Deb Haaland hopes to be first Native American woman in Congress

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Deb Haaland’s path to political prominence in New Mexico started with a phone bank.

The New Mexico Democrat and Laguna Pueblo member was working the phones for presidential candidate John Kerry during the 2004 election and found herself energized by the buzz and purpose of the campaign. That effort led to volunteer work on other campaigns, and then she became a candidate herself, winning the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor of New Mexico in 2014. Although she lost in the general election, New Mexico Democrats elected her as state party chairwoman a year later.

Now, Haaland, 57, has set her sights on the open 1st Congressional District seat and hopes to become the first Native American woman elected to Congress.

“Every time I got more involved, it made me feel increasingly like I wanted to serve the people of New Mexico,” Haaland recalled in a Journal interview. “I feel like I have something to offer this state that I love and the district I love. I know what it’s like for a lot of folks in this district. I’ve had to struggle myself so I feel like I can take that experience and fight for things that I think the people here need and deserve.”

Haaland said as she’s traveled the state and 1st District as party chairwoman and now as a congressional candidate she’s spoken with “thousands of voters” and found that economic issues dominate their lives.

“Their struggles are about their status as a single parent or working to pay off student loans and trying to support a family and these are all the same things I’ve been doing myself,” said Haaland. “I have the same story as a lot of people, and I think I can be effective that way.”

Born into a military family in Winslow, Ariz., Haaland said she moved around as a child but frequently visited relatives in New Mexico. She settled in the state permanently 30 years ago while obtaining an undergraduate and law degree from the University of New Mexico. She has since worked as a tribal administrator for Laguna Pueblo and was elected chairwoman of the Laguna Development Corp. board of directors, where she said she oversaw business operations of the second-largest tribal gaming enterprise in New Mexico.

Haaland has one adult daughter. In her first campaign television advertisement, she notes that she has been sober for 30 years.

Haaland said that if elected, combating climate change and creating new jobs through clean energy, pushing for universal health care, protecting unions and ensuring equality for LGBT residents would be among her top priorities.

“We have almost 300 days of sunshine right here in New Mexico; we can start this renewable energy revolution,” Haaland said. “New Mexico can be on the forefront of that. At the same time, it can create a lot of jobs we need here.”

Haaland also said she would support Democratic congressional legislation to open the federally subsidized Medicare program to all Americans.

“If we had health care for everybody, parents wouldn’t have to send their kids to school sick,” she said. “When you don’t have a healthy community, it affects our economy.”

Haaland’s first television commercial of the campaign, which began airing last week, highlights her Native American ancestry. Asked why it’s important that New Mexico elect a Native American to Congress, she said, “Diversity matters.”

“We have a nice, diverse state here in New Mexico, when you have folks who have never had anyone in a body of legislators who looks like them and you’ve never had anyone who looks like them they tend to feel that they are underrepresented,” she said. “It’s not why I’m running; it’s who I am. I’m running because I feel like I can be an effective voice for folks here in District 1 and across the state.”

Haaland has been endorsed by more than a dozen New Mexico pueblos, as well as the American Federation of Teachers New Mexico, National Education Association – New Mexico, the Congressional Black Caucus, Equality New Mexico and others.

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