Editor’s note: This is the second of two profiles of Idaho’s major-party candidates for governor in 2018. Previously featured: Republican nominee Brad Little.
Near the end of an interview at her new campaign office on Boise’s Front Street, Paulette Jordan recalled excited children at an Eastern Idaho rodeo earlier this month, rushing out to ask for pictures.
“They were treating me like a celebrity, but it was more that they were engaged in government,” she said.
“That really inspired me. ... These were young children from very rural communities where nobody pays attention to them. And they have high suicide rates in their community and low success rate, a low ‘go on’ rate. So being there to be able to encourage and inspire is ultimately the greatest gift you can receive.”
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Inspiration is how Jordan has found political success this year, soaring to the Democratic nomination for governor on a wave of liberal excitement not seen in recent years.
None of Paulette Jordan’s 16 fellow Democratic lawmakers endorsed her. Neither did other state party leaders. She was outspent 5 to 1. Yet she beat her opponent, party stalwart AJ Balukoff, by 18 points.
Her campaign has drawn rare national attention: She’s spoken to CNN, BuzzFeed, HuffPost, The Atlantic, ABC News and Teen Vogue. Heather Rae, a name familiar to many Idahoans, has done a film short, and Jordan said a full documentary is in the works.
Jordan, 38, joins other candidates across the country finding success with fresh, diverse faces and aggressively liberal platforms. Yet, she says, she believes the issues she champions — improving health care and education, increasing local control, protecting public lands — have support among all types of Idahoans.
She is young, female, Native American — the polar opposite of traditional Idaho politicians.
“She has shown a real ability to electrify people and to get them really excited about her message, which I think is really important for somebody leading the state because you need to bring the people along with you,” said state Rep. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise.
At the same time, her unusual campaign has been prone to uncommon stumbles, including confusion over her February resignation from the Idaho House and a mistaken staff claim that Jordan was the “only Democrat” ever to represent North Idaho.
While national media are courting her, Idaho news organizations have reported difficulty even getting calls returned by the campaign. The Idaho Republican Party has made her national appearances at certain far-left events a centerpiece of its attacks. Meanwhile, campaign staff turnover has led to other miscommunication, and Jordan has developed a reputation for being constantly late to interviews and events.
Jordan must make a strong impression with the majority of Idahoans: Just more than half of the state’s registered voters are Republicans, and even more tend to side with the conservative party’s candidates in major elections.
“National coverage is great for Jordan,” said longtime Idaho political columnist Chuck Malloy, “but there’s also value with statewide media coverage because there still are a lot of people who don’t know her.”
Jordan’s current staff appears to be taking fresh steps. The nominee sat down for a half-hour interview Tuesday at her new campaign office on Boise’s Front Street. There, she said she gets hundreds of emails and calls, and is too busy traveling and making public appearances to keep up with the demands of her “whirlwind campaign.”
The Democratic nominee expressed no interest in abiding old political mores. She is blazing her own trail, she said, because she wants to “shift our ship back in the right direction.”
“We are flipping our state for the better,” Jordan said during an Aug. 4 speech at Netroots Nation’s annual conference for far-left political activists. “Not to be blue. We are not flipping it to be purple. We are doing it for the greater good because we are showing we are against the cronyism. We are against the corporate corruption. We are truly about reflecting the good of the people.
“You are looking at an individual who is capable of representing Republicans, capable of representing Libertarians and independents and Democrats. But we are above the political party system.”
Running as a Democrat, promising to support all
A Democrat for years, Jordan calls herself “an Idahoan first and foremost.”
“As governor, it is not my responsibility to represent any political party,” she said. “It is my responsibility to represent Idahoans.”
She said she also refuses to accept corporate money. Her largest donors in the primary were Native American tribes.
“Idahoans wants someone in the Statehouse who will represent them, their working-class roots and not corporations,” she said.
That theme of staying true to where you came from is a major part of Jordan’s stated philosophy, and the reason she says she eschews traditional labels, partisan politics and the political establishment.
“Party affiliation is definitely very divisive and unfortunate because it does not serve the people well,” she said. “I think that is why I look to my elders’ positions, my grandparents’ positions, which is very independent, very much based on individualism. I think that is ultimately the stronghold and the roots of our state, which is respecting that individuality and yet also respecting people’s voices.”
Her approach continues a trend seen in early 2016, when Idaho selected two independent-minded presidential primary candidates, Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz.
“Bernie Sanders’ massive win in Idaho in the 2016 presidential caucus demonstrated the popularity of progressive policy proposals among the left here,” said Jaclyn Kettler, an assistant professor who specializes in American politics in the School of Public Service at Boise State University.
