HELENA — The first female Native American elected to a statewide office in Montana is setting her sights on Congress.
Office of Public Instruction Superintendent Denise Juneau launched a campaign Wednesday to challenge freshman U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke in the 2016 elections.
Juneau, 48, told The Associated Press her experience running the public education agency and working with diverse groups of people has prepared her to effectively represent Montana in a Congress beset by dysfunction and partisanship.
"I think reasonable voices will actually cut through everything that's going on in there," Juneau said Wednesday. "Even though it's one voice in 435 voices, it's the reasonable voice that's going to rise to the top."
Juneau has her work cut out for her. A Democrat has not held Montana's single U.S. House seat since 1997. Montana voters have not sent a woman to Congress since electing Jeannette Rankin in 1941.
"I think Montanans are ready. I think Montana's ready for a woman representative," Juneau said.
Zinke, the incumbent, is far ahead in fundraising, with $747,000 to fund his re-election campaign as of the end of September. The former Navy SEAL also has the support of a Super PAC he founded called Special Operations for America, which helped elect him in 2014.
In response to Juneau's announcement, Montana Republican Party Chairman Jeff Essmann criticized Juneau as a liberal bureaucrat whose career has been marked by implementing Common Core educational standards in the state.
"Denise Juneau is a classic example of a career politician in desperate need of employment by the government," Essmann said in a statement.
Juneau first floated the idea of a campaign two weeks ago.
She has been the state's public schools superintendent since 2009, and term limits prevent her from running again. She said she could have chosen to go into the private sector, but she enjoys public service and was concerned that Zinke was not making the right choices for Montana.
She cited as examples his votes to block funding Planned Parenthood, against a recent budget agreement and for two cybersecurity bills she said would invade personal privacy.
Juneau also pointed to Zinke's announcement last month that he was considering running for House speaker if Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, did not step up to replace the outgoing speaker, John Boehner.
"That's not what our state sent him there to do," Juneau said.
Zinke's campaign released a statement that did not address Juneau's candidacy but called the congressman "an impactful leader who stands for all Montanans."
Juneau said she plans to focus her campaign on the economy, access to public lands, protecting privacy rights and ensuring transparency in political campaigns.
Juneau grew up in Browning and is a member of the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes. She was previously the Office of Public Instruction's director of Indian education, worked as an attorney for a private firm specializing in tribal law and was a high school teacher on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and in North Dakota.
She has a master's of education degree from Harvard University and a law degree from the University of Montana.
Juneau kicked off her campaign with a fundraiser in Missoula on Wednesday night.