SANTA FE – Former state Democratic Party chairwoman Debra Haaland, a longtime party activist who has been at the forefront of some of New Mexico Democrats’ biggest recent ups and downs, is setting her sights on an Albuquerque-area congressional district race.
Haaland will formally launch her campaign today for the 1st Congressional District seat that will be vacated next year by incumbent Michelle Lujan Grisham, who is running for governor.
If elected, the Laguna Pueblo member and former San Felipe Pueblo tribal administrator would be the first Native American woman to serve in Congress. She said she would bring unique qualifications to the increasingly Democratic-leaning congressional district, which has not been won by a Republican candidate since 2006.
“I feel like as a woman, and a woman of color, in this time of Trump … it’s so important for our voices to be heard out there,” Haaland said in a recent interview.
Haaland oversaw the Democratic Party of New Mexico’s efforts as chairwoman from mid-2015 until last month, when her two-year term expired. During last year’s election cycle, Democrats reclaimed control of the state House of Representatives and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump by a comfortable margin in New Mexico, winning the state’s five electoral votes in an ultimately unsuccessful bid.
But Haaland faced criticism from some Bernie Sanders backers during the presidential campaign, who accused state Democratic Party leaders of favoring Clinton over her Democratic rival.
Haaland has disputed the criticism, saying she never took sides in the race before the primary election, and says she’s not concerned about it becoming an issue in next year’s election.
“If we’re divided, I don’t necessarily see it in the results,” Haaland added.
Before her work as party chair, Haaland was the 2014 lieutenant governor nominee, but the Democratic ticket – headed by then-Attorney General Gary King – was soundly defeated by incumbent Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican.
Haaland also worked as the state Native American vote director for then-President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012, and said her past personal experiences allow her to connect with voters.
“I know what it’s like to have to apply for food stamps,” said Haaland, who raised her daughter as a single mother. “I know what it’s like to get to the front of the grocery store and have to put groceries back because you don’t have enough money to pay for them.”
If elected to Congress, Haaland said top priorities would include expanding renewable energy projects in New Mexico, improving veterans’ services and strengthening the state’s public education system.
Before that, however, Haaland would have to win the Democratic Party’s nomination in the June 2018 primary election. Three other Democrats are also seeking the nomination: Albuquerque City Councilor Pat Davis; former University of New Mexico School of Law professor Antoinette Sedillo Lopez; and Albuquerque physicist Dennis Dinge.
No Republican candidates have entered the race yet.