Deb Haaland could become the first Native American woman in Congress, and she wants to make sure everyone has an equal shot at success
The November 2018 midterm elections are coming up, and more women than ever are running for Congress. In our She’s Running series, HelloGiggles is highlighting some of the young, progressive women candidates who are reshaping the face of politics just by campaigning—and could have a hand in reshaping our future. Still need to register to vote? Do it here.
Deb Haaland first got her start in politics as a volunteer. Since her work during the John Kerry presidential campaign of 2004 to call indigenous New Mexicans to the polls, Haaland has continued striving to ensure that everyone’s vote is accounted for, especially in the upcoming midterm elections.
Haaland’s dedication to politics runs deep: She has always prioritized her relationships with her community, her beliefs, and her party. Raised by a military family that moved around the U.S. a great deal, Haaland maintained close relationships with her siblings (all of whom still live in New Mexico) and her heritage, as a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe that has more than 7,000 registered members in the U.S. Since settling with her family in New Mexico in her youth, Haaland has immersed herself in all that the state offers its residents, from attaining her J.D. from the University of New Mexico to becoming the first Native American woman in the country to chair a state party. Now, the mom of one has the chance to make history once more.
The current Democratic candidate for New Mexico’s 1st district could soon become the first Native American congresswoman—and may even become one of two Native congresswomen this November, should Sharice Davids of Kansas also win in the November election. From her initial role with Kerry’s campaign to her work as New Mexico’s vote director for Native Americans on President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign to standing with protesters at Standing Rock, Haaland has worked tirelessly for her community and indigenous Americans across the country. Throughout her campaign, she has been clear that she will work directly for the people and support their needs and desires for a more democratic future. As she states on her website, “I’ve spent my life standing up for my community, and I’ll do the same for us in Congress.”
Come November 6th, she will face off against Rep. Janice Arnold-Jones, a former member of the New Mexico House of Representatives and an opponent who has used racist rhetoric to downplay Haaland’s background and relationship with New Mexico. As of September 17th, the Albuquerque Journal found that Haaland leads the race by eight points.
We had the chance to speak with Haaland earlier this month regarding her decision to run, and what this race means for the future of Congress’s makeup.
After all your experiences in government thus far—from your work as a volunteer for President Obama’s 2008 election to working with Organizing for America NM in 2012—why did you decide now was the best time to run for office yourself?
Deb Haaland: The position I held right before I decided to run was chairwoman of the Democratic Party of New Mexico. I was in a mode, we were getting votes out, we had traveled across the state many times and we won across the state, we won the races from the top of the ticket to the bottom. We were happy about the work we did in New Mexico; I guess, in a way, that kind of gave me the impetus to continue to serve the people of New Mexico.
In that regard, I’ve always felt that New Mexicans, and here in District 1, of course, deserved to have a strong voice, somebody who was rooting for them in Congress, who knows and understands what it’s like for the vast majority of New Mexicans living in this state.
According to many reports, you are likely to be the first Native woman ever elected to Congress come November, from a state with 10.6% of its population identifying with an indigenous tribe. What does that distinction mean for you, and for the larger issues of indigenous rights in the U.S.?
DH: Never having had a Native woman’s voice in Congress before is…I think it’s meaningful in regard that there’s never been anyone with my background, with my respect for culture and traditions and diversity and language. I am proud to have an opportunity to go to Congress and be that voice.
I also especially feel strongly that I’ll have an opportunity to assure that I bring other voices to the table—the tribal leaders have an opportunity to sit at the table with lawmakers so that they can be truth-tellers from their own communities. I can’t represent my tribe or any tribe, but I can be a voice and I can push for that to happen.
: Your opponent, Janice Arnold-Jones, has made racist statements regarding your background as a Laguna Pueblo tribe member and as a child of military parents. It’s likely, unfortunately, that others may make similarly inappropriate statements once you are in office, saying that you have moved around a fair amount and don’t hold ties to New Mexico specifically, or that you aren’t “truly” Native American if you were also a military brat. What do you have in mind for changing those beliefs or teaching constituents?
DH: It really is evident that we do need some people to come into some knowledge about our history and our culture here in New Mexico. I’m not quite sure where my opponent was going with all of that, but look—my ancestors have been in New Mexico since the late 1200s, that makes me about a 35th generation New Mexican. There’s absolutely no denying that I have a place here, in this state and in our country. I’m not going to let her ignorance or anyone’s ignorance dissuade me from feeling like I could be a true voice for the people of New Mexico.
