Debra Haaland, New Mexico’s former Democratic Party chairwoman, aims to become the first Native American woman to have a voice in Congress.
She’s running for an open seat in the U.S. House representing District 1, which includes Albuquerque. It’s considered safely Democratic, but with no incumbent on the ballot — Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham is running for governor — a half dozen hopefuls are competing in the Democratic primary set for June 5.
Haaland stands out, though, having served as Party chairwoman and in leadership positions within the Native community. She also gained a crucial network and important campaign experience by working for a host of candidates, including former President Barack Obama, and running an earlier (albeit unsuccessful) race for lieutenant governor.
We spoke with Haaland, an alumna of the Emerge America candidate training program, about why she’s running and why it’s important to have a Native voice in Washington. Excerpts from our conversation, below, have been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you decide to run for Congress this year?
I was finishing up my term as chairwoman of the state Democratic Party. We won back our state health, we increased our seats in the Senate, and we won two out of three statewide elections. So I was leaving on a high note, and Michelle announced that she was running for governor in February. I thought, I really want to continue to serve the people in New Mexico.
The country has suffered under the Trump win, and so that fueled me also. I had already worked very hard to hold Trump and the Republicans accountable.
How does having been state party chair help you?
It’s always helpful when you can work hard to create a really good network of people anywhere, and that’s what campaigning does for you. That’s what being in a position like state chair does for you as well. Plus, you are talking to voters across the state. I had interaction with many voters, many Democrats right here in Albuquerque. So, you get to know what peoples’ issues are.
What are the driving issues in your district?
We have a governor who has not done the work of the people. She has not created jobs. People are moving out. She was at war with the education system. We have suffered under this governor and her administration.
In District 1, one of the huge issues is jobs, of course. We have a renewable-energy industry that needs to move forward at a fast pace, and I believe that it can create many sustainable jobs as well as fight climate change. So jobs and our environment are extremely important to me. Of course, healthcare is a big issue, and a lot of people from New Mexico benefited greatly from the Medicaid expansion. At every turn, the Republicans are working hard to diminish that.
You always have our social issues also. During my campaign, I have stood up very strongly for transgender students and military members and women’s reproductive rights. I’ll be ready to be on the front lines fighting for those things as well.
You would become the first Native American woman in Congress. How does it affect your policy agenda?
I have certain values because of the way I was raised. My dad is a 30-year career Marine. My mom is a Navy veteran and worked in Indian education for 25 years. I was raised by my grandparents, who had been affected by the assimilation policies of the United States, but they preserved my culture for me. I have and practice my traditional ceremonies to this day.
The way I was raised gave me these values I have toward the environment, toward social justice and equality. I can’t say that being a Native woman will shape my agenda, but it will inform the decisions I make and the way I fight for things.
What would it mean for you personally to be the first?
I think it’s important in this day and age to have every voice at the table, There’s obviously not enough women of color in Congress. There’s not enough women of color in any elected office. There’s not enough women of color CEOs or chairwomen of boards.
I hope I can help our elected and appointed officials in D.C. really to know and understand that Indian issues are important issues. Sometimes I feel like folks don’t have enough knowledge or understand the history of what Native people have endured in this country. Maybe they need somebody to help them to understand some of those things.
How has the “Me Too” moment influenced your race?
I’m so thrilled with the number of women who have stepped up to run for office, and I am very appreciative and honored to live in this time where so many brave women are coming out and telling their stories about abuse and assault. It’s a hard thing, and I think it’s just showing our strength.
It’s an important moment, and I think we should seize it. We should be making sure that every eligible woman is registered to vote and that she gets out and votes. Because I think, if we activate all of our women, that it could have a profound effect on the outcome of every single election in this country.
What kind of role has Emerge New Mexico played for you? I gather your training with them was some 10 years ago.
I graduated from the Emerge class of 2007. Emerge New Mexico gave me the tools I needed to run. And even though I didn’t run right away, I knew I could help. So I helped a lot of candidates between then and now to win races.
It also helped me gain a place with the 2008 Obama campaign. I was a full-time volunteer for that campaign for 4 months. Then I was able to be Native American Vote Director in 2012. Once I finished working for the 2012 Obama reelection campaign — I had never worked so hard in my entire life, and we won — I felt very empowered. So that’s when I decided to run for lieutenant governor.
You’ve held leadership roles in the Native community. Tell me a little bit about that.
I was the very first chairwoman of my tribe’s economic development corporation, the Laguna Development Corporation. I was proud of that. During that time, I learned a lot. Then I was a tribal administrator for Pueblo here in New Mexico, and I managed the state and federal governmental relations with the tribe. It was all very rewarding.
I understand you were also involved in writing some legislation providing in-state tuition for tribe members?
Yes, I was in law school. It was 2005. Previously, I had gone to California to do a graduate program there [and became] a California resident. When I returned to New Mexico, they charged me out-of-state tuition. I thought: How discouraging, since my family had been in the Southwest and in New Mexico since the late 1200s. We had been paying taxes and contributing to the economy for a long, long time. And as a tribal member, I never lose my residency with my tribe.
I decided to find a champion, and I worked on a bill that would give members of New Mexico tribes in-state tuition regardless of their residency. It passed, and Governor Richardson signed it. That has helped a number of Native Americans come back home, go to graduate school.
You’ve had your fair share of struggles.
I’m a single mom. My daughter is now 23. She graduated from the University of New Mexico this past August. My daughter and I, we kind of just navigated all this together. I had to apply for food stamps one Thanksgiving, and I tried to get the emergency food stamps because I didn’t have anything to cook for Thanksgiving, and I got denied that time. I got them at a later date, which was super helpful to us.
I was able to send her to preschool because I volunteered at the preschool, and they gave me a cut in tuition so that I could afford it. I know that’s not an option for every parent. We’ve been working for the longest time here in New Mexico to have preschool for every child.
I’d really love to see us do more for single moms, single dads, even two-parent families who don’t make a lot of money. Every child should look forward to a bright future.
This interview was originally published in February 2018.