Can Paulette Jordan Rise Above Idaho's Partisan Rules?
If she wins tomorrow, the 38-year-old Democrat would become the country's first Native American governor. Can a moderate still win in Trump's America? Idaho is about to find out.
The horns and cymbals of the Boise High School marching band blared and crashed as a crowd filed into the Cathedral of the Rockies to hear Idaho’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Paulette Jordan, talk about “transformational politics.” The event was hosted by Michael Sapiro, who runs a local Buddhist center. After a 15-minute guided meditation, Sapiro and Jordan got down to business. “I’m neither Democrat nor Republican,” Jordan said, in response to one of his early questions. “I’m the party of love.” The audience, which consisted mainly of older white women, applauded.
These were voters who, to put it mildly, are looking for a politician who is not like Donald Trump, and who could blame them for thinking they’d found it in this tall, confident woman? She had managed to win legislative elections in a part of the state that was rapidly swinging red, and she could riff like a guru on the awesome power of love and spirituality.
At one point, Sapiro asked Jordan how she handles criticism in the harsh world of politics. “It’s the power of prayer that protects me,” Jordan replied. “I don’t feel any of it—I feel like I have a shield. They can shoot their arrows, but I only get hurt if I let them penetrate me.”
“Did anybody else get chills?” Sapiro asked the audience.
“There are prophecies,” Jordan continued. “People around the world are having the same dreams ... People around the world are coming and saying, ‘We are relying on you.’” Was Jordan suggesting that she she’d heard from people in other countries who were looking at Idaho’s gubernatorial race as a bellwether of prophetic possibilities?
Maybe. “They say I’m too good to be true,” she said to Sapiro later in the program, without a trace of irony. “Someone even said, ‘She’s perfect.’”
This was the Paulette Jordan who has seized national media attention—the horse-riding Coeur d’Alene tribal government official, descendant of chiefs, mother, and two-term Idaho legislator who once turned down an athletic scholarship to the University of Washington to focus on academics.
“Her years on the basketball court compound the air of dominance with which she navigates a room,” BuzzFeed’s Anne Helen Petersen wrote in a profile about Jordan’s rise from humble agrarian roots on a reservation. “You could call it cocky. Or you could just use the word her supporters use: confident.”
“Some people, often older men, cry when they meet Jordan,” wrote the Huffington Post’s Jennifer Bendery. “The Idaho gubernatorial ticket has never seen a politician like Jordan before,” added CNN’s Kyung Lah.
It’s not surprising that Jordan is in the spotlight—her timing is perfect, after all. Now 38, she is one of 276 women running for major office throughout the country during this historic election cycle, inspired by the #metoo movement and the backlash against Trump, but also, and most important, by a desire to step up and help drag this country back from the brink. Adding to her national appeal, Jordan would be the first Native American governor in U.S. history if she wins. Lisa Uhlmann, who works for Boise’s nonprofit Women’s and Children’s Alliance, sums up the local optimism surrounding Jordan’s campaign like so: “Paulette is a breath of fresh air, making the world a better place, especially in Idaho and especially for our women and children.”
Tai Simpson, a sociology graduate student and community organizer from the Nez Perce tribe, agrees. “She’s changing the dynamic,” she says of Jordan, “bringing a voice when we didn’t have one.”
I met Simpson in early October, when I walked with Jordan to an event at Boise City Hall, celebrating the mayor’s official redesignation of Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples Day. “We feel represented, it’s energizing,” Simpson said. She stressed that Jordan’s indigenous roots are not even her most important attribute. “She represents us as a human being. What we’ve lacked as a society—compassion, empathy, and caretaking—her policies reflect that. I don’t necessarily think that comes from her being indigenous. I think that she is just a good person and a smart person, and if she had all those attributes as a white guy, I’d still be behind the campaign, because that’s what our cities and our counties need.”
To many progressives, Jordan’s brand of low-key populism comes off as a welcome counterpoint to hyper-partisanship. The thing is, though, she’s not really a progressive in the usual sense. On one hand, she’s an outspoken advocate for medical marijuana and marijuana decriminalization, and she speaks out against the harsh rhetoric aimed at immigrants and refugees. But she describes herself as a “strong supporter of the Second Amendment”—she voted yes on a “stand your ground” bill this year, which the Republican governor opposed—and says she gets along with members of Idaho’s militia groups, one of which, the Idaho Three Percenters, helped occupy the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016 and has staged armed marches to protest refugee resettlement.
