Talking With Deb Haaland, the Organizer Poised to Become the First Native American Woman in Congress

Talking With Deb Haaland, the Organizer Poised to Become the First Native American Woman in Congress
Image:Deb Haaland For Congress / Jim Cooke

This piece is part of Splinter’s series The New Guard, where we interview progressive candidates who are running in 2018 midterm races across the country to shake up the Democratic Party establishment.

The United States has never had a Native American woman serve in Congress for the entirety of its existence. That might seem baffling (or not….honestly, our country has a deeply shameful history), but it’s also something that’s likely about to change.

In June, Deb Haaland, a lawyer, former community organizer and Democratic state party leader, won the party’s primary in New Mexico’s first congressional district. In November, she’ll face Republican Janice Arnold-Jones to represent the solidly blue district (the seat has been occupied by a Democrat since 2009), and if she wins, will make some long overdue history.

Haaland is a member of the Pueblo of Laguna tribe, and is running on a platform that prioritizes environmental issues (Her website reads: “Indigenous rights and the fight for climate justice cannot be separated”). She also backs Medicare for All, abolishing ICE, abortion rights, the expansion of Social Security, and a federal jobs guarantee, among other progressive positions.

Haaland is a single mom—she told me that she and her daughter are “both paying out for student loans right now”—and one of the roughly 500 women running for House and Senate seats across the country. I spoke to her about that record number, how it might change the Democratic Party, her background, the issues facing Native American communities, and life on the campaign trail.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Could tell me a little bit about why you’re running?

I felt that the people of district one in New Mexico deserved to have a strong voice to fight for the things that we need. And I felt that person was me.

What are some of the biggest issues facing your district?

Climate change is a big deal here in New Mexico. We’re in high desert country in the southwest and have experienced some droughts. We got almost no snow at all this past winter and it’s really taking a toll on our farming and agriculture. I think if we make New Mexico the global renewable energy leader that it should be, it would create a lot of jobs. That’s another thing that’s really stagnated here in New Mexico—a lot of our recent college graduates are moving out of the state. So we’d like to reverse that trend somewhat and I believe that we can create jobs with renewable energy. Additionally, healthcare is a huge issue here. Half of our population is Medicaid eligible and a lot of folks rely on Medicaid and Medicare, so I am wholeheartedly opposed to what the Republicans are trying to do, trying to pay for their tax cuts by cutting Medicaid and Medicare. And that would have a very negative effect on so many people here in New Mexico.

You mentioned climate change, which is an issue that often feels like it’s getting more and more dire every day. Can you talk about specific initiatives you’d pursue if you were elected?

I would be very proud and happy to be part of a Democratic infrastructure plan that includes lots of funding for infrastructure projects across the country that would use our natural resources. It’s up to the government to build onto our renewable energy—to give more communities an opportunity to have that built into our economy. I have solar panels on my house and it’s extensive, not everybody can afford that. So we need to have government intervention on how to make that a reality for a large swaths of people in communities across the country.

Additionally, I have been very outspoken about this administration’s moving on cutting public lands. I would be an an avid opponent to any move to cut public lands and privatize those lands so they can sell that off to investors in the fossil fuel industry. And with respect to my cultural background, I know that there are a lot of public lands that are currently sacred to a lot of Indian tribes. We need to watch out for that and oppose it at every turn.

We women have been on the sidelines for a really long time.

I’m curious what you’re hearing from your potential constituents. What are people talking about as we head into the midterms?

You know, I just went to a potluck on Saturday with some members here in Albuquerque and I’ll be honest, one of their big concerns is getting out the youth vote. Additionally, they’re ready and willing to make sure they do whatever they can for the Democrats to win back the House. The actual election was really on the minds of a lot of people.

Related to that, after you won the primary, you said “Donald Trump and the billionaire class should consider this victory a warning shot: the blue wave is coming.” Are you optimistic about what’s going to happen in November?

I am, I am. We have a district here in New Mexico—Congressional District 2—that has a great candidate, a Hispanic woman, [named] Xochitl Torres Small. We believe that she has an excellent chance of winning her election, and we’re gonna do everything we can to make sure she wins. It would be great for New Mexico to have three Democratic congresspeople. There’s a lot of terrific red-to-blue candidates across the country and I will do everything I can to help them win as well.

