By Doug Mattson -- The Santa Fe New Mexican
SANTA FE, N.M. (MCT) - For Benny Shendo Jr., the idea of working in Washington, D.C., didn't really hit him until he worked for another man who was trying to return there.
In Gov. Bill Richardson's cabinet as secretary of the Indian Affairs Department, Shendo said, he saw how Richardson put politics to effective use.
''I've always had an interest in politics and in helping the disadvantaged,'' he said, ''and I've always seen education as the key; but I think I began to see how much an individual could make a difference.'' Shendo, who stepped down as secretary this past December, formally announced in December at his home in Jemez Pueblo that he's running for Congress.
Shendo, 43, is part of a growing Democratic field seeking to represent northern New Mexico's 3rd Congressional District. Five-term U.S. Rep. Tom Udall, a Democrat, is stepping down to run for the U.S. Senate, and all New Mexico's House seats are in play because of the planned retirement of longtime U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, a Republican.
''Opportunities come up, and you just have to be prepared,'' Shendo said during a phone interview as he headed to Laguna Pueblo. He said he has been visiting with American Indian leaders to both say farewell as a cabinet secretary and talk about his congressional race.
Shendo's roughly 20 years in education have prepared him for this moment, he said. He has held administrative jobs at Stanford University and the University of New Mexico. At Jemez Pueblo, he co-founded the first charter school on an Indian reservation in the state.
Shendo is also one of five living New Mexicans to have been a W.K. Kellogg National Leadership Program fellow, he said, adding proudly that the group includes novelist Rudolfo Anaya.
''Education has opened doors for me,'' said Shendo, whose mother, Mary Margaret, is a teacher.
He is one of two American Indian candidates to announce for the post. Derrith Watchman-Moore, a Navajo and state Environment Department policy adviser, made a formal announcement in December at Zia Pueblo.
Congress has just one member who's enrolled in an American Indian tribe, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. No Indian has ever represented the 3rd Congressional District, which is about 19 percent Indian.
''I think that's a factor,'' Shendo said. ''If we really are a democracy that represents all of the American people, where is that Native American voice?
''But at the same time, I think people have to understand that as a leader, you have to transcend cultures; you have to transcend borders. I might be new to politics, but I'm not new to getting things done with all different people.''
Besides education, Shendo said, environmental protection and developing renewable energy are his top concerns.
The Indian Affairs Department was created in 2004, and Shendo became the first secretary confirmed by the state Senate after an interim secretary served briefly. He said he has helped build relations between the state and the 22 tribes in New Mexico.
Pojoaque Pueblo Gov. George Rivera credited him with helping start an infrastructure-funding program - which has received $13 million over three years for water, sewer and other projects - and for giving tribes better access to state government. He said he also liked a speech Shendo made in Washington at the dedication of the statue of Pueblo Revolt leader Pope' in the National Statuary Hall.
''I think Benny's a very intelligent person,'' Rivera said. ''The work that he did under Governor Richardson as secretary is exemplary and my experience with him has been very good.''
Rivera said his pueblo is a long way from deciding who to endorse. He said he's good friends with Public Regulation Commission Chairman Ben Ray Lujan and has worked well with Santa Fe County Commissioner Harry Montoya.
''We'll have to see how they fare in the next couple of months,'' Rivera said. ''We're certainly glad that there are so many good candidates.''
Copyright (c) 2007, the Santa Fe New Mexican. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.