From 27-year-old governor to lifetime tribal council member
He was the youngest person to be chosen as governor of the Pueblo of Sandia in New Mexico at age 27, and for seven years before that he was a Sheriff’s Deputy for Bernalillo County.
After serving as governor for six years, he became the assistant general manager of operations at the tribe’s most visible enterprise, Sandia Resort and Casino. Now, he’s been awarded the distinction of Native American 40 Under 40 by the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development.
“It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost 10 years since I was first appointed governor,” Paisano said. “In 10 years, it’s great to see that much of what our forefathers – those former tribal council members no longer with us – had laid as a foundation and groundwork for the current generations is coming to fruition.”
Now a lifetime member of Sandia’s tribal council, Paisano still makes decisions that affect and will continue to affect education, health care, and the tribe’s ability to provide them, into the future.
“The creation of those vision and mission statements hovered around what we wanted to see for the small community here,” he said, referring to the just over 300 enrolled tribal members. “We were able to put things in place and they took off. But we’ve been re-evaluating current programs and our economic development enterprises lately. We learned a lot in 10 years about how to become more business savvy.”
Paisano described one planned venture that was not implemented after the economics of it were researched. Sandia had hoped to build an elementary and mid-level junior high school on the pueblo. “The economics didn’t fit. It would serve fewer than 25 kids. We opted to move funding to other uses. Now our children go to schools that fit their needs with full scholarships. Seeing all the options has been a huge learning experience for me.”
Paisano spends about 20 hours a week on the business of the tribe. Though New Mexico has not been affected as much as other places in the current economic recession, Sandia is planning for future enterprises to diversify its income streams.
“The lending industry and banks aren’t lending right now, and there aren’t many new businesses in New Mexico. That’s allowed us to sit tight and do a lot of planning. Sometimes we move too fast, so taking the opportunity to plan is good.”
Paisano is also principal in Paisano and Associates, a business development, consulting and government relations firm. The company consults with and represents large and small companies in the local area, helping them navigate the world of government relations. Paisano’s familiarity with and proximity to many of the 23 tribal entities in New Mexico helps his clients learn about American Indian culture and how it operates.
“There aren’t a lot of Native American owned companies in New Mexico that are taking advantage of the 8(a) program from the Small Business Administration. We’re working to capitalize on that program. I’m interested in focusing on renewable energy projects. When I worked for Gov. Richardson as assistant cabinet secretary of economic development, we focused on renewable energy companies to relocate here. Many tribes in New Mexico don’t understand how clean energy could be used to generate clean resource for themselves.”
Sandia is one of the gaming tribes in New Mexico that have prospered because of its proximity to a large urban population. But there are many who are rich in land that are away from urban areas and can’t capitalize on gaming. For them, Paisano thinks renewable and clean energy, like solar, wind and geothermal, could be possibilities, pointing to the many incentives and tax credits for these enterprises.
Though he doesn’t have much time for personal interests, Paisano is an active outdoorsman, enjoying hunting, fishing and hiking. He grew up on a ranch with every domestic animal one could think of. “I want to get back to that, the outdoors. I lost that when I became tribal leader. I love baseball and softball, too, and played in city and county leagues, but because of injuries, had to give it up. I’ve picked up golf; the Sandia course is now four years old and it’s a great way to meet new people and conduct business.”
Paisano is also active in the pueblo community and participates in its traditional ways, including living on the pueblo. “That’s important because of my government position. But from September to January, don’t bother me on Sundays because I’m watching football. I was born in 1971 and remember the ‘Steel Curtain’ of Pittsburgh. I’ve never changed teams.”