Over the years it's been a challenge to drum up political engagement on the Wind River Reservation. But things may be different this year with eight tribal members running for office in multiple parties. It's an unusually high number. Democratic Representative Patrick Goggles says it’s his theory that what has inspired so much political gusto is the shifting dynamic in the Republican Party. He says the politicizing of the right wing is happening everywhere, including Wind River.
“The Tea Party movement in Wyoming has created what I would say is political opportunities for those that have extreme right wing views,” he says.
Constitutionalists, Libertarians, Democrats--tribal members are campaigning under many banners, and often against each other. For instance, Northern Arapahoe Allen Whiteman is running on the GOP ticket for Senate District 25 for Cale Case's seat against 2 other Democratic tribal candidates—Sergio Maldonado and Travis Brocke. And the same goes for Patrick Goggles' open seat.
But for Goggles’ seat, Republicans have an advantage in a red state like Wyoming when they don’t have to face an incumbent.
“And I realized that,” he says. “But I realized that if certain folks were to step forward on the Democratic side it would be a political race determined by Natives that voted.”
So Goggles encouraged his niece, Andrea Clifford, to run. She has experience as an intern at the state legislature and as the assistant manager of the Wind River Casino. Clifford says her reasons for filing were simple. “We need a voice down there in Cheyenne at the capitol.”
But her primary won’t be so simple. She’s running against Eastern Shoshone Willfred Ferris. And even if she wins her party’s nomination, she’ll face Northern Arapaho Daniel Cardenas on the GOP ticket. But Clifford says she thinks that a lot of choices on a ballot is good for voters.
“Actually, when I found out I was going to have an opponent in the Democratic primary for my district, I was happy. I really was,” Clifford says. “I want our constituents to learn and I think it would force them to say, hey, I’ve got a choice here. So let me inform myself about both of the candidates.”
And there could also be a stronger gravitational pull to run this year because of an urgency to solve big issues on the reservation-- like Medicaid expansion, water issues, not to mention the Environmental Protection Agency decision that set the reservation boundary to encompass the city of Riverton.
Sergio Maldonado is running for Senate District 25, Cale Case’s seat. He says when it comes to complex issues like these, it’s more important than ever to have tribal members in office.
“It’s not about being invited to the table. It’s about being on the agenda at the table,” Maldonado says. “We secure 33 and 25, the whole state of Wyoming, and more importantly Fremont County, will have much to be happy about because now this whole notion of diversity is going to be in the political arena. This is historical and precedent-setting.”
But with tribal members running from both sides of the aisle, securing a united front won’t be so straight forward. The political face-offs this year aren’t just intertribal, either. They’re also inter-family.
Democrat Keja Whiteman is running for her third term as Fremont County Commissioner. In the general election, she’ll face her sister-in-law, Valaira Whiteman, and Mark Lambert, both tribal members, running for her seat on the GOP ticket.
But Keja isn’t interested in discussing such divisions. She says the important thing is that people are getting involved.
“I’m interested to see who will prevail from the primaries. I’m just a huge advocate for getting involved in your government. And I hope everyone who comes out on top really campaigns hard in a positive way.”
Keja says whether people are voting for her party or not, she hopes the large number of tribal names on the ballot will mean a higher voter turn-out for the primary election on August 19.