Paulette Jordan was not going to let her opponent have the last word.
The Democratic nominee forgovernor is a night owl and stayed in her office past 1am for her final marathon session of debate prep. Dressed in sweatpants and a running jacket and drinking yerba mate tea for energy, she rehearsed until she couldn’t any more.
On stage 16 hours later, when the Republican candidate, Brad Little, said Jordan’s “special interest” money came from Native American tribes, she didn’t let him finish.
“They’re not ‘special interest’,” said Jordan, a member of the Coeur d’Alene tribe, looking her opponent in the eye. “Tribes are called sovereign nations.”
“Oh, ‘sovereign nations’!” Little responded, throwing his hands up in the air.
“They are also individuals, human beings,” Jordan fired back.
It was a brief exchange, but one that stuck with Jordan, a 38-year-old indigenous woman vying to be Idaho’s first female leader and America’s first Native American governor.
“As someone who is part of the First Nations of this land, having been here for thousands of years, people forget that there were people here prior to their arrival,” Jordan said, later that night at a cocktail bar in Boise, where she was celebrating the debate with a small group of staff. “For him to scoff at that, to have this very arrogant mannerism towards it … it’s condescending and disrespectful to tribes.”
Jordan’s underdog campaign has shaken up politics in the west, bringing mainstream attention to disenfranchised communities and progressive policy ideas that GOP leaders typically overlook or treat with disdain. In the final week of the race in one of the reddest states in the country, her supporters and opponents are asking the same question: can she actually win?
‘The leadership is stuck in the 1950s’
Jordan is part of a blue wave of candidates pushing to change the face of US politics, withand history-making and on the ballot. With progressive stars like stunning pundits with victories, there’s a sense among some non-traditional Democratic campaigns that anything is possible.
Jordan grew up on a farm in rural northern Idaho, hundreds of miles from Boise, the state capital. Her, and her ancestors were prominent tribal leaders who who forced indigenous people to live on reservations.
Jordan has a vivid memory of her grandmother handing her a microphone when she was five years old at a ceremony and teaching her to speak and express gratitude.
“The notion of power or leadership was based on them listening,” she said. “It just kind of sets the way, the path, just to be humble.”
Jordan later became the youngest person elected to the Coeur d’Alene tribal council. As a single mother of two, her community’s crises also thrust her into organizing.
Idaho is consistently one of the lowest-ranking – if not the worst in the country – in, , , and . Rural towns lack basic funding and teachers, and are routine. Jordan’s small town of Plummer is one of the worst.
The failures came into sharp focus when her son’s elementary school was about to lose its accreditation.
“All they were doing is paying for the bare minimum cost to keep the lights on,” Jordan said, recalling a letter the district sent to families encouraging them to find other schools, admitting their offerings were inadequate. “We just weren’t keeping up with modern-day society.”
She campaigned with tribal and non-tribal families and teachers to keep the school open. It worked, but the overcrowded classrooms weren’t working for her son, who was far ahead of his class. By fourth grade, he was in effect acting as a teacher’s assistant.
Jordan eventually placed her children in private schools. “I’d love to take all the kids with me. At the same time, you stay and fight.”
In 2014, she became a state lawmaker, beating an incumbent Republican. When her her district went to Donald Trump two years later, and Democrats throughout northern Idaho lost their seats, she was re-elected, the lone survivor.
Last year, she was also the sole “no” voteto punish any municipality that chose to become a “sanctuary city” to support undocumented people. It was an aggressive anti-immigrant measure in a state where there are no sanctuary cities, Trump has high , 92% of the , and some and neo-Nazis are .
“Climate change” is also such a “dirty word” in the state that she had to fight Republican colleagues to even host a hearing on the subject.
“The leadership here is so far behind, they are stuck in the 1950s,” said Jordan, “and if they don’t catch up, then our kids will continue to be left behind.”
‘We need change at the top’
A 6ft tall former basketball player, Jordan commands the room. She also has become something of a local celebrity.
