Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Aiming to Make Electoral History

If she wins, Wisconsin's Ada Deer would be the first native American woman in Congress

EARLY on a sunny, Indian-summer Saturday morning here, a woman in black tennis shoes and a raspberry-colored dress stretches her hand out to meet the throngs of shoppers circling the state capital during the weekly farmer's market.

Brimming with enthusiasm, she fires off greetings and campaign slogans.

About these ads

"Hello, I'm Ada Deer, and I'm running for Congress," she says, shaking the hand of an elderly gentleman.

"When I get to Washington, I will hit the ground running. No on-the-job training for me," she tells two young women who have stopped to offer their volunteer services. "Send me a little money?" Making history

In Wisconsin's Second Congressional District, which includes Madison, Ms. Deer is trying to make political history. If she beats first-term Republican incumbent Scott Klug for this House seat, she will become the first native American woman elected to Congress.

Deer, a social worker and a lecturer at the University of Wisconsin, has held numerous leadership positions in her tribe, the Menominees, and in other Indian groups. In the 1970s she helped lead two years of lobbying in Congress to restore the Menominee Nation to federal tribal status. She says this success convinced her that grass-roots tactics work.

Deer's campaign is about as grass roots as a campaign can get. Her office is several makeshift rooms in the front of an unassuming building a few miles from the capital. Nearly 400 volunteers, only a few of whom are paid, work seven days a week. Deer has proudly touted her refusal to accept money from political-action committees.

With help from feminist Gloria Steinem, she raised $210,000 in the months leading up to the September primary, which she won in a surprising 60-to-40 victory against a better-financed, well-liked opponent.

Like many campaigns around the country where women are running against male incumbents, Deer is hoping an anti-insider, year-of-the-woman sentiment will help boost her into office.

About these ads

Many people are attracted to Deer as a fresh personality, says Dennis Dresang, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin. But "this race is not the kind of more-common situation where we have an old white male who's being bounced out by a woman outsider. It's got a new-face white male."

Mr. Klug, a freshman Republican who two years ago booted 30-year Democratic veteran Robert Kastenmeier out of office by a skin-tight margin, is a moderate trying to hang on to his seat in a traditionally Democratic district.

A news anchor before he was elected, Klug "presents himself well, is articulate, and has done a very careful job of trying to ... distance himself from Bush," Mr. Dresang says.

Klug also has tried to distance himself from Congress's reputation as beset by waste and corruption. He is one of seven freshmen congressmen who exposed the House bank scandal, though he is said to have bounced a couple of checks himself. Peace dividend

Both candidates are pro-choice, an important issue here. But they differ on such things as what to do with money from the peace dividend. Klug advocates that savings from that should go into reducing the federal deficit, while Deer believes most of that money should be put into health care, education, and jobs.

During an interview in her office, Deer says she believes she can make a difference because "I will be one person, but I will be a loud person .... I'm an organizer.

"Since I would be the only Indian woman in the House, I will have a wonderful opportunity to assist Indian people and other people of color," she says. "I want to empower everyone. We need to help people get jobs, overcome discrimination, improve the education system."

Although no independent polls have been taken, Klug is seen as the favorite in this race, and his campaign chest has significantly more money. Deer recently has been criticized for softening her position on PAC money and for fund-raising efforts out of state.

While he concedes that Deer is a tough challenger, Klug says the anti-incumbent mood that may be sweeping the rest of the nation doesn't apply here. "I don't think [that] weapon works very well against freshmen, either as Republicans or Democrats," he says. "I think that folks are bright enough to say that two years isn't a lot of time."

Many voters find him appealing. "He's right in the center - not right wing," says Rosemarie Blancke, a Madison resident. "I think he can do more for the district; he's been around more and knows the ins and outs."

But Ken Helgerson, a tall, lanky man who sells produce across from Deer's booth at the farmer's market says, "It's tough for voters because Scott's a fine person. But I will vote for Ada because I think it's time to represent all of society. More diversity means different viewpoints."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.