POLITICS

At Last, We May Get Our First Native American Woman In Congress

Deb Haaland has been helping New Mexico Democrats win races for 20 years. Now she's running for a U.S. House seat.
02/22/2018 07:00 AM ET
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Updated Feb 26, 2018
Deb Haaland says President Donald Trump is way out of touch with regular Americans. “He’s never had to struggle."
(Deb Haaland campaign)

WASHINGTON ― Deb Haaland wishes people could just ignore President Donald Trump.

“Every time he says something stupid, it gets on the front page,” said Haaland. “We need to be talking about climate change. We need to be talking about oil companies wanting to lease land, like my ancestral homeland in Chaco Canyon, so they can frack there.”

If she gets her way, Haaland, 57, will soon have a powerful platform for keeping people focused on these issues. She’s running for Congress.

A single mom based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Haaland isn’t new to politics. She chaired the state’s Democratic Party from 2015 to 2017, and was the Native American vote director for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2012. That’s in addition to nearly two decades of volunteering on Democratic campaigns, and a failed bid for lieutenant governor in 2014.

But if she wins her race, it will be her first time in the House and the House’s first time having someone like her. An enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, Haaland would be the first Native American woman to serve in Congress.

“Crazy, right?” she said during a recent sit-down with HuffPost. “It’s 2018.”

She could end up sharing the historic distinction with Sharice Davids, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, who is also running for Congress this year. Davids, a Democrat, is taking on Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kansas).

Haaland said the last thing she could do in Congress is speak on behalf of any tribes. But she does understand what life is like for native people living on reservations or in rural areas, and said they deserve a voice at the table when policy issues are being debated. She noted, for example, that tribes didn’t get to weigh in at all on the GOP’s massive tax reform bill that became law late last year. It does nothing to address economic development disparities affecting Indian Country.

She also knows what it’s like to be poor. Haaland describes a childhood of used clothes, working at a bakery for $1.95 an hour and later in life being denied food stamps for Thanksgiving. She didn’t go to college until she was 28 because she didn’t know she was supposed to go. Neither of her parents, who were both in the military, went to college. Haaland ended up getting a degree in English, and later a law degree.

Most members of Congress can’t relate to people who grew up in poverty, she said, and Trump definitely can’t. 

“When you’re insulated by private schools and money and everything you could ever dream of, it’s hard to put yourself in the position of an everyday American. He’s too selfish,” Haaland said. “He’s never had to struggle.”

Deb Haaland with some supporters in Albuquerque.
(Deb Haaland campaign)

Asked how her friends and family in tribal communities are feeling about Trump’s presidency, Haaland laughed. 

“He is not liked,” she finally said.

It’s not surprising that the president would be unpopular in Indian Country. Never mind Trump’s plans to shrink national monuments that Native Americans consider sacred land, or his budget’s massive proposed cuts to job training programs that directly help Native Americans. He’s just flat-out insulting.

Trump routinely mocks Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) as “Pocahontas,” referring to her contested claims of Native American ancestry. He even made the crack at a White House event honoring Native American war heroes. Attendees responded with silence. It didn’t help that Trump held the event in front of a portrait of President Andrew Jackson, a man nicknamed “Indian Killer” for being a forceful proponent of Indian removal.

Tribal communities are “absolutely” paying attention to slights like this, said Haaland. “Andrew Jackson is the worst Indian hater we’ve ever had.”

She has been going after Trump ever since he became a presidential candidate. As state Democratic Party chairwoman, Haaland held multiple press conferences denouncing his rhetoric and wrote a scathing May 2016 op-ed about his “disrespectful” use of Pocahontas’ name in his attacks on Warren.

“My point in defending Elizabeth Warren is it’s not up to him. It’s not up to him,” she said. “He doesn’t get to decide who is Indian and who is not Indian.”

He doesn’t get to decide who is Indian and who is not Indian. Deb Haaland on Trump

Haaland is vying for the seat currently held by Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D), who is running for governor. It’s a safe Democratic seat, but because the incumbent is leaving, Haaland has stiff competition. Six Democrats are competing in the June 5 primary.

She’s doing pretty well financially, having raised roughly $385,000 as of Dec. 31 for her campaign, which is focused largely on clean energy and jobs. But one of her opponents, Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, had raised about $505,000 by then. And both Lopez and another candidate, Damon Martinez, had more cash on hand than Haaland.

Money isn’t everything, of course. Haaland has endorsements from a dozen members of Congress, the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Organization for Women PAC. Nearly four dozen national and state tribes and pueblos are also behind her.

She points to her successes as chairwoman of the state Democratic Party as one thing that sets her apart in the race. On her watch, Democrats increased their seats in the state Senate, won two out of three statewide elections and made New Mexico one of just two states to flip its state House from GOP to Democratic control.

But clearly, it’s her fight for Native American priorities that distinguishes her time in public office. As state party chair, she traveled to Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota and joined people protesting the planned construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which threatens the region’s clean water and ancient burial grounds. She also led an effort to divest the state’s party from Wells Fargo over the bank’s investments in the pipeline.

“Is there anyone in Congress who went to Standing Rock to stand up for Native folks? No,” Haaland said, though Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) did go. “I can tell you one thing: If I’m in Congress, I would go.”

CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this article did not point out that Rep. Tulsi Gabbard did go to Standing Rock during the pipeline protests.