As former New Mexico Democratic State Party Chair, Debra Haaland, an enrolled member of Laguna Pueblo, has an impressive record of helping get Democrats elected. New Mexico was one of only two states in the 2016 elections to have its state house turn from red to blue. In addition, the number of Democratic State Senatorial seats increased by three, and Democrats won two out of three statewide elections. Haaland’s campaign is hoping to build on that spectacular winning streak by getting the first ever Native American woman elected to the U.S. Congress—namely, herself.
In addition to her vast experience as a strategist and successful fundraiser for the state party, Haaland, who likes to be called Deb, is law trained and has a substantive background in business management and economic development. She’s running in the primary against three contenders for an open seat held by Michelle Lujan Grisham in New Mexico’s first Congressional District, where nearly 60 percent of the population is female. The election will be in June 2018, and while there’s a long road to the finish line she’s off to an auspicious start. Even before she officially announced on May 16, Haaland was being supported by President Barack Obama’s former Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar.
Thank you for taking the time out of what must be an incredibly hectic schedule.
It’s a pleasure to speak to all my relatives in Indian country as I begin this journey. I appreciate everyone’s help, support and guidance in clearing a path to victory.
I can’t speak for all Natives, but if successful I hope to add to the strength of Native voices already in Washington. And I mean to add to their diversity; there’s never been a Native woman in the U.S. Congress.
Just as the land is continuous, and the rivers all run to the sea, we have a lot of common ground and shared needs. I’m running to care for what we already have, and make sure our existence continues long into the future.
That translates into holding the current administration accountable, does it not? You schooled Candidate Trump in The New York Times the first time he flippantly referred to U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas.” Is that something you plan on continuing to do?
I could try to strengthen some knowledge, but the president doesn't care about Indians, and what he does know seems so wrong most of the time. He was in office five minutes and he okayed the Dakota Access Pipeline.
But I would like to educate my peers. If people knew more about Indian country, and traveled to our lands, their decision-making might be different. Many Congresspeople want to do right, and I think they would if they had more knowledge.
In 2012 my work took me frequently to Navajo country, and once I was traveling, and, I remember thinking…I bet Mitt Romney has never been here.
Do you have firsthand experience with poverty?
To a degree. There are no homeless people in my Pueblo; we look out for each other. But in the past, as a single mom, there were times when I’ve needed food stamps, when, for lack of funds, I had to put groceries back from the cart at the register, when I relied on health care from Planned Parenthood. I know what it’s like to wait in the waiting room of IHS for 4 hours. When you’ve had those experiences you can put yourself in someone else’s place more easily with understanding and compassion. I don’t think the current president understands how many people live.
It’s such a contrast from Obama. For the most part Native people were totally devoted to Obama because of the real improvements he brought to Indian country—in consultation, in funding, and respect for our lands. There was an open dialogue, there were annual tribal conferences. I never attended a Tribal Nations Conference, but I did meet Michelle Obama at the Santa Fe Indian School, when she gave last year’s commencement address. I also went to the last holiday party at the White House; it meant a lot knowing that the Obamas would be leaving the White House.
I read that you were the first Native American to chair a state party. How did that come to be?
In New Mexico, the party chair is elected by a small body of Democrats, fewer than 400 votes are cast. I won by making personal phone calls and asking for support. I had been involved in many campaigns, and had previously worked, for many years, to get out the Indian vote. I believe people saw me as a hard worker.
It’s the job of the chair to follow the party’s rules, get Democrats elected, and raise money. I became chair after the 2014 mid-term elections; we’d lost our State house and voters were not in good spirits. After winning, I traveled around the state to let people know that their vote and the work they had been doing mattered. I worked on uniting the Party.
Most of our state is rural and driving never ends! I wanted to touch every community, and that strategy worked. We had record-breaking early voter turnout in the 2016 presidential primary. Both the Sanders and Clinton campaigns did an excellent job.
New Mexico is an oil and gas state, and yet you went to Standing Rock as chairwoman, sent a letter of support to Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Archambault, and divested the party’s funds from Wells Fargo because of its investment in the Dakota Access Pipeline. That was all pretty nervy, was it not?
I didn’t think about that. There were people who had fought for a very long time, to protect what they have, and I felt the need to support them. It had nothing to do with nerves, really; but just seemed the right thing to do. Water is, indeed, sacred; a finite resource, and, like all of our natural resources, should be respected by all of us.
I’d like us to double down on renewable energy. In New Mexico we have close to 300 days of sunshine a year, and solar is the way of the future. Once we have a Democrat governor in office here who believes in renewables, we’ll make some headway.
Politics correspondent Mark Trahant of Trahant Reports and ICMN has called your primary a “winnable” race. What will it take for you to win?
I’ll need to raise enough money to run a viable campaign, I have a lot of campaign experience, I’m assembling a professional team, and I expect that my vast amount of grassroots organizing experience will also play a role. Both my parents are veterans, and I was raised in a Pueblo/Military household. My mom ran a tight ship, and I learned to work hard – in every part of my life. My obligations at home (Laguna Pueblo) are many, and take a great deal of stamina; I’m also a runner! I believe that my life experiences have prepared me to work hard enough to win, and I will work that hard.
Does the campaign have a tag line?
Well, I wanted it to say something like let’s help folks be successful and have good lives, pursue their educations and dreams…but that was all too long, so we went with:
“Deb Haaland. For Congress. For us.”