BISMARCK – With an unprecedented three Native Americans on the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party's statewide ticket and at least four running for legislative seats, it may appear the party purposely recruited candidates from the tribes, or that enrolled members were simply more motivated to run.
According to Dem-NPL chair Kylie Oversen, "It was a little bit of both."
"Part of that was just organic interest. People wanted to be involved," she said. "But getting all of those candidates on the ballot, we wanted to have a more concentrated effort in organizing within our tribal communities and getting them organized as activists, not just as candidates."
Bismarck resident Marlo Hunte-Beaubrun said she was inspired to run for a six-year term on the Public Service Commission while working on the campaign of U.S. House candidate Chase Iron Eyes, a fellow enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the state's first Native American candidate for Congress from either party.
"It got me very inspired to run because the commission sits on and oversees a lot of resources where Native Americans should have a designated seat at the table, but we don't," she said. "I don't claim to be an expert in anything, but I am willing to learn and I am teachable."
Hunte-Beaubrun holds a master's degree in business management from the University of Mary in Bismarck. The Cannonball native is executive director of the entrepreneurship center at Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College in New Town.
Republican Julie Fedorchak, who was appointed to the three-member PSC in 2013 and elected to a two-year term in 2014, is running for a full term, as is Libertarian Party candidate Thomas Skadeland of Mayville.
State insurance commissioner candidate Ruth Buffalo of Mandaree, who like Hunte-Beaubrun declared her candidacy just before Monday's filing deadline, said she was asked several times to run for office, both by community members in Mandaree and by Dem-NPL party officials.
Buffalo is an enrolled member of the Three Affiliated Tribes and a full-time graduate student who expects to receive her master's degree in public health from North Dakota State University in Fargo next month.
"I'm a public health student, and health equity has always been an interest of mine through different policy work," she said of her reason for running.
She'll square off in November against Republican Jon Godfread, vice president of governmental affairs for the Greater North Dakota Chamber, and Libertarian candidate Nick Bata of West Fargo. Current Commissioner Adam Hamm, a Republican, is not seeking a third four-year term.
Buffalo said there was no concerted effort among Native Americans to get multiple candidates on the statewide ballot, adding they're all just "human beings that have a vested interest in our state."
In his endorsement acceptance speech on April 2, Iron Eyes told state convention delegates that he'll have to "mobilize the Native American vote like we've never done before" to beat incumbent Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer, who is seeking a third two-year term. Jack Seaman of Fargo is the Libertarian Party's candidate.
Voter turnout has historically been low on the state's American Indian reservations. Sioux, Rolette and Benson counties-home to Standing Rock, Turtle Mountain and much of the Spirit Lake reservation, respectively-had the lowest turnout among counties in November 2014. Seven members of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa sued Secretary of State Al Jaeger in January, claiming recent changes to the state's voter identification laws infringe on their right to vote.
Oversen, a state representative from Grand Forks, said the party knows tribal communities have historically supported Democratic candidates - one of the most notable examples being in 2012, when tribal support helped former attorney general Heidi Heitkamp squeak out a U.S. Senate victory by less than 1 percent over Republican U.S. Rep. Rick Berg.
"But we stand in solidarity with our tribes and want them to have better relationships between tribal and state governments, and this is an important way to do that," she said.
President Barack Obama also cited improving relationships with the tribes in his visit to the Standing Rock Reservation in 2014.
North Dakota Republican Party Chairman Kelly Armstrong, a state senator from Dickinson, said the party doesn't specifically recruit Native American candidates, but "we welcome any of them, as well." He said he wasn't aware of any Native Americans on the GOP's statewide or legislative slates, "but I don't think we've actually checked."
"We seek out the most qualified people who are interested in it. We don't care what their skin color or sex is," he said.
Armstrong said it's no secret North Dakota tribal members tend to lean more Democrat than Republican, making it easier for Democrats to draw candidates.
"It's good for them. It's good for the state. It's good for the debate," he said.
Native American legislative candidates
In addition to three statewide candidates, Democrats have at least four legislative candidates who are Native American:
• Former United Tribes Technical College President David Gipp of Mandan, a Standing Rock Sioux member, is seeking the District 34 Senate seat being defended by Sen. Dwight Cook, R-Mandan.
• MHA Nation member Cesar Alvarez of New Town is running for House District 4.
• Standing Rock Sioux member Cheryl Kary of Bismarck is running for House District 32.
• Steven Allard of Casselton, an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, is seeking the District 22 Senate seat currently held by Sen. Gary Lee, R-Casselton.
With several candidates filing just before Monday's deadline, Democrats are leaving two House races unchallenged, both in District 28, along with Senate races in Districts 2 and 8.
Republicans filled all of their races and, with more candidates than seats available, will have contested primaries in Districts 14, 28 and 36.
Republicans currently have a 32-15 advantage in the Senate and 71-23 majority in the House.