If not for the American Indian population, which comprises 13 percent of Bemidji, John Persell probably would not have won his Minnesota House seat.
Persell, a Democrat who won by 11 votes, is just one illustration of the ascendance this year of American Indian voters — and candidates.
Lt. Gov.-elect Peggy Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Nation, won one of the most high-profile seats. She was part of a wave of Indian candidates running this year.
“We’ve been doing the work as far as voter registration and turnout work. The natural next step is, we’re influencing elections, now we should run for office,” she told me last week.
Gov. Tim Walz chose Flanagan as a running mate more than a year ago, and she’s a trusted adviser.
Flanagan is not alone among Indian women entering politics this year. She counts 54 nationwide who ran for offices, including legislative seats, Congress, governor and other statewide offices, with 28 victorious.
“When native women see a problem, they step up and try and fix it,” she said.
Even if Walz had lost, Minnesota would have an Indian lieutenant governor. His opponent Jeff Johnson’s running mate was retired Marine Corps officer Donna Bergstrom of the Red Lake Nation.
“[Indian voters] could relate to both of the candidates,” said LeRoy Fairbanks, a councilman with the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe.
Campaign contributions linked to tribal casinos are nothing new in Minnesota or elsewhere.
But votes are more important than money in elections, and voting by Indians surged this year, at least according to a bit of anecdotal data.
Cody Whitebear and Blake Johnson of the Prairie Island Indian Community said this year they organized the most significant get-out-the-vote operation in recent history.
On the Red Lake Indian Reservation, turnout was up more than 100 percent compared to the last midterm, Flanagan said.
Over in North Dakota, turnout reportedly surged in Indian Country even in the face of a voter ID law that critics said discriminated against Indian voters.
Fairbanks told me he credited the Walz campaign with early engagement, in contrast to previous years when campaigns would arrive late to beg for votes.
Flanagan said the ticket made a point of showing up, and they did so again on their recent “listening tour,” visiting two Dakota and two Ojibwe communities.
“The tone of the conversation was, what are issues important to you? How can we make it part of our campaign and make it a part of what we’re going to do?” Fairbanks said. The campaign then amplified the conversations in campaign literature and on social media.
Minnesota’s American Indian population is 1.4 percent, according to the Census Bureau, so you may ask if doing all that work is worth it given the relatively low share of voters.
Ask Persell. He’ll be at the State Capitol in January.
J. Patrick Coolican 651-925-5042 Twitter: @jpcoolican firstname.lastname@example.org