Lynnette Grey Bull’s “Why Not” Campaign
Eight weeks from election day, the Democratic nominee for Wyoming’s U.S. House seat faces near-insurmountable odds — but she’s not backing down from the fight
- Published In: Politics
- Last Updated: Sep 13, 2022
Lynnette Grey Bull, Democratic nominee for the U.S. House from Wyoming, is seeking to become the first Indigenous American to represent the state in Congress. (Photo by Jim Norris courtesy of Grey Bull for Congress)
By Jacob Gardenswartz
Special to the Wyoming Truth
On the evening of Aug. 16, while most politicos in Wyoming and nationwide were glued to their TVs watching Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.)’s concession to Harriet Hageman, Lynnette Grey Bull was in the car with her kids.
Grey Bull had spent the final hours of her Democratic primary race to represent Wyoming in the U.S. House down in Cheyenne, and it was late before she began the 270-mile trip north to her home in Riverton, on the southeastern edge of the Wind River Reservation. Cell service was spotty as she made her way through the winding roads, so she was mostly unplugged from the news — until a message from a campaign staffer finally made its way to her cell phone.
“I was, like, in the hills of Wyoming when I found out that I won,” Grey Bull told the Wyoming Truth in between bouts of joyous laughter. She remembers seeing “what had to be the best Wyoming sunset” peek through the clouds when she learned she’d officially earned the Democratic nomination.
The 45-year-old mother of three — A’Kai, 21, Jonah, 16, and Ahylanow, 12 — now faces a more difficult task: besting Hageman, the Republican nominee, in the Nov. 8 general election to become the first Wyoming Democrat elected to Congress in over 44 years. Hageman won her primary with over 110,000 votes; Grey Bull won hers with just 4,500. In a state where Republicans outnumber Democrats nearly 8-1 in party registration, some might wonder why Grey Bull is bothering to run at all, especially after her unsuccessful bid for the same seat in 2020.
But to the doubters who question why a progressive Democrat would attempt to pull off such an upset in the reddest state in America, Grey Bull has a simple answer: “Why not?”
“Whether it’s to give Wyomingites a choice, whether it’s to bring a voice to concerns on the issues that I work on, I think it’s important that [Americans in] all states have the right to have a choice,” Grey Bull said.
“Yes, you can look at the numbers, you can tell how it’s daunting,” she continued. “However, being a big champion for democracy, being a champion for giving people choices, I say ‘why not me?’”
A lifelong advocate for Indigenous Americans
Grey Bull grew up in Pasadena, California, as a “full-blooded Native American woman” — her mother is Northern Arapaho from the Wind River Reservation and her father is Hunkpapa Lakota from the Standing Rock Sioux in the Dakotas.
His experience being relocated to an American Indian boarding school was a source of lifelong trauma, and ultimately, both her parents turned to alcoholism. By age 17, Grey Bull was homeless. “I’m a domestic violence survivor. I’m a sexual assault survivor. I’m a rape survivor,” Grey Bull told NBC in 2021.
But unlike her parents, Grey Bull sought counseling to address her traumas, and learning about the impact of adverse childhood experiences on long-term health opened up her eyes to the importance of that work, she recalled in a 2021 interview.
After attending Pasadena City College and Mt. San Antonio College, Grey Bull moved to Arizona in 2006 to work as an activist and community organizer. She eventually started her own nonprofit organization to support missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW) and chaired the Arizona Commission for Indian Affairs.
In 2017, Grey Bull moved to the Wind River Reservation, her tribal homeland, where she has continued to advocate for her community at the state and federal level.
Grey Bull is passionate about tribal sovereignty and land rights, as well as a fierce defender of the Indian Child Welfare Act. She supports reforms to the Bureau of Indian Affairs to enable better responses to the crisis of sexual assaults on reservations.
“The system is not built for us, and we need to think about reimagining our law enforcement on the reservation,” Grey Bull said.
“I am part of the most stalked, raped, murdered, sexually assaulted and domestically abused ethnicity in our country,” she added. “I don’t want those statistics to hang over my head, my daughter’s head, or anybody else’s life. And I have dedicated my life to changing those statistics one way or the other.”
A ‘revamped’ campaign to ‘defend democracy’
With exactly eight weeks until voters head to the polls, Grey Bull acknowledges she’s got work to do if she hopes to turn her dreams for change into a reality.
Even if all of the roughly 15,000 Wyoming Democrats who changed parties to support Cheney in the GOP primary were to switch back and support Grey Bull, she’d still trail Hageman by almost 100,000 votes assuming primary trends hold. Moreover, Hageman has raised some $4.4 million to support her election effort, according to the Federal Elections Commission, and had nearly $1 million cash on hand as of the end of July. Grey Bull, conversely, has raised a total of barely $11,000.
“We understand what we’re up against,” said David Myers, vice chair of the Sheridan County Democrats and a Grey Bull supporter. “One of the things you have to do as a Democrat in Wyoming, if you want to run a good race, is not think about the odds.”
In an interview in early September, Grey Bull said she’s in the process of “revamping” her campaign team and bringing on more staff. One new strategy appears to be her honing in on Hageman’s unproven claims that the 2020 election was “rigged” against former President Donald Trump, a belief Grey Bull said makes her opponent an “authoritarian.”
“The cult, so to speak, the authoritarian type of mentality, is dangerous for any democracy,” Grey Bull said. “I think we’re in a dangerous place in politics, and it’s because of these candidates who are backed by Trump, who question our own voting systems.”
In Grey Bull’s view, candidates who take on Trump-backed challengers are “not just fighting for a seat, but we’re fighting to actually secure and preserve democracy.” Indeed, in new campaign yard signs, Grey Bull’s campaign logo appears above a new tagline: “Defending Democracy.”
Representatives for Hageman’s campaign did not respond to an inquiry about Grey Bull’s characterizations, but did announce Monday that the GOP nominee won’t participate in the Oct. 13 general election debate against Grey Bull and other third-party candidates.
Grey Bull, in a tweet, said the debate would go on without her Republican opponent, dubbing Hageman “bad decision Harriet.”
Momentum from the 49th state
Though the odds are stacked against her, Grey Bull is seeking to capitalize on a national environment in which Democrats appear in better shape than they did several months ago. Poll numbers are improving nationally, and Democratic candidates’ winning several races are considered bellwethers.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in Alaska, where Democrat Mary Peltola recently defeated Republican Sarah Palin in a special election to serve out the remainder of late Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska)’s House seat. In a statement to the Wyoming Truth, Peltola spokesman Josh Wilson said the Congresswoman-elect is “honored to be the first Alaska Native elected to Congress, as she believes it’s very important for there to be Native American representation in Washington.”
“Her advice to all candidates, including Lynnette Grey Bull, in November is to focus on the issues and stay above the divisive political rhetoric,” the statement added. If elected, Grey Bull would similarly be the first Native American to represent her state in Congress.
“Peltola’s win shows a victory in a heavily-Republican state is possible,” said David Martin, communications director for the Wyoming Democratic Party. “Like Peltola, Lynnette Grey Bull is running a positive campaign removed from the bitterness seen in Wyoming’s Republican primary. Grey Bull is the clear choice for representation that considers the entirety of Wyoming, and we’re excited to see how the state will support her in the upcoming election.”
Despite the many challenges facing her community, and the unlikelihood of her success, Grey Bull is undeterred. “I’m definitely an optimist,” she said. “I’m definitely a person who believes that it can be flipped, it can be done.”
In victory or in defeat, Grey Bull promises to “continue to be an advocate, not only for Indian Country but for all people who need a voice.”