Head of the class 

State superintendent Denise Juneau's improbable rise is impossible to ignore

On election night 2012, Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau sat glued to her home computer. Every so often she'd hit the refresh button of her browser, checking to see if the secretary of state's office had updated the vote tally, hoping to learn whether she would keep her job.

"I was probably up for 52 hours straight," Juneau recalls. "Just pushing refresh, that's all I did."

Earlier that night, she attended an election night party with the Montana Democrats at the Great Northern Hotel in Helena. As results started coming in, and incumbent Democrats like Secretary of State Linda McCulloch and Auditor Monica Lindeen and gubernatorial candidate Steve Bullock all pulled away to victory, cheers erupted in the convention hall. The numbers for Juneau, however, were always too close to call.

"Everybody got to do their celebrations," Juneau says. "I was just sitting there."

That's when Juneau retreated to her home not far from the Capitol and started hitting refresh on her computer. As the hours wore on, Juneau would creep ahead and then lose her lead, only to gain ground again in the race against her Republican challenger, Sandy Welch of Martin City. A few members of her staff stayed by her side. Her mom, former state legislator Carol Juneau, and dad brought her food.

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A few months prior, no one would have guessed that Denise Juneau would be caught in such a tight race. It was just September, after all, when she traveled to Charlotte, N.C., to address the 2012 Democratic National Convention. In front of an enthusiastic crowd of 35,000 and a nationwide television audience, Juneau talked about being a member of the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes and growing up on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. With a small American flag pinned to the lapel of her dark blazer, she talked about her unprecedented political rise and a startling fact in today's culture—she is the first and only Native American woman to ever be elected to a statewide office, anywhere. She said that it had been a long journey composed of painful and hopeful chapters for her to arrive on that stage. "We deserve to be part of the American dream," she said.

Denise's mother, Carol, was in attendance as a Montana delegate, and says she felt a sense of wonder as her daughter addressed the crowd. Carol Juneau, a trailblazer in the indigenous rights movement herself, was acutely aware of the history she was witnessing that night. Eighty-eight years after Congress made American Indians U.S. citizens, 47 years after lawmakers made it possible for all indigenous adults to cast ballots and 5 years after Carol Juneau herself was sworn in as the first American Indian woman to serve in the Montana Senate, her daughter walked firmly into the national political limelight.

"We were all chanting, 'Juneau, Juneau,' as she walked up to the stage," she says.

Fast-forward two months, however, and there were no chants. It was just Denise Juneau and a computer screen showing her nail-biting returns.

On Nov. 14, the secretary of state released unofficial results showing Juneau ahead of Welch by 2,264 votes. Welch challenged that total, saying publicly that Election Day glitches, such as voting machine errors, could have skewed the numbers. Citing "widespread" problems in polling places, Welch asked a Flathead County District Judge to order a recount. On Dec. 7, the judge complied. On Dec. 11, Welch abruptly dropped her request, citing challenges raising the $115,000 required to verify the total.

Thirty-six days after Election Day, the secretary of state officially declared Juneau the winner. She won by 2,231 of the 468,563 votes cast.

The whole ordeal drained Juneau. "I didn't realize how much stress I was living under," she says. But after a short respite, she was back at work. Spend enough time with Juneau and you realize she's not one to back down from a fight—nor rest for long even after she's won.

•••

It's Friday evening at the Governor's Mansion in Helena and Montana leaders, including Montana Democratic Party Chair Jim Elliott, former U.S. Congressman Pat Williams, Planned Parenthood CEO Stacy James and Helena Republican Rep. Liz Bangerter, among others, munch on cream puffs, stuffed mushrooms and fruit salad under gold-colored chandeliers.

click to enlarge Denise Juneau speaks at the Indian Education for All Best Practices Conference. Carol Juneau, Denise’s mother, helped create the program that her daughter now oversees as state superintendent. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Denise Juneau speaks at the Indian Education for All Best Practices Conference. Carol Juneau, Denise’s mother, helped create the program that her daughter now oversees as state superintendent.

Inside the mansion, large living room windows overlook the Capitol Rotunda. Chairs are embroidered with the Montana state seal, depicting the words "Oro y Plata," the state's motto, which means "gold and silver."

Denise Juneau sips a diet soda and works the crowd. Everyone's gathered to celebrate International Women's Day and to support a fundraiser to benefit the "Montana Woman's Mural." When the mural is painted next year, it will commemorate the 100-year anniversary of women gaining the right to vote.

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