“I’m just starstruck,” one young woman whispered at an event, scrolling through her phone to see if she had taken a good photo.
“Are you Paulette?” another giddy young woman working at a fast-food drive-through window said later, as the campaign rushed to get lunch before the debate. “My whole family is voting for you!” She jumped up and down in excitement as Jordan drove away.
A director at a Boise homeless shelter said Jordan was one of the rare political visitors who was genuinely at ease talking to the residents, who were lying on mats on the floor and crowded on bunk beds getting ready to sleep on a recent night.
At one campaign stop, when Jordan told the story of homeless parents she met who have two jobs but can’t afford rent, a woman in the crowd chimed in that it could happen to her: “I’m one step away.”
“She’s Idaho’s hope at the moment,” said Rosemary Woods, 68, after meeting Jordan. “We need change at the top. Paulette is that change, and I’m hoping with all my heart she gets it.”
Jordan’sincludes universal preschool, better teacher pay, Medicaid expansion, public land protection, marijuana decriminalization, raising the minimum wage and opposing private prison contracts. Little’s includes lower taxes and emphasizes his conservative credentials – anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage.
Idaho lacks good polling, but thethat exist show Jordan behind.
Still, she pulled off an upset in the primary, beating a well-funded moderate Democrat. She also has notable supporters, fromto , and has been spotlighted in , and other . But in the Gem State, where the press may matter most, it’s been a struggle.
Local news organizationsa staff shake-up last month, including the who reportedly raised concerns about the campaign’s spending and accountability.
Idaho journalists have also raised questions about her campaign’sthat has raised money to support First Nations issues and is linked to her tribe. Jordan and her staff have said the controversies were manufactured and the coverage unfair, while the and others have criticized her media attacks, at one point leading to an awkward on-camera .
Some male columnists have cast doubts on her campaign by saying she brings too much “” and has to “elevate her ethnic heritage to a place of supremacy over her opponent”. One of Little, the current lieutenant governor, said he was the “safer, stay-the-course bet”, an argument Jordan said was perplexing given Idaho’s embarrassing low rankings.
But in a state with a huge, high rates of , and so few women like her in office or executive positions, Jordan said it was not surprising that she faced resistance: “I’m not your typical candidate and of course not the kind of leadership people are used to seeing.”
Jordan is not afraid of controversy. After one campaign stop that she thought was poorly planned, she had no problem criticizing a staffer in front of a reporter, saying his name and mistake should be included in an article. It wasn’t entirely clear if she was joking.
During debate prep, when the team was brainstorming a line of attack on Little, one adviser’s suggestion of an insult prompted another adviser to say: “That’s not Paulette! She’s not mean.”
“She’s a little mean,” a staffer said, looking toward her boss. “You can cut people off at the knees.”
Jordan replied with a smile: “If they deserve it.”
At the debate, Jordan repeatedly called Little a liar who had failed at his job and was responsible for the state’s many crises.
Little, 64, spoke skeptically of Jordan, saying her pro-marijuana stance and efforts to reduce incarceration could be dangerous. “As governor, you don’t just get to wave a magic wand,” he added at one point. “I’m the one with the skills. I’m the one with the experience.”
Little’s campaign declined an interview request.
Jordan said her sons, ages nine and 14, helped her stay grounded. They couldn’t attend the last debate, but they sent her cellphone videos with words of encouragement. Her face lit up when she watched them.
“Hi Mommy, I wish you … the best debate. It’s going to be cooler than the other ones,” her nine-year-old said. “I miss you, and I hope you have a great day seeing this. I love you.”
She said her sons’ messages helped remind her why she is running: “I always feel so supported by them.”
In debate prep, after giving tips about when to smile and how to pivot to soundbites, Jordan’s advisers also reminded her to just be herself. That’s how she found success in the past. And in a state where older white men have always ruled, they believe it could be a winning strategy.
‘Idaho’s hope’: could Paulette Jordan be America’s first indigenous governor? – The Guardian