The 2018 election cycle sees women running for Congress in unprecedented numbers. The Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) reported that, as of April, 527 women made up 23 percent of all federal candidates—dwarfing the previous high-water mark of 16 percent, and they have won almost half of their primary campaigns thus far, according to The New York Times. The sharp upswing has been almost entirely on the Democratic side of the aisle. “While women now make up 30 percent of the candidates fielded by the Democrats, Republican women only make up 13 percent of their own party’s candidate pool,” the CRP noted, “meaning that 75 percent of female candidates are Democrats.”
Part of this potential “blue wave” is Deb Haaland. Haaland is running in New Mexico’s District 1, which includes three-quarters of Albuquerque, on an unapologetically progressive platform, calling for expanding Social Security, a federal jobs guarantee, Medicare for All, universal childcare and pre-K education, criminal-justice reform, and aggressive action to combat global warming. (NM-1 is currently represented by Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham, who is giving up her House seat to run for governor of New Mexico.)
Republicans have identified the district as a top target in 2018, but if Haaland—who served as the chairwoman of the Democratic Party of New Mexico, and the tribal administrator of the San Felipe Pueblo—succeeds in the June 5 Democratic primary and goes on to win in November, she will become the first Native American woman to serve on Capitol Hill.
I caught up with Haaland last week to talk about her race, and to get her perspective on what this milestone would mean to her and her community. You can listen to our discussion in the player above, or read the transcript below, which has been edited for length and clarity.
Joshua Holland: We’ve seen a number of first-time candidates emerge in response to Trump’s election, but that doesn’t describe your experience. You’ve run for office before. Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you first got into politics?
Deb Haaland: Sure. For almost 20 years, I’ve worked on various campaigns. I started out as a phone volunteer. I’d go into campaign offices, ask for lists of Native American voters, and just start calling people because I felt that I just wanted to help more Native folks get to the polls. That ended up turning into sort of a full-blown organizing job in Indian country for me.
I worked on a lot of campaigns focused on that, and then in 2012, I was the state Native American vote director for President Obama’s reelection campaign, and I helped us win New Mexico. After I worked for the president, that’s when I decided to run for lieutenant governor, and then after we lost our general election, I decided I would run for state chairwoman of the Democratic Party. I won, and we won our elections across the state in 2016, so I was proud of that.
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JH: Can you tell us about your top two or three priorities would be?
DH: The top priority for me, and it’s one that resonates real well in this district, is climate change and renewable energy. I think that if we had a renewable-energy revolution, not only in New Mexico’s District 1, but across the country, that would create thousands and thousands of good-paying, sustainable jobs. That’s, for me, the number one issue.
One of the other top issues is Medicare for all. Everybody needs to have health care, and just last month President Trump and the Republicans worked overtime to make sure that Planned Parenthood has a harder time helping women get the care they need, and so I want to go to Congress to fight for that, to make sure that everybody has an opportunity to get the care that they need.
JH: Now, the first congressional district, it’s mostly Albuquerque, right? It’s largely urban. It leans blue.
DH: Yes. Albuquerque is the largest city. We do, however, have rural communities in District 1. We have some small towns to the east of Albuquerque, and I have one Native American community in my district. It’s Tohajiilee of the Navajo Nation.
JH: Are there local issues in your district that folks from other parts of the country may not be thinking about?
DH: You know, I’m willing to bet that a lot of us care about us the same thing. Whenever the Republicans have an opportunity, they’ve tried to make New Mexico into a right-to-work state, and so I’ve been on the front lines fighting that for a long time.
JH: Just the other day, I was on Twitter and a Native American man from Idaho was telling me that he thought that Native Americans are, as he put it, “the forgotten people of color.” He said that in the discourse about marginalized communities, the focus tends to be on African Americans and Latinos and Asian and Pacific Islanders, and he thought that Native Americans get overlooked. I think he was lamenting the lack of what one might call “intersectionality.” Does that statement resonate with you?
DH: Yes, it does. Think about how long the water protectors at Standing Rock were fighting for their sacred lake, and how long they were fighting before it got any news in the national media. I agree with him there, because it does take a lot for Native Americans to get recognized, and I think once Standing Rock kind of grabbed the attention of more folks, it did become a national issue, but it took a very long time. Likewise, missing and murdered Native women—it happens so often, and nobody knows about it, because it doesn’t hit the mainstream media. I’ve been working hard to raise those issues.
They’ve been trying to frack in Chaco Canyon here in New Mexico for a long time. That’s my ancestral homeland, and I made it into a national issue, because I talked about it a lot with the national press. But we have to keep talking about these issues. We have to raise them up so that people know that those are things they should care about, just like Black Lives Matter and all of the discrimination and targeting that happens every single day in this country. Native Americans are the second-smallest population in our country and they have among the highest numbers of criminal cases in federal courts. What does that tell you?
