Both Paulette Jordan and Brad Little come from generations of leaders in Idaho.
Both have their roots in rural Idaho. Both own guns, ride horses and express a deep appreciation for the land. But the similarities end there.
Little is as establishment as an Idaho politician can get: Republican, a rancher, favorite son of small-town Emmett, pro-business former state senator and current lieutenant governor, son of a state senator and grandson of Idaho’s “sheep king,” ranching legend Andy Little.
Jordan is something different altogether: Progressive Democrat, a young tribal leader, two-term state representative, business consultant, single mother of two sons and direct descendant of famed Native American chiefs, including Chief Kamiakin of the Palouse and Chief Moses of the Columbia.
Both are quintessentially Idaho, representing different but interconnected strands of the state’s history and future.
“He’s kind of a symbol of stability, not going to bring in major changes,” said Boise State University political scientist Jaclyn Kettler. “While Paulette Jordan is exciting, through the new things she’s bringing to the race, she also may feel to some voters more risky.”
Throughout his campaign, Little has pounded home one central message: He wants Idaho to be a place where everyone’s kids and grandkids can return or stay and build careers, lives and families.
“I look at this job through one lens,” Little said, “and that is how do we create the best opportunities that our kids and our grandkids stay in Idaho.”
Jordan says simply, “I am indigenous to this place.”
“I’m about Idaho first and foremost,” she said. “We need a lot of help here. We have a lot of work to do, a lot of fixing.”
Jordan lists her priorities as Medicaid expansion; quality education; land and water preservation; and “representation for all Idahoans.” After handily defeating A.J. Balukoff, who was the 2014 Democratic nominee for governor, in the May Democratic primary, Jordan says she’s been drawing support from independents, libertarians and conservatives as well as Democrats.
“They’ve seen me as someone who’s very independent, willing to do right by the people versus what’s right by the larger interests, the moneyed few that are in our state,” she said. “They see a leader who is willing to rise against the wealthy interests, the corporate interests. Some people just don’t have the courage to do that — they go with the flow, they vote party line. They want to blend. Not me.”
When the Idaho House took up a resolution in 2016 honoring Hecla Mining Co. on its 125th anniversary, Jordan spoke out strongly against what would typically be a benign and non-binding formality, startling her House colleagues. “The behavior of the Hecla Mining Co. has had a disastrous impact,” she declared, saying the company was responsible for “poisoning the water supply and destroying the ecosystem of the Silver Valley.”
The resolution still passed, but six of Jordan’s Democratic House colleagues joined her in opposing it. She said she’s gotten pushback ever since from Hecla, a business powerhouse in North Idaho and a significant campaign contributor to Idaho legislative races.
Little won a hotly contested GOP primary in which his major foes included current Idaho 1st District GOP Congressman Raul Labrador and Boise physician and developer Tommy Ahlquist.
Long known as a likable moderate with a penchant for policy details, Little raised eyebrows by running harsh attack ads against his opponents, including one attempting to paint Labrador as having “a liberal record on illegal immigration.” A former immigration attorney, Labrador actually has made his mark as an anti-immigration hardliner in the House, where he’s sided with President Trump and sponsored far-reaching immigration crackdown bills.
Little defends the ad, saying it was an accurate portrayal of Labrador’s debate against a 2007 bill in the Idaho House. But, he said, “I still don’t like doing it.”
Little going after Labrador in that ad was how the political game is played, and he’s been in the game for a very long time.
Little, 64, earned an agribusiness degree from the University of Idaho, and while in college, he interned in the Idaho Legislature in 1976, working for the late John Andreason, then the staff director for the Legislature’s budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. “Interning in the joint committee, you learn the nuts and bolts pretty fast,” Little recalled.
He’d already been to two national GOP conventions in 1968 and 1972. In ‘72, at age 18, he carried in the flag for the state of Idaho, and in ‘68 he sat next to Ronald Reagan on the convention floor.
Little went to work on the family ranch right out of college, and when his dad, a state senator, was being treated for cancer in 1981 and 1985, Little filled in for him at the Statehouse.
Little drew the attention of Phil Batt, who later would serve as Idaho governor and tried to get the young rancher to run for the state Senate himself. Little said he was too busy with the ranch and his young kids — but as soon as Little’s youngest had graduated from high school, then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne appointed Little to an opening in the Senate.
Little said he loved representing his district, including Emmett, then a sawmill town, and later also parts of rural Canyon County. Then-Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, organized periodic meetings between the local lawmakers and local school superintendents, and Little became well acquainted with them and their issues. “I carried quite a bit of legislation for the schools,” he said.
Years later, as he runs for governor, he’s nabbed a rare endorsement for a Republican: from the Idaho Education Association, the state teachers’ union and normally a formidable campaigning force for Democratic candidates.
“I have spent quite a bit of time on education policy,” Little said. He noted that the IEA interviewed all three leading GOP hopefuls in the primary. “I think they liked my positions best,” he said. “More importantly, I told ‘em I’d listen to them.”
“Teresa and I, our best friends in Emmett, the people we raised our kids with, are all educators,” Little said. “On the sidelines of ball games and (in) discussions, that’s what we talked about, is education policy.”
Kari Overall, IEA president, said the group’s endorsement of Little in the primary runs through the general election, too. The organization “felt like the lieutenant governor would be a strong participant and an advocate for education,” she said.
At an Aug. 29 Little campaign fundraiser on the Basque Block in downtown Boise, Overall joined several other top IEA officials in attendance, wearing IEA T-shirts; the group was a co-sponsor of the event.
Little lists education, jobs and the economy, health care and taxes as his top issues; he also touts his support for gun rights and opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.
