Claudia Kauffman was the first woman Native American elected to the Washington State Senate. She was raised in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Seattle where her mother, Josephine, championed American Indian rights in the area. Kauffman, who is of the Nez Perce Tribe, spent her legislative career (2006-2010) serving the 47th district, taking a particular interest in issues of early childhood learning and education. Kauffman also founded the Native Action Network, a non-profit that supports female Native Americans. She lives in Kent with her husband and children.
An Activist Family
Claudia Kauffman was born in Idaho in 1959 to John and Josephine Kauffman. She was the youngest of seven children, and Kauffman's family lived in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Seattle after moving to the area when Claudia was an infant. "Beacon Hill is a very diverse community," Kauffman said of her childhood in south Seattle. "Growing up, all my neighbors were all these different races. I actually thought everyone grew up having such a variety and diversity in your community" (ColorsNW).
An interest in child welfare, later to be a hallmark of her political career, was apparent in Kauffman's household at an early age. Remembering her childhood, Kauffman said:
"We lived in a small three bedroom house in the south end of Seattle. But ... we always had room for more kids. That was the values I was raised in. We always had room for more kids" (Dyson).
Her parents, both members of the Nez Perce Tribe, were politically active during Kauffman's childhood. Her mother, Josephine Moody Kauffman, was born in Kamiah, Idaho, but spent the last three decades of her life in Seattle. She instilled a sense of civic duty in her children with her active participation in the Seattle Indian Center, the Seattle Indian Women's Service League, and the Seattle American Indian Elders group.
Josephine Kauffman was also was one of the protestors who took over Fort Lawton in 1970, seeking to establish an Indian cultural center. Those demonstrations eventually led to both an Indian cultural center and the development of Discovery Park on portions of Fort Lawton's land in Seattle's Magnolia neighborhood.
Education and Involvement
Claudia Kauffman attended Cleveland High School and later studied at the University of Idaho and the Oglala Lakota College. Bernie Whitebear (1937-2000), who was an instrumental figure in the Seattle civil rights movement and who led the Fort Lawton invasion, became a mentor to Kauffman when she was a young woman. She recalls:
"The first time he took me to Olympia was in the 1980s. He was going to do some lobbying and had set up appointments. But his administrative staff couldn't go with him, so he called me. I'd known him since I was tiny. At this time, I was in my early 20s. He said, 'I'll pick you up at your office.' So I went to Olympia and I was just following him around. We went into a Senator's office and he said: 'Here's a need in my community. Here's how I believe we can fix it. Here's how much it's going to cost. Here are the reasons we should fund it.' Then we went to the next office and he said the same thing. Then the next ... . Finally, we got to an office and he said to the legislator: 'Here's Claudia Kauffman. She has something to tell you!' Then he just turned to me and I had to speak! In the end we walked out and I hit him on his arm. But he said, 'See. It was easy. We are people. They are people. We are having a conversation. There is no need to be intimidated'" (Washblog).
In 1999, Kauffman worked as a private consultant to the Oglala Sioux Tribe, coordinating the visit of President Bill Clinton (b. 1947) to the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. And before her political career got fully underway, Kauffman was a foster parent to 10 children. Her passion for child welfare has stayed with her:
"Knowing and understanding things as a mother -- as a mother who cares deeply about her children and their education -- I've been to all the parent meetings, I've been to the classroom, I've baked the cookies. Knowing and understanding, when you get to that local level, you start to realize the little tiny things you can do to help out. And I thought, I could do more, on a broader scale" (Dyson).
Kauffman and Iris Friday, a member of the Tlingit tribe, founded the Native Action Network in 2002. The nonprofit organization's goal is to "provide an environment in which Native women daughters, mothers, granddaughters, and great-grandmothers can interact with one another, share knowledge, and honor Native women making a difference in their communities" (enduringspirit.org).
