Paulette Jordan Is Neither Democrat Nor Republican—She's Purely Idaho
Idaho is a deeply red state where the GOP has controlled every branch of government for years. But Paulette Jordan believes her insurgent progressive message can win.
With just a little over 2,000 residents, Kellogg, ID, is the embodiment of small-town, working-class America in 2018 — a time when a changing economy is making times tough for many. Nestled in the center of Coeur d’Alene River Basin, Kellogg was once a mining boomtown, but today its claim to fame is that it’s home to the nation’s largest lead superfund site. Residents here have been struggling with the lingering effects of lead poisoning from an old mine that contaminated the soil and water in the 1970s and '80s. And to make matters worse for Kellogg’s majority white, working class residents, the once lucrative mining industry has yet to be replaced by another, similarly lucrative industry. The median household income is a little over $36,500.
These are the quintessential Donald Trump voters, the ones who are believed to be the ones who delivered him the presidency in 2016. And yet tonight, about 10 local residents have gathered for a no-holds-barred meeting with Paulette Jordan, a 38-year-old single mother of two who is running for governor of Idaho on progressive policies and a promise to deliver for forgotten rural communities like this one.
Jordan, who if elected would be the nation’s first Indigenous governor, is well-aware of the crisis in the region: “My elders took on this battle years ago, even before the [Environmental Protection Agency] took action,” she tells the group, adding that members of her own tribe were impacted by the pollution. “And unfortunately the main challenges still persist.” Before becoming pregnant with her eldest son, she worked in the area as the Lake Ambassador of the Coeur d’Alene Basin Commission.
The frustration among the residents, who have been fighting this environmental disaster for three decades, is palpable, and as familiar as it is, it’s difficult for Jordan to hear the stories of those affected. “I come back to bury my friends,” Cas, a former resident of Kellogg, tells her, adding that even though he was able to move away, “I’m 53 and my childhood exposure still haunts me.”
Jordan asks the group about their interactions with the EPA and raises her eyebrows when one of attendants says that officials told them to either be silent or be thrown out during a recent community meeting. “They were that way to everybody,” the attendant, a resident named Carla, says. “Basically telling us, ‘We’re gonna do what we want to anyway. It doesn’t matter what you have to say.’”
After listening for over an hour, Jordan promises to fight for them. “I’ve watched over the years as you have been left behind,” she says. “Once I’m governor, one of my greatest roles is to be an ambassador to our people and to ensure that I’m advocating on your behalf.”
Three young women walk up to Jordan afterwards to tell her this is the first time they’ve attended this type of meeting. “This is the most hopeful I’ve been in a while,” Danielle, one of them, tells Jordan before asking for a selfie. Jordan happily agrees, before talking with Danielle and her friends about bringing that hope into the voting booth in November.
In Jordan’s bid for governor of deeply red Idaho, it is exactly the voters like these three young women — newly engaged after feeling forgotten for far too long — that she will need. The big-picture reality is that Idaho is a state where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats four to one, where the GOP enjoys control of both chambers of the Legislature, and where a Democrat hasn’t held the governor’s seat in 30 years. Polls have consistently showed her opponent Lt. Gov Brad Little — a pro-gun, pro-corporations, anti-abortion libertarian appointed to the seat in 2009 — has a significant advantage over Jordan. With a few days until the election, it’s unlikely her campaign will be able to close the gap.
The one glimmer of hope for Jordan is that after 2016, it is not unheard of that an underdog insurgent candidate running on a populist message can win big. For all the red, Idaho might be interested in a progressive willing to disrupt the status quo. In 2016, Sen. Bernie Sanders won 78% of the vote in the state’s Democratic caucuses. He did this by dominating in rural areas, and running on a bold, progressive platform and the same kind of innovative, populist messaging that Jordan is leaning into hard. There is also evidence that she might even be able to appeal to conservative voters: When Jordan was re-elected to the state house in 2016, she was the only Democrat in Northern Idaho to win a district that also went for Trump.
“It’s hard for a Democrat running for statewide office in Idaho. No matter who the nominee was going to be, it would be an uphill battle,” says Jaclyn Kettler, PhD, an assistant political science professor Boise State University. “But Jordan’s campaign has been able to capitalize on that energy and spirit [we saw with Sen. Sanders in 2016].” Kettler adds that Jordan’s progressive platform is most appealing to voters who have not reaped the benefits of Idaho’s changing economy. The state has seen a boom in its developing tech sector around the Boise region in recent years and farming, its economic pillar, has continued to expand too. But like in so many other places across the country, while unemployment is low wages have remained stagnant. “For a lot of people, it’s like ‘I’m doing all I can and yet I still can’t get ahead.’ That frustration makes some of these progressive ideas mobilizing and of interest,” Kettler says.