If elected governor, Jordan would shatter minority and gender glass ceilings: Idaho’s first female governor and its first Native American governor and the nation’s first Native American governor. John Waihe’e, a Native Hawaiian, became the nation’s first indigenous governor in 1986.
She is the first woman to win a major-party gubernatorial nomination in Idaho.
“Jordan’s win in the primary is a big deal in terms of the underrepresentation of women and Native Americans,” Kettler said.
The nation currently has six female governors. This year, 11 women have won gubernatorial primaries — a record — with several more races still to go, according to an Aug. 8 Washington Post report.
Nationally and in Idaho, women make up 50 percent of the population. Female registered voters in Idaho, though, have a slight edge over males, at 53 percent, according to the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office.
National polls show women, across party lines and in Idaho, are dissatisfied with the current federal administration. And, Jordan reiterates, Idaho is ready for change.
Idaho is all but guaranteed to install its first female lieutenant governor in January after Janice McGeachin and Kristin Collum won their respective GOP and Democratic primaries.
Jordan said about women: “We are the greatest multitaskers. We have so much compassion and love for everything. It exudes in everything we do.”
From college to the council to the Statehouse
Upon graduating from the University of Washington in 2003, Jordan returned to the reservation and became actively involved in her tribal community.
Six years later, at age 29, Jordan became the youngest person elected to the Coeur d’Alene Tribal Council — her tribe’s sovereign government.
When her council term ended in 2012, Jordan shifted from tribal to state politics and ran for the Idaho Legislature. She says her elders urged her to step up.
“I was raised by them as a young woman and a child. I have learned so much from all of their wisdom throughout my years in serving the community,” she said. “It really helped to craft and develop my own leadership, my own voice and my own positions.”
Jordan won the 2012 Democratic primary for the District 5 seat, but she lost the general election to Republican Cindy Agidius by 123 votes, less than 1 percent. Jordan returned in 2014 and beat Agidius, then won re-election in 2016, securing a 1 percent to 4 percent lead over her general-election opponents each time.
In December 2017, just five months from the primary, Jordan announced her run for governor. Her main Democratic challenger was Balukoff, a multimillionaire and longtime Boise School District trustee who unsuccessfully challenged Gov. Butch Otter in 2014.
Balukoff told voters to stick with him: It wasn’t yet Jordan’s time. She hadn’t earned her chops. He had. During the course of the primary campaign, Balukoff spent $2 million. Jordan spent $395,000, according to campaign finance reports.
Jordan won the primary with 58 percent of the vote.
The win shocked the political establishment, but not Jordan, who said she is running for governor “out of personal responsibility” and “an ask from my community to step up.” She said she talked to thousands of people across the state while campaigning.
Her takeaway: Rural communities are suffering. Income inequity, health care dysfunction and education problems are plaguing the state. State control has eroded local control. Political cronyism and corporate greed are destroying America. Idahoans want change.
Balukoff released a statement Saturday formally endorsing Jordan: “Paulette Jordan has energized, excited and encouraged voters to get to the polls and vote not only for her, but for Idaho Democrats up and down the ballot. ... It’s time for everyone to come together for the good of our state.”
Rubel, the Boise Democrat, did not endorse anyone in the primary but now fully supports Jordan. She said she agrees it is time for change in Idaho, and Jordan is the one to bring it.
“You need to get the people excited about moving in new directions,” Rubel said.
Can Jordan attract conservative voters?
Jordan’s Herculean task is busting Idaho’s Republican stronghold.
Idaho last elected a Democratic governor (Cecil Andrus) in 1990. In the most recent gubernatorial election, Otter beat Balukoff by 15 points.
Despite Jordan’s party-agnostic approach, “most voters will vote according to their partisanship in November,” Kettler said. “Since there are more Republican voters in Idaho, this presents Jordan with a substantial challenge.”
Fifty-two percent of Idaho’s 815,798 registered voters affiliated as Republicans as of Aug. 1, per the Secretary of State’s Office. Twelve percent were Democrats. Another 35 percent were unaffiliated voters, though history shows many of them also favor GOP candidates.
Nearly one-third of respondents in an early August poll said if the election for Idaho governor were held that day, they were unsure for whom they would vote. Thirty-six percent said they would vote for GOP Lt. Gov. Brad Little, 28 percent for Jordan and 5 percent named a third-party candidate.
When pushed, a few more of the undecided broke for Little and, to a lesser extent, Jordan, but the majority stayed unsure.
Of the poll’s 826 respondents, 56 percent were registered Republicans, 14 percent registered Democrats and 30 percent were unaffiliated or with a third party.
Idaho Voices for Change Now, a group supporting Jordan, paid for the poll of landline and cellphone users. It has a margin of error of 3.19 percent.
