Paulette Jordan, current candidate for the U.S. Senate and former candidate for governor of Idaho, stopped in the Wood River Valley last weekend for a town hall event in Ketchum’s town square.
Jordan, a Democrat who is challenging longtime Republican incumbent Sen. Jim Risch for his seat, spoke to the Idaho Mountain Express about campaigning in the time of COVID-19, her opponent and her 2018 gubernatorial campaign against Gov. Brad Little.
A member of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and a native of north Idaho, Jordan served on the Coeur d’Alene Tribal Council before running for the Idaho House of Representatives in 2014. She served one term and was elected to another before leaving the Legislature in 2018 to run for governor. Jordan won the Democratic nomination in 2018, but ultimately lost to Little in the general election.
Two years later, Jordan is back on Idaho’s political scene, again seeking statewide office. Here’s what she had to say to the Idaho Mountain Express. (This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.)
Why the U.S. Senate, why Sen. Jim Risch, and why now?
There’s such a great urgency to bringing our country back together again after so much corruption, hate and divisiveness—so much corporate corruption and greed. Now is more important than ever. For me, it’s an opportunity to be represented once again.
I see a great weakness in Sen. Risch. This is a man who has only served corporations, only served himself. Because the system is broken in so many ways and not serving the American people, especially people facing financial crisis, most of us are one crisis away from financial ruin. There’s just a lot at stake. For anyone to sit out and say you’re not going to vote, that’s a vote against yourself and a vote in favor of corporate corruption. I’m standing up at the most important time. I know this is the time because we worked very hard in 2018 to lay the groundwork.
This isn’t your first time running in a statewide race against a well-known Republican opponent; a household name in Idaho politics. What makes you optimistic that the outcome of this race will be different than the gubernatorial race in 2018?
Risch is not a household name. He does nothing and he hasn’t done anything that anyone can be proud of. He’s more of a villain. He’s a villain that everyone loves to hate. He’s not a friendly guy. And because he’s so unlikable, has no charisma or talent or ability, no one knows him. So it’s really hard to run up against a shadow. When you have someone who hasn’t stood for anything, who has no values, it’s really hard to pit yourself against them. Really, we’re just trying to ensure that everyone hears our message and that there’s a better option. I’m a real human being, a leader, rather than someone who just has an R [next to his name]. I don’t need an R, I don’t need a D. I just need people to know that I come from a place here in the state, I grew up on the land, I’m a mother, a gun-owner, I have the same values and principles that they all revere. People who may have grown up Republican, they can see that there’s a better option than my opposition. The basic challenge is just making sure that they know that.
The Risch campaign offered the following response to Jordan’s comments: “This is the kind of name-calling and vitriol that fuels the polarization of America. These comments are a gross mischaracterization of the Senator’s long and distinguished history of service and leadership.” The campaign pointed to two articles highlighting Risch’s work in politics: a 2019 profile by the Idaho Press titled “Idaho Sen. Risch has a quiet but key role on national stage” and a 2006 editorial published in the Idaho Mountain Express, which describes Risch as a “bold and unpredictable champion of protecting the state’s environmental treasures.”
Are there any aspects of your 2018 campaign that you would have handled differently in retrospect, or ways you’re handling your campaign differently this time around?
After the [2020 campaign] launch our tour was set to go across the entire state, and then everything was shut down [because of COVID]. We had to shift everything online and do everything virtual. Now that we’ve become acclimated to doing everything online and doing everything virtually, we see the reach we can have. Unfortunately, most of Idaho is not accessible on WiFi or on rural broadband. That means we have to work much harder to go to the homes, get into those communities, to reach people who don’t have WiFi or cell service. I learned that in 2018 and that’s why we are seeking as many volunteers as possible to go knock on doors [in 2020].
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your campaign?
There are so many challenges that are presented, of course. But you have an opportunity, because people are looking for leadership. They know now, more than ever, that leadership matters. They see how important it is at the local level and they see the impacts at the national level.
It’s also an opportunity to reset our health care system. It’s an opportunity to reset the way our representation looks. I’m running to make history in this state as the first indigenous woman to represent Idaho. For me, I see this as an opportunity to reset everything, from politics to local governance to the climate crisis to health care.
Medicaid expansion was a focus of your gubernatorial campaign in 2018. You’ve also named health care one of your top priorities in 2020. How has your perspective on our health care system evolved since you ran for governor?
