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Native Women Aim to Make Waves in NM Political Arena

A record number of Native American women in New Mexico are jumping into the political arena, looking to win over non-Native American voters.
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A record number of Native American women in New Mexico are jumping into the political arena, looking to win over non-Native American voters in races with statewide impact.

For the first time in the state’s history, a Native American woman is running for lieutenant governor from one of New Mexico’s two largest parties. Two Native females are vying for a seat in the House of Representatives and three are seeking House reelection.

Debra Haaland of Laguna Pueblo is on the ticket for lieutenant governor. Catherine Begaye and Doreen Wonda Johnson, both Navajos, are on the ballot for a House seat. Sharon Clahchischilliage of the Navajo Nation and Georgene Louis of Acoma Pueblo are running for reelection. Sandra Jeff, a Navajo and an incumbent in District 5, which includes Gallup, is running against Johnson as a write-in candidate after she did not produce enough signatures to be eligible to run in the primary. Seats in the New Mexico House are up every two years, whereas elections for the Senate are every four years.

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Although Native women have been part of the New Mexico Legislature since 1989 when Lynda Lovejoy, a Navajo, was the first Native American female elected to the House, this is the first time there are several Native women running and competing in districts without a high Native American population, according to Regis Pecos, director of Legislative Affairs, House of Representatives Majority Office, who has spent more than 30 years in state government.

This election holds significant weight as state Republicans try to take control of the House, which is now held 37-33 in Democratic control. The GOP hasn’t held the majority since 1953. All but one Native female House candidate are Democrats. House Republicans are pushing to gain control to ease the passage of conservative party legislation under state GOP Gov. Susan Martinez, the nation’s first female Hispanic governor.

Some Native American women here, particularly from the patrilineal-based Pueblos, previously may not have run because leadership roles have been traditionally reserved for men. Although women serve on some tribal councils, only two women have been elected as governor of two of the 19 Pueblos. Lovejoy, who also became a state senator and is now running for the Public Regulation Commission, was the first female to garner enough votes in the presidential primary but came in second in the Navajo Nation general election four years ago.

From left, Rep. Georgene Louis, Rep. Sandra Jeff, and Rep. Sharon Clahchischilliage

Native men, by comparison, have been serving in the state Legislature since the 60s. Currently, the Senate’s longest serving member is John Pinto, a Navajo who was elected in 1977.

But a new generation of highly educated, ambitious Native women, both Pueblo and Navajo, feeling the call to serve in public office or looking to change policy, are obtaining the help of others and training to win.

Four of the candidates are graduates of Emerge New Mexico, a seven-month program where many female Democrats are recruited to learn from other women in office how to run a campaign, from fundraising to public speaking to shaping a platform. Begaye, Haaland, Johnson and Louis are all products of Emerge, which boasts of a 70 percent win rate across its 12-state program. In 2013, five Emerge graduates were sworn into the New Mexico House, including Louis.

Laurie Weahkee, executive director of the Native American Voters Alliance, said the state’s Democrats are looking for diverse candidates, in addition to recruiting and collaborating more than in years past.

“Before you were probably groomed to run for office because your father, grandfather or someone before you was in office. Now it seems there are a whole different level of people who have done or want to do public service, seem to understand what it takes to advance policy and are really looking at the fact that right now here in New Mexico we have a very conservative governor and how that has impacted tribal communities,” said Weahkee, who is also director of the NAVA Advocacy Fund PAC. “It becomes clearer now who and what we are looking for in a candidate.”

Louis, 36, an attorney working in tribal law and the incumbent in her district that includes West Albuquerque and a large Hispanic population, was the first Pueblo woman to be elected to the New Mexico Legislature.

“It was a challenge, especially knowing that Pueblos are more traditional,” she said of her decision to get on the ballot. “I always knew that I wouldn’t be able to serve in that leadership capacity (at Acoma) because it’s all men. People focus too much on tribal politics and federal politics, but people sometimes forget that Native Americans make up 11 percent of the state’s population. But that’s not apparent in the state Legislature.”

Initially running to give back to the community, she’s now hoping to get reelected to finish what she started. Although her bills, including those to allow greater individual protections against environmental injustice and sexual assault, did not pass as a freshman legislator, she’s undaunted. She’s also got financial support from the Pueblos, including Isleta, Santa Ana and Tesuque, and other tribes and tribal organizations, such as the Jicarilla Apache and the Laguna Development Corp., according to campaign finance reports.

Begaye, a private attorney defending families who have been referred to the courts via the state’s social service system, said she’s challenging the Republican incumbent representing West Albuquerque and parts of the smaller nearby cities of Corrales and Rio Rancho to change the laws so that the social service agency works more on prevention than prosecution.

“Our society, especially in New Mexico, has a real problem with poverty. We don’t address it in a systemic way,” Begaye said, adding that part of the problem is the system is severely underfunded. “If someone has lost their job or lost their apartment and can’t send their kids to school, or when families feel like they are on the decline, they should be able to reach out to an agency like the Children, Youth and Families Department to provide some of those services.”

So far, Begaye has raised $52,870 just in the four months before the general election, with $37,114 raised in one quarter, the most of any House candidate in that fundraising period, according to campaign finance reports. Much of the money in that period was from small donations of $10 to $100, which Begaye says shows that she’s gaining support for her grassroots campaign and the 10 to 20 hours of knocking on doors, and calling constituents are paying off.

From left, Catherine Begaye, Doreen Wonda Johnson, and Debra Haaland

Although a political newcomer, Begaye is also handling criticism like a pro after her opponent dug up information on $6,000 in past due credit card bills that went to collections and a judgment was issued. Her campaign fired back after discovering her opponent filed for bankruptcy and had $200,000 in financial problems.

“I think people sometimes have a preconceived notion that women are not going to be tough when they get into the Legislature,” said Begaye, 38, who was more worried that voters were going to take issue with her age, experience and gender than race or past financial mistakes.

She points to fighting daily in her law practice as good experience. Begaye also says being Native American has also helped in this largely non-Native district.

“What is so interesting is that almost every person I talk to when I’m about halfway through my pitch they’ll stop me and say, ‘Are you Navajo?’ I say yes. And they’ll talk about how their grandmother was a teacher on the reservation, or they’ll remember going out to the Grand Canyon, or the time they went to the Navajo Reservation, or their best friend in high school was Navajo, or do I know Notah Begay. Everybody has a Navajo story—from jewelry to vacations. Some people grew up in Gallup. It’s actually really helpful,” she said. “People actually like the fact that I’m Navajo. It’s not why they will vote for me, but they do see it as a positive.”

With the election still weeks away, Pecos of Cochiti Pueblo says it’s critical that more Native people—male or female—enter the legislative discourse.

“If you look at New Mexico’s birthday, it’s only been the last third of that 100 year timeline that we’ve been engaged in the most meaningful way to help craft policy, help shape laws and help create laws that are defined by Indian people across the board, from education to health, to the environment to taxation,” he said. “These handful are creating profound opportunities of engagement of the larger masses of Indian people in the process.”