A Run for Office
In 2006, Kauffman decided to run for state senator in the 47th District as the Democratic nominee, and she defeated ex-Kent police chief Ed Crawford in the primary. Only 1 percent of the constituents in the 47th district were American Indian. Kauffman recalls:
"I hadn't run for office ever, in my life. The opportunity was there, and I had a real grassroots campaign. I wasn't the selected one for the party, or for anything else. I was just out there marching along, saying 'I'm going to run for this office' ... . I'm sorry to say, I was asked once -- when I first ran -- a reporter said, 'Are you American Indian? How can anyone expect you to represent the rest of us?' And I said, 'If you go on that theory, how can anyone else represent me?'" (Dyson).
She collected endorsements from former governor Mike Lowry (1939-2017), King County Executive Ron Sims (b. 1948), and state Senator Jeanne Kohl-Wells (b. 1942), as well as The Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Her opponent in the general election was Republican Mike Riley. Kauffman was elected with 52 percent of the vote, becoming the first female Native American to serve in the Washington state senate.
Kauffman's interest in education issues was apparent even before her senatorial run. She served on Antioch University's Board of Visitors, was appointed by the governor to the Evergreen State College Board of Trustees, and served as chairman of the Kent School District's Indian Education Parent Committee. When asked about her passion for education, Kauffman notes that there is more than one reason she's drawn to the issue.
"I can give you the standard answer, that the more education you get the better person you become, and then you contribute to society and it promotes economic development, which creates ... well you know, that’s the big, big picture. But what I really look at, what you get back down to, is the lower performing schools, the low-income people who are struggling and recognizing the importance of education as an individual and as a family. This can become an issue for American Indians, who have a long history of not trusting educational institutions for a number of reasons.
"My grandmother was taken from Idaho and sent to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, to one of these schools. They would cut your hair, you would speak nothing but English or else you would be punished, sometimes severely. The Catholic Church, the Protestant church, all of these churches came in and said commandingly, 'We know what is best for you, we are going to take care of you, and this is what you are going to do. You are going to forget your religion, you are forbidden to practice any of your traditions,' and this was law, this was actually federal law. It created a sense that this 'education' takes everything away and is forced on me. Education became just another institution where American Indian children were forced into another culture. Historically, that is the way it has been" (Stuteville and Nelson).
Making a Difference
Kauffman spent her years in the Senate working for education issues, serving on the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committees and sponsoring legislation to address educational concerns. One of those bills was to certify teachers of First Peoples language and culture. The bill was born out of a need for certification of tribal members to teach their language in the schools.
In 2007, Kauffman made it clear that she wasn't solely interested in educational and social issues when she penned a guest editorial in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer defending Initiative 747, which allowed property taxes to be raised by only 1 percent a year. Kauffman wrote at the time:
"The steady rise of property taxes, mainly based on the rapid growth of the housing market, has become more and more difficult for working families to afford. With gas prices double what they were four years ago, health care costs increasing three times more than inflation, and even basic living expenses more expensive than ever, some people, especially those on fixed incomes, are losing the ability keep their homes. That is unacceptable, and I've been a leader in the effort to make property tax collection fair and predictable for working families" (Kauffman, 2007).
In 2009, Kauffman also sponsored legislation to expand the Native American Scholarship Endowment, which Governor Chris Gregoire (b. 1947) later signed into law. She was a main player in forming the Early Learning Advisory Committee, which was created to design a plan addressing early learning issues in the state. Children's Alliance named Kauffman "Champion for Children" for her work sponsoring the early learning plan.
Kauffman also spearheaded legislation that strengthened burden of proof standards when it came to placing American Indian children in out-of-home care. "Indian children are overrepresented in our state’s child welfare system," Kauffman said of the legislation. "This bill is a safeguard against taking children out of a home unnecessarily or breaking parental bonds prematurely. This bill will make sure courts act in their best interest" (Washington State Democrats).
In 2010, Kauffman ran unopposed in the primary, but she was defeated in the general election by Joe Fain, a former chief of staff to King County Councilman Pete Von Reichbauer. Today (2011) she serves as the intergovernmental liaison for the Muckleshoot Tribe and lives in Kent with her husband and three children.