She also speaks fondly of her collegiality with far-right members of the state legislature, saying it’s a sign of leadership to listen to everyone. When talking about revenue and spending issues, she describes herself as “conservative.” She says the Affordable Care Act “isn’t working,” and she supports Proposition 2, a ballot initiative that would force the Idaho legislature come up with the ten percent of matching funds to expand Medicaid. She says she’s pro-life, but she supports a woman’s right to choose. She has raised over half a million dollars—much of it in small donations, and none of it from Super PACs—and she’s spent most of it. If she were running in Massachusetts, she could run as a Republican.
While Jordan’s views may not line up perfectly with the national Democratic Party, they do reflect the state she is running to serve. More than an image of the progressive wave, Jordan represents a past when political perspectives within the parties were more regionally diverse—when there were such things as conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans. And in Idaho, it could be the past—more than a progressive wave—that offers a roadmap out of the partisan morass.
All of this has made Jordan something of an enigma and may explain why none of her colleagues in the Idaho legislature endorsed her in the primary. Cindy Wilson, the Democratic candidate for Superintendent of Public Instruction, has withheld her endorsement, too. The Idaho Education Association, which represents teachers and normally supports Democrats, threw their support behind Jordan’s Republican opponent, Brad Little. In addition, Little won the endorsement of Conservation Voters for Idaho, along with the state’s firefighters. Jordan brushes off these snubs as the predictable hedging of the establishment.
There’s little question that Jordan’s outsider status gave her an edge in the Democratic primary, but at this stage of the race, she remains an outsider, and that may have less to do with her maverick image and more to do with a spate of eyebrow-raising campaign shake-ups, her tendency to pick fights with local journalists, and her sometimes questionable campaign spending and finances.
Some have speculated that Jordan’s frequent, expensive, and often out-of-state travel during the campaign—she spent a reported $85,434 on travel compared to Little’s $3,019, including almost $35,000 on airfare alone—suggests that her long-term ambitions lie outside of Idaho, that the gubernatorial campaign is just a gambit to raise her national profile. At a recent debate with Little, one journalist on the panel grilled her about why she’s had a documentary film crew following her around, and whether that crew was paid with campaign money. Jordan insisted they were not, but fumbled awkwardly in her explanation.
With so much scrutiny, Jordan sometimes sounds as if she’d like to be unburdened of her party altogether. The problem is, there’s no Party of Love in Idaho, and Jordan is running as a Democrat in a red state where even centrist Republicans like Little have to contend with attacks from the party’s sizable right wing. Little, a rancher who currently serves as lieutenant governor, won a narrow primary victory over Congressman Raul Labrador, a Tea Party member who had the backing of the far-right Idaho Freedom Foundation, which constitutes something like a party-within-a-party. The hitherto unknown Jordan defeated A. J. Balukoff, a 72-year-old California transplant and perennial candidate who outspent her five to one. Without a single establishment endorsement to her name, she left little doubt that she had tapped into something big when she trounced him by 18 points. Democratic turnout was so high in Boise on primary night that two precincts ran out of ballots. Her resounding victory—bolstered by national attention—has given her the confidence to dismiss the naysayers.
Jordan’s candidacy is an uphill fight—the most recent poll, done in August, had her trailing by eight points—but for a moment in May, it seemed like a Democrat might have a shot at the governor’s mansion for the first time since Cecil Andrus won his last term in 1990. Andrus, a prolific hunter and angler who was elected four times and served 14 years, set a model for what Democratic governorships could look like in a state divided by formidable geography and cultural differences—from the religious southeastern sagebrush, to the sprawling Boise metro area, to the mountainous panhandle, where anti-government activists co-mingled with miners, loggers, and tribes. Andrus was a giant whose ability to command respect on both sides of the aisle was the product of a lifetime of service. His friends included Idaho Senator Frank Church, who sponsored the 1964 Wilderness Act and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. During a hiatus as Secretary of Interior under President Jimmy Carter, Andrus helped craft the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. He was a rare politician, able to charm or muscle his way across the divide, but he also served in the twilight of the old Idaho—when strong unions representing the mining, timber, and railroad industries guaranteed Democratic strongholds in the panhandle and Pocatello. Mining and timber were already in decline when a “right to work” referendum passed in 1986, bringing the unions to their knees. Andrus would last another eight years, but the Idaho Democratic Party never recovered.
