It’s a historic year for Native Americans in politics — and not just for the candidates.
A one-of-its-kind bipartisan super PAC, bankrolled by tribes and a prominent abortion rights group, is attempting to boost Native American candidates at a time when a record-breaking number of indigenous hopefuls are campaigning for office. At the congressional level, four candidates — including the two Native Americans currently serving in Congress —have a fighting chance of winning their party's nomination.
The super PAC’s name, 7Gen Leaders, is a nod to a Native American belief that effective leaders make decisions today that will positively affect people and the planet seven generations into the future.
“There’s a lot of folks who have been making traditional contributions to campaigns, but have never had a PAC in Indian country that has been able to leverage those dollars,” said Mellor Willie, 7Gen Leaders’ co-founder and the former executive director of the nonprofit Native American Indian Housing Council. “It’s been done in other communities, like the black community, so why not the Native American community?”
7Gen Leaders, which as a super PAC may raise and spend unlimited amounts of money, has so far supported only onefederal candidate with cash.
The Washington, D.C.-based group’s first beneficiary is Deb Haaland, a Democrat and Laguna Pueblo tribe member who’s running to represent New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District. Haaland served as chairwoman for the Democratic Party of New Mexico from 2015 to 2017 — the first female Native American to lead a state party — and ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2014.
The rub? Haaland is an outspoken critic of the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which helped give rise to super PACs such as 7Gen Leaders.
Haaland, for example, has stated that “Democrats should lead by example when it comes to taking big money out of politics” and that she “will fight to overturn Citizens United and bring democracy back to the people.”
Scott Forrester, Haaland’s campaign manager, said Haaland’s campaign and the 7Gen Leaders super PAC have in no way coordinated efforts with one another, which would be illegal.
“We didn’t invite 7Gen to come in and fight for us,” Forrester said. “But when we’re being outspent by $1 million against conservative donors, there has to be a super PAC” that levels the playing field.
Forrester went on to say, “The only way we’ll overturn Citizens United is to elect someone like Deb Haaland.”
Said Willie, 7Gen Leaders’ co-founder: “Right now, as the law stands, this is the way in which we can have some impact. For us not to be involved, then we aren’t getting our voice in this election, and we’re losing.”
The race for New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District — which includes Albuquerque — is competitive on the Democratic side because it’s an open race: Current Democratic Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham is running for governor, leaving five viable Democrats and one Republican to fight it out.
The candidates with the most fundraising prowess include Haaland, and Democrats Antoinette Sedillo Lopez and Damon Martinez.
Sedillo Lopez, a former law professor, leads the pack in fundraising, bringing in $1 million through mid-May, though $200,000 of that is a loan from her funds. Haaland comes a close second with $830,000, and former U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez raised nearly $700,000, including a $173,000 loan from himself, as of campaign finance filings through May 16.
“Deb Haaland will be a bold voice as the first Native American woman ever to serve in Congress, where she’ll stand up to Trump to fight for Medicare for all and 100 percent renewable energy,” the 7Gen Leaders voiceover said in an ad that appears on television and the Internet. The clip flashes images of windmills and a photo of Haaland posing with 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
Despite spending $260,000 to back the New Mexico candidate, 7Gen Leaders only received one donation over $200 from the state: $1,000 from Lloyd “Skip” Sayre, the chief of sales and marketing for the Laguna Development Corporation, which manages the casinos for the Laguna Pueblo tribe in New Mexico.
The rest of the $223,000 7Gen Leaders has raised as of May 23 came from tribes, such as the Puyallup Tribe in Washington, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community in Minnesota, and the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation in California. They have given $25,000 each, according to Federal Election Commission records.
7Gen Leaders plans to support other Native American candidates, as well as candidates who share tribal goals, such as improving education and the environment, but the PAC wanted to focus first on the New Mexico race, which conducts its primary on Tuesday.
“It’s empowering that tribes throughout the nation have begun to support Native American candidates, and it's a lot different than a bunch of conservative millionaires that are sitting around buying races,” said Forrester, Haaland’s campaign manager.
At least 15 U.S. congressional American Indian candidates, and more than 100 statehouse contenders, are running for office ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, according to a count by Native Vote, a project of the nonprofit National Congress of American Indians. That’s up from eight running for U.S. Congress and 90 for state legislatures in 2016.
Entering the fray
In New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District race, 7Gen Leaders is joined by several political committees and nonprofits that are largely backed by people and interests outside New Mexico.
“Outside interests have got to be looking at their chessboards, seeing that this race, number one is projected to be tight, and number two, an efficient place to spend money because the media markets are less expensive,” said Gabriel Sanchez, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico.
