At 23 years old, Citizen Potawatomi Nation member Sarah Sandlin ran for the Maine House of Representatives in 2018. Although her opponent won on Election Day last November, Sandlin felt grateful for the opportunity.
The Tescier family descendant believed her time in the Potawatomi Leadership Program during the summer of 2013 was a transformative experience that helped prepare her eventually to run for office.
Sandlin’s final PLP project proposed founding an alumni network for the program. She presented the idea to Tribal leadership and enjoyed the responsibility of creating something with the potential for significant influence if integrated.
“It was very empowering in that sense because it got a lot of validation by (Tribal Chairman John ‘Rocky’ Barrett), and it was just such a cool experience,” she said.
Sandlin also learned about Potawatomi culture, traditions and history that summer, which she took with her to college. She holds the ceremonies and lessons close to her heart, and they changed her perspective on everything.
“There isn’t one day in my life that passes that I don’t think about something or I’m not impacted by something that I’ve learned during my summer with the Tribe,” she said. “It was a very impactful experience, whether that’s my appreciation for the moon cycle or just an understanding of the way a government works.”
While working on her undergrad at the University of Richmond in Virginia, she decided to make social policy her focal point and graduated in spring 2017. Sandlin studied how a person’s ethnicity, race, gender and other traits influence their lives, which gave her a deeper understanding of the effect of the legislature’s actions on various social groups.
“Something that’s really compelling about that would just be how much is predestined. That’s pretty powerful,” she said. “But there’s a lot that isn’t predestined too. And I think that’s where freedom rests, and that’s where agency rests. And that’s empowering.”
Sandlin participated in the PLP after her senior year of high school. Throughout the summer, she gained insight into how organizations and different levels of government can better serve Native America. Living with such a diverse group of people from across the country before college also made her more open-minded.
“It was with people I knew as my kin, people that are my Tribe,” she said. “It really does make such a difference because you all have that shared commonality.”
During her junior year of college, Sandlin studied abroad at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. She met people with varying backgrounds from across the globe, and the PLP gave her the skill set to make connections and build fruitful relationships.
“Going to Oklahoma was more of a culture shock than going to Scotland. Native America, in general, is so distinct. It’s so very much its own thing,” she said. “It was more formative to live in Oklahoma than it was in Scotland. … It’s just so different there. I love it though.”
Her time at Tribal headquarters also helped Sandlin accept without hesitation that each person’s past shapes their thoughts and emotions.
“It’s just the way that people are. Anybody else who had the same background would feel the same way. All valid, it’s all valid,” she said. “We just need to talk and listen, and then we’re going to come out with the best solution.”
The Virginia Democratic Party offered Sandlin an internship before she graduated, and although she is a registered Republican, she gladly seized the opportunity to expand her governmental knowledge base and connections.
Sandlin first participated in government with a student council position in seventh grade. She excelled in American government and history classes throughout high school, and she spent extracurricular time as the student representative to the school board.
“It was just one of those things where I don’t think I ever really consciously chose to start doing politics. It just kind of always happened,” she said.
After graduating college, she seized the opportunity to run for state representative. Sandlin ran as a Republican for Maine House District 44 in a three-way race against a two-time incumbent and an Independent. During eight months of campaigning, she knocked on 2,000 to 3,000 doors throughout Falmouth, a coastal community near the state’s southern tip with approximately 12,000 residents. When on foot, Sandlin walked up to 8 miles a day, meeting Mainers from different walks of life and listening to their concerns.
According to Sandlin, people had mixed reactions to her candidacy. Her age as well as her party affiliation garnered the most attention. Seeing a younger person run for office excited some constituents, while others put out with politics took their frustrations out on her. A few issues affecting the state include a shrinking tax base due to an aging population crisis, decreased opportunity for small and medium-sized businesses, and a lack of affordable housing. Sandlin felt those in the state capitol in Augusta needed her generation’s viewpoint.
“As somebody who’s 23 years old, I’m literally the embodiment of what we need to be addressing most in this state, which is we need to be keeping people like me in Maine,” Sandlin said.
“I love Maine, and I want to see Maine only continue to progress but also to maintain our identity. … But I was also just huge on civility. I’m seeing a lot of disrespect among politicians and among people in general, and I just wanted to run on a platform of civility.”
Sandlin strives to put the people of Maine first and considers the best solution for everyone. The big picture sits at the front of her thought process, and she finds it unproductive to perceive people’s views and priorities on a spectrum.
“I think party politics are such a shame … It’s affecting us in Maine too, in terms of moving forward. All the friction between the two sides is really interfering with that,” she said.
On Election Day in November, Sandlin placed herself at the polls and put in her final word with voters. She stood next to her opponent and greeted people from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. She lost with 36 percent of the vote; however, she took it in stride.
“The experience was so fulfilling,” Sandlin said. “And I also know I’m really young, and I have many more opportunities to try again.”
Until then, she plans to establish herself in real estate.
For more about the Potawatomi Leadership Program, visit plp.potawatomi.org. The CPN Education Department is accepting applications for this summer’s program now through March 15.