Paulette Jordan 

From tribal politics to state politics

Rep. Paulette Jordan didn't have political ambitions; rather, political ambitions found her. Born and raised in the small North Idaho town of Plummer, she attended the University of Washington to play basketball but became involved in Native American and political issues on campus. Since then her political rise has been rapid: She's currently serving her third term as the gaming co-chair for the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, has been elected twice as Idaho's at-large delegate for the Democratic National Convention and served as the youngest elected member of the Coeur d'Alene Tribal Council. In her first term in the Idaho House, she has been a vocal supporter of House Bill 02, which would have added "gender identity" and "sexual orientation" to Idaho's human rights law. She took a break from the legislative session to talk with Boise Weekly about moving from tribal to state politics, her inspirations and why it's so important to "add the words."

How did you become politically active?

When I went to the University of Washington, I went there to play basketball but I veered into the political arena, getting involved with the Seattle City Council, the university president and vice provost regarding Native American affairs. What was fun about it, I wasn't veering into politics purposefully. There was a need. When you have ideas, people want you to play those ideas out. I didn't expect to be in a leadership role, but it went from one position to another. Maybe my leadership, my direction, my vision—people just respected that.

You ran for the Legislature on issues of education and economic development. Can you speak to your interest in those issues?

When you're on the tribal council ... you have to be a CEO. You're expected to be a professional of education. You're doing a lot of work with the courts and social services. You play so many roles that you are required to have a general understanding of everything, and of course you want to grow your in-depth understanding of everything. I would say the greatest insight I ever received being on the council was that you should definitely know more about business.

Why make the jump from the Coeur d'Alene Tribal Council to the House of Representatives?

You want to see things grow and get better. You want to see improvements amongst your people. When you're connected to my land, you're connected to my belief that I want to see your life get better. Tribes all across the board have that general understanding and mentality. You want to see people of all walks of life have a good life. You want to see a balance in the environment. I felt that same way growing up through my mentors. Local community members have always kept me included. I was really drawn in when Obama ran for president. I was a fan of JFK initially when my grandmother was always talking about John Kennedy.

What was it about these presidents that inspired you?

I started off loving John Kennedy because my grandmother loved him so much, and my grandmother was raised Catholic. John Kennedy was Catholic, and I think there was some connection there. I ended up learning more about him as I grew up. Just how [Barack Obama] was—his speaking style, he was humble, he had a good sense of humor. I've met him before, that's what sold me, because he's very genuine.

Do you think President Obama has delivered on the promises he made in 2008?

Absolutely. Especially from the tribal perspective. A lot of people don't give him credit for what he's done. The Lilly Ledbetter [Fair Pay Act of 2009] balancing the scale for women, trying to create more protections for women—he was a great advocate for that. There seems to me to be so much that he's done that people overlook. I don't know if it's because of the color of his skin or because he's a Democrat. He's young, as well. I think leadership should be given credit for leadership.

What was the genesis of your passion on 'adding the words'?

I feel very passionately about it. My concern, and, of course, my support, began a few years ago. To me, it doesn't just stem from the people around me; it stems from society as a whole. Every one of us can speak with some level of impact with discrimination, and no one of us can speak without hypocrisy. We need to be leaders of the people and not pick and choose who we want to understand. When being asked to speak, I felt that it was an absolute necessity. It's about equality and fairness. We certainly need to carry that out. Even with the bill ... there was nothing that said we'd lessen anyone's religious freedoms and rights. That bill itself wouldn't have impacted my own businesses or associates' businesses.

Rep. Brent Crane asked many at the hearings in January to respond to a question about how adding the words would impact business owners. How would you have responded to that question?

Every single business owner that I know wrote letters of support in favor of the bill. Even [conservative billionaire Melaleuca owner Frank] Vandersloot came out in support of the bill, although he was concerned with the "gender identity" part. I respect everyone's voice, but I think, ultimately, you're impacting a lot of people and you should do your research. I was hearing all the voices. It would not hurt a business or restrict religions.

That was a party-line vote. Were you hoping that the testimony would have swayed some from the other side of the aisle to vote in favor of adding the words?

Absolutely. You always hope you'll be able to draw out the humanity and empathy in others. Especially the stories that had to do with suicide or the deaths and the harassment and the beatings. I felt that maybe, at some point, it would pull at some of their heart strings. It didn't work out that way, but it reached out to some in a good way, and they mentioned it toward the end that they would like to see this bill happen.

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