All the while, a steady influx of conservative refugees fleeing the Pacific Coast has been pouring into the state since at least the 1970s, shifting the balance ever rightward. Idaho has the third most Republican-controlled legislature in the country, with 59 Republicans to 11 Democrats in the House. Boise leans solidly blue, but large though it is—the city holds about 230,000 people—it’s still only about an eighth of the state’s population, not big enough to offset the sea of red. Still, for more than two decades, Democrats in Idaho have hoped for an Andrus-like figure to come along. If they thought Paulette Jordan was that person, they are almost certainly disappointed now.
In the months since Jordan’s impressive primary victory, she has struggled to articulate a message, and that’s especially clear with issues that involve public land and the environment. Beyond voicing her support for incentivizing renewable energy development, saying public land should stay public (Brad Little shares both positions), and opposing Idaho’s recent tightening of trespass laws, Jordan’s ideas range from shaky to right-of-Republican. When I met up with her in Boise in October, we discussed her priorities. She said one major goal is the deconstruction of the four Lower Snake River dams, which would help native salmon, steelhead, and lamprey populations recover, and which, according to Jordan, would boost the northwest’s recreation economy. This goal is an obsession among anglers and environmentalists and the movement has been gathering steam in recent years, but the fate of these dams—which are all in Washington—is a multi-state and multi-agency matter that Jordan would have limited sway over as Idaho governor.
I asked what she thinks about the idea of state control over the management of federal lands, which appears to be the latest incarnation of the national land-transfer movement. “I’m firmly in favor of autonomy of local control,” she said. Did that mean she was in favor of the state managing timber, energy, and mining development on federal public land? “It’s tricky for me because, if it’s me, I trust myself and I would say I am going to be a great steward when it comes to working with BLM, and any federal agency,” she said. “But if it’s another, say a Republican, who has been known to do more damage or harm, then no.”
I brought up a county commission’s recent resolution against including the 88,000-acre Scotchman Peaks area in the federal wilderness system—which advocates are watching as a potential threat to other pending wilderness designations. She replied vaguely. She supports wilderness designation, she said, “primarily because I like Scotchman Peaks. I used to go hiking up there, and I think there’s a lot of wildlife that are still there, and especially when we have our mountain goats.”
What about Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s recent rollback of plans that were designed over the course of a decade to protect the sage grouse on federal lands? (Zinke said he wanted to give states more flexibility, but the gesture was widely panned as a gift to extractive industries who can now operate with greater freedom in sage grouse habitat. Little’s boss, Governor Butch Otter, was a fierce critic of the federal proposals.) “You’ll have to excuse me,” Jordan said. “He made adjustments to it?”
These were not “gotcha” questions, and I was surprised by Jordan’s lack of depth. Over 60 percent of Idaho is public land, and the issues surrounding that land—from wilderness designations, to wildfires, endangered species protections, and the growing recreation economy—are among the most contentious in the west.
Even though Jordan lists “land and water preservation” as one of the four priorities on her campaign website, I knew she was running primarily on health care, education, criminal justice reform, and marijuana reform, so I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt. We started talking about wilderness and the fight over the meaning of the word “access.” Does it mean access for mountain bikes, ATVs, hikers, and oil rigs?
“I know it’s important for many people to be able to get to those places and do what they like to do, so I guess as governor this is where it comes to be a hard crossroads for me,” Jordan said. “But I definitely want to keep the space open for people versus cutting it off. When it comes to the wilderness areas, I just think that management needs to be—there needs to be more management not less.”
“More management of what kind?”
“Meaning that people should, the people as in the forestry division needs to be able to get in there and assess these timber sites. I want to see more long-term sustainable management.”
“So you want to see timber management in wilderness?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said, “Like as in going in there to thin where we need to.”
This was noteworthy. As much as Republicans would love to open up wilderness study areas and roadless areas to development, no one really mentions logging in federally designated wilderness areas as a serious prospect. Environmental protections in wilderness areas are the strongest of all public land designations—stronger even than in the National Parks, which are often crisscrossed with roads and thrumming with cars and commercial activity. I asked several more times if Jordan was sure that she meant she thought we should be doing timber projects in wilderness areas.
“Like the Frank Church?” I asked.
Yes, she was sure. “I just think every so often it needs to be thinned to a point to where it’s healthy enough,” she said, “but not to be logging to clear-cut or anything like that.”