But he’s less of an ideologue and more of a policy wonk; he’s released detailed proposals, from raising starting teacher pay to $40,000 to creating a tax-protected savings account for first-time home buyers, much like a health savings account.
“This will allow young families the opportunity to save up and make a down payment on their first home,” he said.
Jordan, 38, is much newer to the Idaho political game, having made her first run for the Legislature in 2012 at age 32; she narrowly lost but came back to win the seat two years later. That early loss, she said, “tempered” her.
Growing up in Plummer on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation, Jordan remembers going to various elders’ homes after leaving the tribal school in the afternoons, to listen to their stories and help them with their tasks, from weaving and farming to making dinner. “That was my upbringing,” she said. “You sit and listen, because we’re the oral historians.”
The elders spoke the Coeur d’Alene language, and Jordan spoke it, too, as a child. She was in for a culture shock when she enrolled at academically acclaimed Gonzaga Prep in Spokane for high school and found that everything from how people expressed themselves to what they saw as funny was different.
The Coeur d’Alene language is focused on feelings and relationships, she said. Rather than saying, “I’m hungry, let’s eat,” the expression in her native language translates to “my bones ache for sustenance.”
“We don’t have the word for goodbye,” she said. Instead, it’s, “Until next time or until we see each other again.”
At Gonzaga Prep, a teacher assigned her to write a paper about her family history, prompting her to ask questions of her mother she’d never thought to ask before. “She grew up in this very humble house,” with a dirt floor, a pot-bellied stove for heat, a strong Catholic faith, lots of brothers and sisters and one new pair of shoes a year, Jordan said.
Though the community was impoverished, she said, “People did not know that they were poor. We would exchange our wheat with neighbors who had fruit.” Roots and berries were gathered and canned; fish and wild game were hunted and preserved.
Her parents and grandparents were prominent leaders in their community; her father worked in health care administration, and her uncle went to medical school to become a pediatrician while she was at Gonzaga Prep. “My uncle was always pushing me to be a doctor like him,” she said. But she was considering law school and exploring the idea of leadership.
Jordan talks often about her elders, and the legacy and direction they’ve provided her — from the time her grandmother put a microphone in her hand at a big tribal gathering when she was just 5 years old and told her to express her gratitude, to her grandfather urging her to be a leader.
“He said, ‘Before I die, I want to make sure that you are a leader of our people,’” Jordan recalled, laughing and adding, “No pressure.”
“He would say, ‘We raised you to be this way to make it better for all of us.’”
After turning down basketball scholarships to other schools, she accepted an academic scholarship to the University of Washington, where several family members had gone before her. While there, she played basketball but also became involved in student government and advocating for minority rights.
Returning home after college, she became the youngest Coeur d’Alene Tribal Council member ever elected and went on to win two terms in the Idaho Legislature. If elected governor, she’d be not only Idaho’s first female governor, but the first Native American governor elected in any state.
“My point is to inspire and to get people to engage in this participatory government,” Jordan said. “That is ultimately the message.”
But she’s also been speaking out strongly against environmental degradation and decrying “corporate interests” and their impact on Idaho; she’s made a point of declining corporate campaign donations. In her primary race, her biggest source of funding was from Native American tribes; she said she’s focusing her fundraising now on individuals.
“We’ve had over 12,000 people give on the average $40 per person,” she said.
Though Jordan has been active in the Democratic party over the years, she said she never felt like a strong partisan. “I always vote straight people, straight Idahoan,” she said. But, she said, “I didn’t see the Republican Party being very pro-conservation or very pro-local control or pro-people. I saw corporate welfare and corporate interests always at the top.”
“I saw the Democratic party as an open space that is, that really should be the people party,” she said. “It’s more towards inclusivity.”
Idaho’s Republican-dominated Legislature has been staunch in its opposition to loosening the state’s strict laws on marijuana. Jordan, by contrast, strongly favors legalizing medical marijuana. She said she also favors legalizing recreational marijuana but would prefer to leave that to voters to enact by initiative.
“Drug crimes are on the rise, but they shouldn’t be held in prison for that,” she said, calling incarceration of drug users akin to “captive slave labor.” “I don’t think that’s a responsible way for us to be as leaders of our society,” she said.
Jordan has racked up endorsements from many of the labor unions in Idaho, including the AFL-CIO, and was surprised to learn that the Idaho Education Association was backing Little, a decision she said “baffles” her.
“What they don’t see or maybe have not taken the time to see is my platform on education, which is far superior to my opposition,” she said. She’s calling for higher teacher pay; more resources and innovation in public schools; opposing vouchers or other moves toward privatization; and universal, state-funded pre-K.
Little has spoken out in support of pre-K education, as well, though he’s favored a more modest move to make funds available to districts and let them decide whether preschool or other programs are their priorities.
“As you know, the relationship between the IEA and the majority party has been up and down over the years,” Little said. “I told ‘em we’re going to have a ‘children’s cabinet’ that will meet on a regular basis, and they’ll be part of it.”
Jordan has followed her own path in her campaign for governor, eschewing such party customs as attending the party’s election-night watch party in the primary in favor of hosting her own a few blocks away. She’s had periodic turmoil among her campaign staff, even as the historic nature of her run has drawn national attention.
She says she feels called to remedy what she believes is an Idaho moving off the right track.
“Sometimes people get busy and they don’t see how the laws impact them or how Idaho’s changing,” Jordan said, “but they feel it — they feel it when they go to the grocery store or they feel it when they get their paycheck … or they can’t go hunt and fish any more. Slowly it’s creeping into people’s lives in the worst ways possible.”
Also on the ballot for governor are Constitution Party candidate Walter Bayes and Libertarian Party candidate Bev “Angel” Boeck; neither has been actively campaigning.