One of the greatest challenges [leading up to the 2018 election] was educating voters that expanding Medicaid would save Idahoans, taxpayers and the government [money] and would be a net plus for those caught in the Medicaid gap. It was great to see people on both sides of the aisle, not in the statehouse but the voters, come to the polls and vote in favor of expanding Medicaid.
I think with COVID, having to address this pandemic locally and nationally, we’re seeing a lot of people now realize how important health care is and how we need to restructure health care. They’re starting to see that nutritional prescriptions are extremely positive because it comes down less to the drugs we put in our system and more to how we eat, and food nutrition is going to be essential to our livelihood. The future of health care, for me, needs to reverse back to being a people-centered health care system versus a profit-driven system that works against the people.
We do know that health care is still a number one priority, not only in Idaho but across the country. We can make sure that there are options, but they are affordable and accessible. For me, as a fiscal conservative, I think the other issue is that we spend way too much on the pharmaceutical industry and health insurance companies. I could see us cutting trillions of dollars from what we expend in taxpayer dollars on chronic illness by simply implementing holistic solutions. I want to see functional medicine applied as a solution within our current health care system. And I think that could go really well with “Medicare for all,” which the next generations are seeking. I think there’s really an opportunity, once we flip the Senate, to show how this can all come together.
You mentioned “Medicare for all,” which was a divisive talking point in the Democratic presidential primaries this year. Where do you stand on single-payer health care?
I like that there are options. We definitely want to get back to where [the health care system] is publicly owned by people versus privately owned and run by health insurance companies. When the government is formulating sensible practices and sensible solutions, when they’re formulating cost-effective health care, that’s where it helps everyone. Because it is a right. I wouldn’t see it as a need for the health insurance companies to have their say. While we should have universal health care, we should also make sure that we prioritize the collection of data, because the collection of data is what drives a good health care system.
What would you like to see the federal government do to serve Idahoans who are struggling financially because of the pandemic?
I think we have to hold our representatives accountable. Risch is not being held accountable. The challenge is when you have someone there who is only defending billionaires and corporations, it works primarily against the people who are one step away from financial ruin. Most of our people are like that. It saddens me to know that even in a great place like Ketchum, it’s vastly populated by those who are increasingly in that population. We have this hidden community, which is really now everyone because of COVID. If we don’t have representation at the national level to bring back resources to our communities, we’re going to continue to struggle with the wealth gap.
[Sen. Risch] should be doing his job, working on bipartisan legislation to support the people here at home. We need funding. We need to inject money into our middle class. Our national representatives are just not paying attention and not in the same boat as we all are. If they’re only looking out for billionaires and corporations, that means impending doom for the rest of us here.
The federal government has largely left the country’s coronavirus response up to individual states. Here in Idaho, Gov. Brad Little has said that he will leave future shutdowns and mask measures up to local governments and health districts. What do you see as the role of local control in a pandemic like this?
Leadership demands taking action. When you’re elected governor, that means you’re responsible for every single person in Idaho. If you want to diffuse that responsibility and not take accountability, you’re in action saying you don’t want to be governor.
I do believe in local control. But if you’re going to declare a pandemic, you must be responsible for taking action to protect everyone. I’m seeing local leadership step up, but we should have had a leader at the statewide level also step up for us and protect us. Now we’re seeing more and more deaths, more and more cases across our state. That’s going to really hit hard for the local clinics and the medical providers. When is it enough?
We don’t know yet whether, if elected, you would serve under a President Trump or a President Biden. Have you thought about how your role or approach as a Senator might change depending on who’s in the White House?
No. I’ve worked with both sides of the aisle and I’m very familiar with the way both sides think. It is unfortunate to see the strong divide and that they haven’t been coming together to work across the aisle. There are very few pieces of legislation you see with bipartisan support. I think with having a sincere heart and message in your approach to the left and the right, I’ve seen some success. Because people know that the indigenous voice like mine is not partisan. We’re not loyal to any one party because we’re loyal to the party of the people, and being loyal to the people means being about action, being about resolution, making sure we address the issues. I think both sides respect that. We can find ways to come together. My goal will be to bring both sides together and knowing that I have a unique perspective being part of the first nations of this land. I know that regardless of who’s in the White House, I have a prime position to be a part of both sides of the aisle and I can see my role as bringing both sides together.