Denise Juneau Says No to US Senate Run in Montana

Rob Capriccioso, Indian Country Today Media Network

Indians and Democrats have joined forces in being disappointed that Denise Juneau, current Montana State Superintendent of Public Instruction, has decided against running for U.S. Senate.

Juneau, a citizen of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, announced August 5 that now is not the right time for her to seek higher office.

“It is not very often that you are presented with an opportunity to change what Congressional representation looks like in our state,” Juneau said in a statement posted on her Facebook page. “It is the kind of opportunity that warrants serious consideration.

“After much deliberation, I have decided not to seek the U.S. House or Senate seats in 2014. I sincerely appreciate the outpouring of support and encouragement I have received from people all across Montana and the country. It has been very humbling to be considered for such a leadership role representing our great state; however, my decision not to run for Congress is the right one for me at this time.

“I love serving as the Superintendent of Public Instruction for the state of Montana and am proud of the progress I have made over the last four years.”

Some Juneau supporters, wanting to see an unabashed American Indian woman get elected to the U.S. Congress, thought the time was ripe now. They will have to wait and see if she will run for higher office in the future.

“An Indian woman in Congress would bring an invaluable perspective to D.C.,” said Holly Cook Macarro, a tribal lobbyist with Ietan Consulting. “To get there, we need more Native women in the electoral political pipeline: running for school boards, city council, county supervisors, state legislatures, and active in their local political infrastructure. We seem to see a lot of Indian candidates who want to immediately make a run for Congress without having held previous elected office, but we need to earn it and lay down the groundwork, just like everyone else.”

It’s easy to see what would have made Juneau an attractive contender in a state with a considerable tribal constituency. She was the first American Indian woman elected to statewide executive office in Montana when she won her current position in 2008, and she has been one of a small number of successful Native Americans nationwide to win elected office on the state level. In other words, she knows how to win, and she has already built a pathway of support.

If Juneau, who was raised on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in the state, would have run, many votes and campaign finance donations would have been likely from the 12 state- and federally-recognized tribes in Montana. Her support for education and youth initiatives has also made her attractive beyond Indian country over her past four years in office.

National Democrats have been eyeing Juneau for a possible run for Senate since Democrat Max Baucus announced his retirement this spring. His decision leaves a seat open in the Senate that has been spoken for since the 1970s, and few Democrats in the conservative-leaning state have signaled a desire to try to replace him.

Former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, EMILY’s List President Stephanie Schriock, and state Insurance Commissioner Monica Lindeen have also recently announced their decisions not to run on the Democratic ticket. Lt. Gov. John Walsh is reportedly still considering.

Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Daines is likely to run, according to local media.

After Schweitzer – whom many political observers considered the Democratic frontrunner – announced in July that he was not running, Juneau seriously considered it, telling the local press that she felt “obligated to think about it,” and saying that she had queried her friends and family on whether she should.

Some supporters told her behind the scenes that it was going to be a difficult race to win, and they predicted she would spend most of her time fundraising, rather than focusing on the issues.

After her close election in 2008, where she prevailed by just 2,231 votes, it was probably wise to sit this one out, building support for the future, according to some informal advisers.

“While disappointing to the many of us who supported a run, it is not a total surprise to see Denise stay out of the Montana Senate race,” Cook Macarro added. “Montana is a tough state for Democrats, and our victories there have been hard won over the years.”

Even though Juneau decided against running for now, Democrats note that her star is still on the rise, which can only help in the future. They note that she was tapped by the Democratic National Committee to give a speech about education at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, and she was well received in that effort.

“Teachers are sometimes the only ones who tell our children they can go from an Indian reservation to the Ivy League, from the home of a struggling single mom to the White House,” Juneau said in one widely quoted part of that speech.

Her mom, Carol Juneau, helped pave the way for her daughter in politics, having served as a member of the Montana House of Representatives from 1998 through 2007, and then serving as a Democratic Party member of the Montana Senate since 2007.

The elder Juneau told Indian Country Today in 2008 that she wants more women – especially American Indian women – to succeed in U.S. politics.

“My daughter is running this year,” Carol Juneau told ICT in 2008, before her daughter won her current post. “I am very proud of her. She’s going to do great things.”