JH: It seems to me that one example of this kind of erasure of Native Americans is that Donald Trump’s nativism and bigoted views towards blacks and Latinos have gotten a ton of press, but he has relentlessly attacked Native Americans repeatedly, and it doesn’t seem to get as much attention.
Most recently, he directly challenged the sovereignty… or maybe we should call it “quasi-sovereignty” … of Native American nations. This was in the context of enacting work requirements for Medicaid recipients, and the Trump regime claimed that Native American tribes constitute a racial category rather than a group that enjoys a measure of self-governance.
He often calls Senator Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas,” but this isn’t new. His hostility towards Native Americans dates back to when some tribes on the East Coast opened casinos that competed with his Atlantic City properties. The Washington Post reported that in 1993, Trump “told lawmakers that organized crime… ‘is rampant on Indian reservations.’ He predicted ‘one of the biggest scandals since Al Capone.’” Then he said of the tribe that opened up the Foxwoods Casino, “They look like Indians to me.” It goes back a long way. It’s not a new thing.
DH: No, and it’s absolutely shameful.
And I think one of the reasons I would be honored to go to Congress is that I feel there’s a lack of education about the history of our country, and clearly President Trump doesn’t understand the trust responsibility that the United States government has toward tribes. We do have a government-to-government relationship with the tribes. We’re not special-interest groups. We’re not a racial category. The US government has a responsibility to provide health care, and so when we ask to be exempt from various things, that is grounded in law. For example, we can enroll through the Affordable Care Act any time of the year. We don’t have to wait until the open-enrollment period. And it’s because the US government has that responsibility. So he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He doesn’t speak for Native Americans. He doesn’t get to decide who is Native American. I will always be proud of who I am, and understand what my relationship with the land and the water and all these things mean. I would be happy to bring that experience with me to Congress and help educate some of these folks, so that they understand it better.
JH: We have this unique relationship with Native American tribes. Native American nations are the surviving vestiges of what amounts to a genocide against the indigenous population. They have semi-autonomous status with governments that are ultimately reliant or subordinate on the US government. In what way does that situation give Native Americans an experience that’s distinct from other communities of color?
DH: As I mentioned, the US government has a trust responsibility to tribes. When the Europeans first came to our country, this land was occupied. Right now, there are over 500 recognized tribes in the country. There were far more than that. This was our land. This was Indian land.
Slowly but surely, the US government continued to encroach across the country. So that’s where treaties came into play. When you hear the term “reservation,” that means the Indians had a large swath of land, and the US government came in and said, “Well, we’re going to take all this land and we’ll reserve a small portion for you. This is where you all can live.”
There were a lot of horrible eras in our country’s history, like the allotment era, when they said for each tribal member, we’ll give this certain number of acres and you can live here. As time went on, the land was sold off, or it was divided so much between heirs that they didn’t really have any large reservation land where they could have economic development or anything like that.
So, here in New Mexico, our Indian Pueblos are essentially defined by Spanish land grants. When the Spanish came here in the late 1500s, they essentially claimed the land for Spain. And those land grants are essentially the boundaries of our pueblos today.
We are sovereign governments. We do have treaties with the United States. The deal was basically, “In exchange for all of the land that we took, we are going to be responsible for certain things for you.”Health care is one of those.
JH: There have been a number of reports over the years about difficulties organizing Native American communities and turning out the vote. My understanding is that some of these problems are structural, and some are informed by partisanship. In some states, there’s voter suppression. Can you speak to that issue as someone who has organized Native American communities and national politics in the past?
DH: In New Mexico, we’re very lucky that we have laws in place that really help ensure that Native Americans’ right to vote is unencumbered. We have a secretary of state right now, Maggie Toulouse Oliver, who cares tremendously about that. So we enjoy a lot of things that some states don’t.
They had passed a law in North Dakota some time ago to require photo IDs. There were members of Indian tribes who didn’t drive, they couldn’t even get to a motor-vehicle place to get a state ID. Although they had been voting at the same location for 50 years, and everybody in the community knows who they are, they couldn’t vote. So those are things that the Republicans implement because they know that if more people get out to vote than they’ll lose.
In my experience, if I’m able to drive 10 Native Americans to the polls, nine of them will vote for Democrats. So I think we just need to keep raising our voices and making sure that we have that right to vote and that it’s unencumbered. I mean, it’s never going to end. It’s a constant issue that I think everybody needs to speak up about. It would be nice if every state were like New Mexico and cared about the Indian vote.
JH: Deb Haalland, I believe we’re out of time. I want to thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. I really appreciate it.
DH: Thank you. And make sure you early-vote, if you can.