In 2018 election cycle, we’re seeing a record number of women running for office, and many of them are running on pretty progressive platforms. I’m curious what you think about how a women could change the Democratic Party, which is arguably in a bit of a crisis at the moment.

We women have been on the sidelines for a really long time, right? We’ve never seen this many women running for public office, I don’t think in any year that I can remember. And of course we, you know, we look at things a lot differently.

I think about being a single mom. I also think about being the daughter to a disabled mother who gets certain care from the VA hospital. I believe there are a lot of women like me who are very family-centered. They’re going to think about all of these things passionately, so in that respect, yeah, I think we’ll have a definite effect on where we go. We’ll have all of these Democratic values, but I think sometimes our approach might be a little different. I look forward to serving with hopefully many more women than are in there right now.

How did you get into politics? When did you know that you wanted to run for office?

I volunteered for many, many, many campaigns long before I ever decided to run. As a grassroots organizer, when I ran for Lieutenant Governor in 2014, my initial thought was maybe I could bring more people into the fold. Maybe I could activate more volunteers if I were a candidate instead of an organizer. And after we lost our general election in 2014, I ran for state chairwoman of the Democratic Party of New Mexico. I won and we worked very, very hard—me and the team and volunteers—and we won across the state in 2016. And that energizes me. It makes me want to just keep going and keep involving people and bringing folks to the table. That’s always my always my mission.

As someone who could potentially be the first Native American woman in Congress, I’m curious how your background has informed your politics and how it would contribute to what you’d bring to the role.

Well, of course I think about my Pueblo military upbringing. My dad was a 30-year career marine and my mom, her family is Pueblo Indians. We’re essentially 35th generation New Mexicans. We’re close to the earth, we’re agriculturalists. We care a tremendous amount about the land and the water. And my dad was a public servant for 30 years to our country. So for me, I bring sort of a closeness when I think about infrastructure—I’m going to think about small farmers, right? Because that’s what my grandfather did and that’s what a lot of folks in my community did. I want to bring some attention to what’s truly needed for small businesses, for small farmers, for folks who are working to make a living in a rural community. We need to make sure that any infrastructure includes a broadband Internet service for people. There are still people in New Mexico that don’t have electricity. Rural communities are extremely important to me because I come from a rural community. Those things are all things that I’ll think about and work to resolve in Congress.

What do you see as some of the biggest issues facing Native communities in 2018?

Climate change, definitely. As I mentioned, here in the southwest we’re experiencing a huge shortage of water because nobody had any snow this past winter. There are native villages in Alaska that are preparing to be underwater in 10 years because of ice melting. And likewise here we’ve had the threat of fracking in our ancestral homeland of Chaco Canyon. So those are all things that we’re fighting. Every chance we get.

They rounded up Native American children and sent them off to boarding school. That was a family separation policy.

You’re one of a growing number of Democratic candidates who support abolishing ICE. Why is that an important issue to you?

You know, it’s terrible when folks get arrested outside of churches, courthouses, schools—that is not what ICE was implemented for. They were implemented to fight terrorism and that is not what they’re doing now. I hope that we can find a solution to this. We really need a comprehensive immigration policy that is humane and isn’t based on racism. We need to give our DACA recipients a path to citizenship and we need to make sure that our undocumented folks who join our military also have a path to citizenship. We should be approaching the immigration issue with compassion and understanding and not with hate and racism. The separation of families is just appalling. We’ve got to do something about it.

The issue of family separation is one that hits close to home for you.

Yes, and it’s on the minds of many, many people in my district. I am wholeheartedly opposed to the separation of families of. You know, when you watch the news, they’re talking about eligible children and “uneligible” children. They’re all eligible. They should never have been separated from their families to begin with. I’ve said many times in interviews and in conversation that it reminds me very much of the governmental assimilation policies that they put forth during the boarding school era when they rounded up Native American children and sent them off to boarding school. That was a family separation policy. They tried to assimilate Indians in that way and it was cruel and it was terrible. This is another governmental policy separating families. It didn’t work back then and it’s not working now. It’s inhumane and it needs to be stopped.

I saw in your Twitter bio that you’re a marathon runner and cook. Do you have much time for either of those while you’re campaigning?

I don’t! You know, I try to run at least three times a week and if I put on my running shoes right now, I could probably run five miles, but I don’t think I could run any more than that. However, if I had a challenge—if somebody challenged me to a marathon and I had time to train—I would give it all I had to make sure that I could finish because it’s something I truly love doing.

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