With Honor Fund is a super PAC that has spent nearly $596,000backing Martinez, a former U.S. attorney who was one of 46 federal prosecutors asked to resign by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in March 2017. Martinez has touted this fact, even spoofing an episode of “The Apprentice” in a campaign ad, which shows altered footage of Trump firing Martinez.
The super PAC is spending millions of dollars to support veteran candidates across the country and is backed by hefty donations from private investment company CEO Abigail Wexner ($2.5 million) and her husband, fashion retailer L Brands founder Leslie Wexner ($300,000), as well as the parents of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Miguel and Jacklyn Bezos (about $1 million combined).
VoteVets.org Action Fund, a nonprofit organization that does not disclose its donors, also boosted Martinez with $186,000 on television ads. Its latest tax filing covering mid-2016 to mid-2017 showed the group raised $6.3 million, most of it from a handful of unknown donors, Politico reported.
Martinez welcomed support for the two groups on social media, tweeting, “Congrats to @votevets and @WithHonorFund on a fantastic night for their slates of candidates. Electing progressive veterans ensures our country has representatives with the courage, integrity & fortitude to protect our country & democracy & advance our communities. Onward #nm01 #nmpol.”
“Damon Martinez is proud to have the trust and support of veterans and veterans organizations, and he's proud that unlike his top two opponents, the overwhelming majority of donations to his campaign have come from New Mexico residents who know that he is the best candidate to go to Congress to advocate for them," said Abigail Collazo, Martinez’s campaign manager.
More than 80 percent of Martinez’s donations of more than $200 are from New Mexican residents, compared to 46 percent of Haaland’s and 34 percent of Sedillo Lopez’s funds, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.
Meanwhile, Forward Not Back, a super PAC linked to the bipartisan “No Labels” political network, spent $292,000 to back Martinez — and $19,000 each against Haaland and Sedillo Lopez. The Forward Not Back super PAC is funded by megadonors such as Wendy’s Vice Chairman Peter May ($250,000); Wendy’s Chairman Nelson Peltz ($250,000) and Louis Bacon, founder of Moore Capital Management ($250,000.) Forward Not Back did not respond to a request for comment.
In a super PAC-on-super PAC fight of sorts, 7Gen Leaders released a joint statement with Latino Victory Fund, a group whose largest funder is the liberal billionaire George Soros and which poured $534,000 into boosting Sedillo Lopez, that denounced ads by Forward Not Back and With Honor Fund that attacked Haaland and Sedillo Lopez.
“It’s clear that Republicans are afraid that their eventual nominee … won’t be a match for strong, progressive female leadership,” said Cristóbal J. Alex, president of Latino Victory Fund. “New Mexico voters won’t be fooled; they know that the GOP will do anything to undermine progressives’ chances this November. We’re joining 7Gen Leaders in standing against these baseless attacks."
Not all political watchers in New Mexico are convinced this super PAC teamwork is a winning strategy.
“Neither Haaland nor Sedillo Lopez ran away with this race like it was speculated early on, as they have splintered the female vote,” said Sanchez, the University of New Mexico professor. “It left a more moderate candidate, Damon Martinez, among the top tier to potentially steal this race out of nowhere, because the women haven’t been able to separate themselves from each other.”
A first-of-its-kind super PAC
While 7Gen Leaders appears to be the first group specifically promoting Native American candidates, Native American tribes have previously donated money to super PACs.
House Majority PAC, a super PAC that aims to elect Democrats to the U.S. House, received more than $913,000 from tribes with casinos during the last three and a half years. A majority of that came from New York’s Oneida Indian Nation, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.
During the 2016 election, the Oneida Indian Nation also completely funded a super PAC called Grow the Economy, which supported failed New York congressional candidate George Phillips, who lost to Claudia Tenney in a Republican primary.
And in the 2016 election, the Washington-based Puyallup Tribe gave $250,000 to Senate Majority PAC, a super PAC that tries to elect Democrats to the U.S. Senate.
There’s also the case of Lisa Murkowski. After losing the 2010 Republican primary, she re-entered Alaska’s U.S. Senate race as a write-in candidate and won with almost 40 percent of the vote, largely because of Native American organizing.
That election, the biggest-spending super PAC, Alaskans Standing Together, boosted Murkowski and raised $1.8 million from local businesses and the Alaska Federation of Natives. It came at a time when super PACs were still in their infancy, having only become legal earlier that year thanks to the Citizens United decision and a subsequent federal court ruling in SpeechNow.org v. FEC.
7Gen Leaders’ Willie said experts told him to look at the race as an example of how Native Americans can organize and be successful.
“That’s the beauty about the work that can be done,” he said.
The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit investigative news organization based in Washington, D.C.