Courtesy Debora Juarez Flickr
Voters were drawn by Juarez’s “sheer authenticity.”

She Won! Debora Juarez, Blackfeet, Is New Seattle City Council Member

Richard Walker

The voting deadline was in an hour, and Debora Juarez was herding her family to head out to her election night event at the Seattle Drum School of Music, ready to accept whatever voters had decided.

She was proud of her campaign, confident she had done everything she could to engage with residents and talk about her plan for the future, but “I don’t take anything for granted,” she said. “And whatever happens, I’ll be okay.”

An hour later, she learned her hard work of the last eight months had paid off: In early returns, Juarez received 7,051 votes to Methodist pastor Sandy Brown’s 4,072 votes – 63.08 to 36.43 percent and a sure election to the Seattle City Council, District 5, November 3.

Juarez, a citizen of the Blackfeet Nation who grew up on the Puyallup Reservation, is believed to be the first citizen of an indigenous nation elected to the council in the city’s 150-year history. She is a former King County Superior Court judge and former director of the Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs.

Seattle government will reflect the diversity of its residents when the final votes are counted. Also elected to the City Council: civil rights lawyer Lorena Gonzalez, Mexican-American, District 9. Reelected: socialist activist Kshama Sawant, India-born software engineer and economics professor, District 3; and, likely, Bruce Harrell, who identifies as being of African, Japanese and Choctaw ancestry. Election night, he was leading by 900 votes for the District 2 position.

In addition, voters also overwhelmingly elected educator Scott Pinkham, Nez Perce, to the Seattle School Board. Pinkham is reportedly the first Native American elected to the school board; that wasn’t confirmed, but fellow educator Matt Remle, Hunkpapa Lakota, a Seattle resident, said he “cannot remember a Native ever being on the school board.”

The Stranger, an alternative newspaper, wrote of Pinkham, a parent of two girls in public schools, a member of the Urban Native Education Alliance, and a University of Washington lecturer, “[He will] be an advocate for less standardized testing, better pay for teachers, and implementing a long overdue, historically accurate Tribal curriculum (i.e., getting rid of the colonialist retellings of how the United States was created). ‘I want to be an advocate for those voices that often get muffled,’ he told us.”

Advocates for change in Seattle say diversity in government will help bolster multicultural understanding and build social justice in the nation’s 20th largest city.

Of Seattle’s 652,429 residents, 5.4 percent identify as Indigenous – Native American, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander – according to the U.S. Census. That number grows to 9.3 percent if you include those of Mexican ancestry, many of whom consider themselves to be Indigenous people.

There are challenges in Seattle. In 2011, after the police shooting death of First Nations carver John T. Williams and the police brutality of a Mexican-American man, the U.S. Justice Department found that the Seattle Police Department had engaged in “a pattern of constitutional violations in its use of force.”

RELATED: 7 Seconds in Seattle: John T. Williams’ Murder Continues to Inspire Activism and Change

And in 2014, Seattle Public Schools dismantled the once highly successful American Indian Heritage School program, moved its students to other schools, and demolished the school building to make way for a new K-8 school. The school site contains a spring that is of cultural and historical importance to the Duwamish people.

RELATED: Native American School Building Won’t Get Landmark Status, Will Be Demolished

As a council member, Juarez said she’ll promote investment in the district’s urban economic centers; work for improvements in transit, as well as bicycle and pedestrian ways, to help people get to and from jobs and school; advocate for a “fair share” of city resources for the district; and find ways to eradicate disparities between the city's neighborhoods in education, health, housing, and economic opportunity.

Juarez wants to add a second light-rail station and construct a bike-pedestrian bridge over Interstate 5 in North Seattle; promote the construction of mixed-income housing and allow increased housing density near transit centers and other services, and relax rules limiting the construction of “mother-in-law” apartments; and promote the use of drug courts and diversion programs to break the cycle of addiction that often leads to crime.

Juarez may get a boost in her transportation-improvement goals: Voters approved a property tax levy that will raise $930 million over nine years for expansion of bus routes, bikeways, sidewalk and road repair (many streets in her neighborhood don’t have sidewalks), and other work.

Attorney Gabriel S. Galanda, Round Valley Tribes, who worked with Juarez at the Seattle law firm Williams Kastner, said voters were drawn by Juarez’s “sheer authenticity -- Debora's genuineness as a Native/Latina woman and single, working mother, who has overcome all odds since the day she was born. Debora has inspired other Natives, women and minorities to pursue their dreams no matter the odds, and to not cower to fear or insecurity regarding mistakes from one's past.”

Debora Juarez At A Glance

Growing up: Present at the occupation of the former Fort Lawton in Seattle, now the home of the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation and Daybreak Star Cultural Center; participated in the Fish Wars on the Puyallup River in the early 1970s; participated in the Puyallup Tribe’s eviction of the state from the former Cushman Indian Hospital.

Education: Bachelor's degree, Western Washington University; juris doctor, University of Puget Sound.

Career: Public defender; staff attorney for Evergreen Legal Services’ Native American Project; King County Superior Court judge; executive director, Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs; attorney at Williams Kastner, providing legal and financial counsel to indigenous governments in the areas of corporate structure, debt financing, economic development, gaming, natural resources, and Tribal-State inter-local agreements.

Personal: Two daughters; single mom; two-time cancer survivor; 25-year resident of her council district.

Others in positions of leadership

Other Seattle Native Americans in positions of grassroots or government leadership: social documentarian Tracy Rector, Seminole/Choctaw, a member of the city Arts Commission. Educator/journalist Matt Remle, Hunkpapa Lakota, who successfully advocated for adoption of Indigenous Peoples Day resolutions in Seattle; and Sarah Sense-Wilson, Oglala Lakota, chairwoman of the Urban Native Education Alliance. (Attorney Ethel Branch, Navajo, was co-chairwoman of the city’s Human Rights Commission until she resigned in May to become attorney general of the Navajo Nation.)

Native Americans in positions of government leadership in the state include Maia Bellon, Mescalero Apache, director of the Department of Ecology and the first Native American to lead a cabinet-level department; Chris Stearns, Navajo, chairman of the Washington State Gambling Commission; state Sen. John McCoy, Tulalip Tribes; Rep. Jeff Morris, Tsimshian; and Rep. Jay Rodne, Bad River Band of Chippewa.

Native Americans from Washington who have a national profile: Swinomish Chairman Brian Cladoosby, beginning his second term as president of the National Congress of American Indians; Suquamish Chairman Leonard Forsman, an Obama appointee to the U.S. Advisory Council on Historic Preservation; and Rion Ramirez, Turtle Mountain Chippewa/Pascua Yaqui, general counsel of the Suquamish Tribe’s Port Madison Enterprises, an Obama appointee to the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships.

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