Jordan, too, brushes off any suggestions that she’s fighting a losing battle. She’s been pulling off surprise victories all her life: She grew up poor on her family’s farm on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation. Nobody has high expectations for Indigenous youth, she says, but she went to college on an academic scholarship to the University of Washington. In 2008, at the age of 29, she became the youngest person to ever be elected to the Coeur d’Alene Tribal Council, her tribe’s sovereign government. In 2014, she ran for the Idaho House of Representatives and won, becoming part of the Democratic minority in the Republican-controlled Legislature.
In the primary earlier this year, most of the Democratic party establishment — including some of Jordan’s own colleagues at the state Legislature — supported business owner and Boise school board member A.J. Balukoff over her. Despite this and that he outspent her five times over, she came from behind and defeated Balukoff decisively with 58% of the vote. This was even after two top aides abruptly resigned over disagreements about the direction of the campaign, leading to to accusations that it was in disarray.
In fact, turnover and blunders have followed Jordan over the past year. Another three of her top campaign staffers resigned mid-September — about seven weeks before election day — and news that they had to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) raised eyebrows across the state. While the use of NDAs is not entirely uncommon in political campaigns, it’s the type of establishment-like move that makes voters distrust the political class and what they might be trying to hide. The news made quite a splash in the local press right before Refinery29 arrived, with headlines sounding alarms about the “chaos” surrounding her. More recently, it was reported that the Jordan campaign may have had some murky ties to a tribal super PAC meant to elect more Indigenous candidates to office.
Jordan dismisses all of these questions as unfair scrutiny: “It’s not easy when you make changes, especially when you are the CEO of a campaign,” she says, adding that the staffers were let go simply because they didn’t understand Idaho, and she needed a team that did.
“The issue remains that media in a very conservative state tend to attack the campaign and try to benefit the other candidate because they want to see their candidate win,” she says. “There’s a lot of money in this race and unfortunately, that money isn’t on my end. [But] I have the people.”
She credits her own values essential to her win, and believes that the Idahoan understanding of progressivism can take her all the way to the governor’s seat. The key thing to understand about Jordan is that she is not someone who is easily be boxed in. Yes, she’s running on some signature progressive policy ideas: promises to enact environmental regulations to protect Idaho’s public lands, expand Medicaid, legalize medical marijuana, support women’s reproductive rights, and end the school-to-prison pipeline. But she’s also a gun-owner and fierce defender of the Second Amendment, and she has libertarian-ish views on the role of the federal government, throwing her support behind autonomy at the local level.
What’s also clear from watching her in action is that Jordan’s populist appeal is not just a play for support, but the result of a real connection. Jordan’s focus on disenfranchised communities like Kellogg comes from the fact that she sees her own story in these communities: As someone who was raised in a low-income household by a single mother on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation, she knows a lot about rural poverty. She’s spent her entire career, from the time she spent serving on theCoeur d’Alene Tribal Council to her two terms in the state Legislature, trying to raise the concerns of everyday people. “Coming from a very impoverished, very rural community, I sought out those voices to be represented in the state House because they were the ones who were not represented as often as I felt they should be,” she says. “These are the voices that I fight for and want to ensure that they maintain a seat at the table.”
Even if Jordan doesn’t become governor, Kettler says that her candidacy can help normalize women, particularly those of color, running for office and inspire them in the future. The candidate herself agrees and doesn’t shy away from putting her candidacy into its historical context: “Now you see someone who stems from the people who have been harmed the most of this land, rising up to represent everybody,” she says of the path she’s helping pave for future Indigenous candidates. And the effects of her groundbreaking gubernatorial bid also extends to Idaho’s youth in general, like to the young women from Kellogg who got involved in politics for the first time in their lives thanks to Jordan.
Despite the long odds, what matters most to Jordan is that her voters know they are not forgotten. “I’m standing up for my people,” she says. “It’s about time that we had real leadership who will honestly stand up for the integrity of our community and ensure that resources are [being funneled] to our education, to our healthcare, and to ensure that our children have access to prosperity for their future. Right now, we’re mortgaging our children’s future.”
She’s confident that she can bring home a win next week because she embodies “true Idahoan” values. “[We] have already created this massive movement across this country. [We are now] showing them that the movement in itself is what’s important … and it will be successful come November 6th.”
“People need to see that there’s leadership out there that would purely reflect them; not the party politics, not the corporations, not the special interest groups. Simply the people,” Jordan says. “I’m not Democrat, I’m not Republican. I’m purely Idaho.”