Incumbent on any of us is to really get what it is that we need to accomplish. That is the key—that we help people to succeed, we help students to succeed, we expand public education, so people can truly find a way to be successful in this day and age. It shouldn’t just be reserved for the folks who can afford an Ivy League education or a prep-school education—it should be open to all of us.
I think by nature of my place in the Congress, I will do my very best to help offer my perspective and my knowledge to anyone who would like to learn more. I almost feel like I should start out my first year with open office hours. I just want people to learn more. Native American issues are just as important as everyone’s issues. It seems like they haven’t been in the mainstream, a lot of people don’t know about them, legislators don’t have Indian tribes in their districts—I mean, there’s no reason for them to be up on the issues that are important to Native Americans.
I hope I can help to create an atmosphere where folks are more comfortable to learn more and be open about what they don’t know, so we can remedy that.
When you won the primary in June, you mentioned that President Donald Trump and the billionaire class “should consider this victory a warning shot—the blue wave is coming.” As part of a movement of many liberal women entering politics, what do you think the blue wave will look like this coming January?
DH: It’s evident that there have been a record number of women of color who have won their primary election across the country, and a lot of them in swing blue states, so yes, they’ll win, they’ll win those seats. I believe that there will be more women in this Congress than in any other Congress. I think that’s something to truly look forward to—I’m excited that there’s a long sight of those strong women who decided to make that step, and I think it’s really super exciting.
If there’s more women in the Congress than ever before, it stands to reason that the conversation is going be different, that the action is going to be different. Certainly, if the Democrats do win back the U.S. House and have a really nice majority, then of course we will have a stronger voice in power, moving forward. I’m looking forward to that—we have an administration right now that has created a war on women, the environment, on immigrants, the economy, on poor folks. Every time you turn around, there is something the president is being divisive over.
I think nobody knows how to keep things together more than women do—we’re nurturers, we hold our families together, we look at the details perhaps a little bit more than our male counterparts do. We’ll see if that rings true, and I look forward to being a calm, a strong and steady voice in the Congress.
Should you win your congressional bid come November, what will be your first steps in office?
DH: I’ve run very heavy on climate change and renewable energy, so that is one of my very important issues, and I will do everything I can to ensure that we are moving forward with fighting climate change and moving to a green economy—I think that makes perfect sense in this era.
Additionally, I live in a state where half of our population is Medicaid eligible, so that tells me a lot of folks really do need health care. That’s one thing I’ve promised to work on, making sure that everybody does have health care, so I’ll plan on exploring that.
Always, always, I am doing everything to support our public schools. I am against using any tax money for private school vouchers. We have to make sure that our public schools are completely prioritized in this country, and that means building new schools when we need them. It was brought to my attention that there’s a school in my district, out in the Tohajiilee chapter of the Navajo Nation, that gets flooded every time it rains. Those are things that should be a priority for us, to make sure that all of our students have the opportunity for a quality public education.
Additionally, in my district here, there have been a large number of people who have expressed that they want to be able to elect leaders. They don’t want the big corporate independent expenditures coming in and deciding elections for people. They’d like to see that big, dark money get out of politics and the power returned to the people. I wholeheartedly support the overturn of Citizens United.
In terms of your community, what has this race meant to you? What will it mean for you to represent New Mexico’s 1st district in Congress?
DH: Of course, I love my state, I love the people in my state, which is why I’ve worked so hard to get as many people out to vote over the years as I possibly can, because I really truly feel like all of us deserve to have a voice in this political process.
It will mean the world to me to be able to represent this district—I love Albuquerque, I live here, it’s my city, it’s the largest city in District 1. Everything about District 1 is awesome, there’s so much potential here. We have small businesses that are growing, a booming brewery industry, we’ve got small farmers up and down the Rio Grande, we have Spanish land grants with folks who have been on this land for centuries, and a lot of people in rural communities who need help—we need to make sure we’re paying attention to rural communities as well.
Me, coming from a rural community out at Laguna Pueblo, I feel like I understand the issues and how we can make sure that everybody has an equal shot at success.
This interview has been edited and condensed.