusing on meeting voters one person at a time. But even if she shakes hands with every single Democrat in Idaho, a Jordan victory will be tough. Even, says Jasper LiCalzi, in a year where national Democrats hope to see a blue wave of elected officials.

"That blue wave, it crashes at the red shore of Idaho and that’s where it ends," he said.


Amanda Peacher is an Arthur F. Burns fellow reporting and producing in Berlin in 2013. Amanda is from Portland, Oregon, where she works as the public insight journalist for Oregon Public Broadcasting. She produces radio and online stories, data visualizations, multimedia projects, and facilitates community engagement opportunities for OPB's newsroom.