“Thirty-one percent is a fairly high number of undecided voters for this point in the campaign,” Kettler said. For comparison, in an August 2014 poll, Otter had an 18-point lead over Balukoff with 13 percent of respondents undecided.
Malloy, Chris Carlson, Marty Trillhaase and Randy Stapilus are four longtime Idaho political columnists and editorial writers who between them have more than a century of institutional knowledge.
Carlson, who spent years as an aide to and friend of Andrus, supported Balukoff and said he’ll now vote for Little. “His opponent is the most unqualified candidate I’ve seen in years,” Carlson wrote in a July 30 column. “It’s a shame that she is carrying the D standard.”
Trillhaase, a longtime Lewiston Tribune editorial writer, penned his own response stating that Jordan “has the best political resume of any Democratic candidate for governor in a generation.” In particular, he wrote, she has legislative experience, a trait lacking in every Democratic gubernatorial nominee since 1998.
“A Jordan win would take a perfect storm in an alignment of stars. The odds are against. But don’t ignore this race; the raw material for an upset may be widely scattered, but they do exist,” wrote Stapilus in an Aug. 3 column.
Said Malloy: “It would be a mistake to underestimate Jordan. How she would work with the heavy Republican majority in the Legislature is another question.”
How would Jordan work with Republicans?
The last Democrat to hold major statewide office, former Superintendent of Public Instruction Marilyn Howard, found her efforts increasingly mired in fights with the Republican Legislature.
More than 10 years after Howard left office, both Jordan and Rubel say simply electing a Democrat as governor would put lawmakers on notice.
“I think Republican leaders in the Legislature will to some extent read the writing on the wall,” Rubel said. “If she wins the governor’s seat, that will send a strong message to those in the Legislature as well as that they are barking up the wrong tree … they are extremely out of sync with the voters and they better change their tune quickly or they cannot count on that legislative supermajority for long.”
Jordan has said throughout her campaign that she believes she can get Republicans to listen to her. Fellow Democrats privately lamented that Jordan was not very diligent and engaged as a lawmaker, but when asked whether Jordan was “proficient and effective” as a legislator, Rubel said, “yes.”
Jordan’s other proposed tool is the public. She points to another item up for a vote this fall: After years of legislative inaction on Medicaid expansion, citizens took it upon themselves to get such a measure on the November ballot.
Jordan said that if voters pass Medicaid expansion in November and the GOP-dominated Legislature tries to overturn or weaken it, she, as governor, would “absolutely” wield her veto stamp.
“I stand with the people,” she said.
Jordan has consistently cited two sources of new revenue to pay for her goals. First, she would do away with certain tax exemptions and business incentives, “holding the big box stores and corporations accountable to pay their fair share” of taxes.
She also supports decriminalizing marijuana and legalizing medical marijuana. She says money saved in the criminal justice system through decriminalization, and the economic growth and taxes generated through legalization, also would help pay for her initiatives.
To accomplish such projects as universal preschool or medical marijuana, Jordan “is going to have to mobilize the people behind her. There is going to have to be a public outcry for some of these initiatives,” Rubel said.
Candidates epitomize Idaho’s struggles with growth
In some ways, Jordan and Little are the same side of a coin.
Coeur d’Alene Tribe member Jordan hails from tribal chiefs, Little is a third-generation rancher. Both were born and raised in rural Idaho. Both are horseback-riding, gun-owning outdoors people who speak passionately and sincerely about their connection to Idaho, its people and its land.
But both also embody Idaho’s current crossroads, as one of the nation’s most rural and deeply conservative states grapples with growth and newcomers.
Little, 64, is a seasoned moderate who has held an elected office in the Idaho Statehouse since 2001 — first a state senator, then lieutenant governor.
Jordan’s legislative record is sparse. During her nearly four years in the Legislature she did not solely author a single bill. She rarely debated bills on the House floor.
Malloy offers an explanation: In a Legislature that is 84 percent Republican, “it’s difficult — if not impossible — for a Democratic legislator to walk away with a long list of accomplishments.”
“I have no issue with Jordan’s qualifications or intelligence,” Malloy said. “I have two sisters in Washington state who are avid Republicans. They saw the (Aug. 3) CNN piece and were highly impressed with Jordan. If Jordan is smart enough to sway my Republican sisters, then my hat’s off to her.”
Jordan cannot compete with Little’s political pedigree. But, she said, she thinks that is exactly what Idahoans want now — a leader unencumbered with political obligations and baggage.
“My qualifications are simple,” said Jordan. “First and foremost, it is my ability to listen and to put the voices of the people at the forefront. I think that ultimately that is your greatest qualification if you want to serve the people, especially in the capacity as the role of CEO or governor of the state of Idaho.”
CORRECTION: Lieutenant governor candidate Janice McGeachin’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this report.