SANTA FE – New Mexico congresswoman Deb Haaland is set to shatter more glass ceilings in Washington D.C., after being tapped Thursday as President-elect Joe Biden’s Interior secretary.
If confirmed, Haaland, 60, would make history as the nation’s first-ever Native American Cabinet secretary and would lead an influential federal agency that oversees roughly 500 million acres of public lands and plays a key policy role on tribal issues.
Haaland, who is a Laguna Pueblo member and former San Felipe Pueblo tribal administrator, had been touted as a potential Cabinet pick by many fellow House members and Native American groups.
She said Thursday she was honored to accept the nomination and ready to serve.
“A voice like mine has never been a Cabinet secretary or at the head of the Department of Interior,” Haaland said in a statement.
“As our country faces the impacts of climate change and environmental injustice, the Interior has a role and I will be a partner in addressing these challenges by protecting our public lands and moving our country towards a clean energy future,” she added.
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez called it a “historic and unprecedented day” for all Indigenous people, pointing out the Interior Department oversees two key tribal offices – the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education.
“I congratulate her and I also thank the Biden-Harris team for making a statement and keeping their word to place Native Americans in high-level Cabinet positions,” Nez said in a statement.
As head of the U.S. Department of the Interior, Haaland would oversee aspects of oil and gas drilling sites on public lands.
In her recent campaign for Congress, Haaland said it was time for New Mexico to rethink it’s reliance on the oil and gas industry, citing droughts in the Southwest, floods in the Southeast and burning wildfires in the West. She has said she supports a ban on fracking and the Green New Deal.
Those stances caused top-ranking New Mexico Republicans and members of the state’s oil and gas industry to express concern about Haaland’s nomination.
“Ms. Haaland has repeatedly demonstrated contempt towards our industry, especially regarding the need for a balanced approach to public land management,” said Jim Winchester, the executive director of the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico. “We urge congressional leaders to closely examine her anti-oil and gas record as they consider this selection.”
State Republican Party chairman Steve Pearce said in an interview Thursday that Haaland had been “very hostile” to the oil and gas industry. He added that halting new drilling leases on federal land could have a hugely negative impact on New Mexico’s state budget.
The Biden transition formally announced the selection of Haaland late Thursday after national news reports had telegraphed the decision.
Before the official announcement was made, a source familiar with the transition team’s thinking called Haaland a barrier-breaking public servant who would be well prepared to accelerate renewable energy projects on federal land.
A Haaland nomination would also reflect Biden’s commitment to address the historical mistreatment of Native Americans, including violations of treaty obligations, the source said.
U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said he “will sleep better at night” knowing that Haaland will change course for the department, which under the Trump administration has opened up sensitive areas to drilling, mining and other development.
“I am confident Congresswoman Haaland will use the best science to restore our landscapes, open up new outdoor recreation opportunities for everyone, put our public lands to work in confronting the climate crisis, and help Indian Country recover and rebuild from the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said in a statement, adding he would wholeheartedly support her confirmation.
The Interior secretary appointment marks a rapid ascent in national politics for Haaland, who was elected to represent the Albuquerque-based 1st Congressional District in 2018 after previously serving as the chairwoman of New Mexico’s Democratic Party.
There had been a strong lobbying effort to get Haaland the nomination, which was led by Native American advocacy groups and Hollywood stars.
NDN Collective, an Indigenous rights group, had written an open letter to Biden supporting Haaland’s appointment for the position, as did other organizations.
The incoming president and vice president also received a letter from Kerry Washington, Sarah Silverman, Rosario Dawson, Cher, Jane Fonda, Marisa Tomei and dozens of other actresses, artists and other women calling for Haaland to get the nod.
However, some news reports had raised concern about the credentials of Haaland, who is the vice chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources, and whether her appointment might be opposed by top House Democrats since it could pose a threat to their already-thin majority.
But U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., dismissed those concerns Wednesday, saying Haaland would be an “excellent choice” by the Biden transition team.
Her appointment could set off a wild scramble to fill her Democratic-leaning 1st Congressional District seat, which encompasses most of Albuquerque and all of Torrance County, as well as slivers of Sandoval, Valencia and Santa Fe counties.
Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver would have to call a special election to fill Haaland’s seat between 77 to 91 days of it being vacated, under a state law that was revised in 2019.
There would be no primary elections held before the special election, as political parties’ central committees would instead nominate their own candidates at least 56 days before the election.
In addition, Haaland could remain in her U.S. House seat through the Senate confirmation process.
Haaland was born in Arizona and grew up moving frequently to different cities and states because of her father’s career in the Marine Corps.
The family ultimately settled in Albuquerque in order to be closer to family who also belong to Laguna Pueblo.
After graduating from Highland High School, Haaland worked at a local bakery before enrolling at the University of New Mexico at 28 years old. She also earned a law degree from UNM Law School, taking courses while also raising her young daughter as a single parent.
Haaland’s personal story and economic background – including struggles with homelessness and alcohol issues – resonated with the Biden transition team, said the source familiar with the team’s thinking.
In a 2018 interview, Haaland said she understood the economic issues many New Mexicans face.
“There’s people in this state who have never had an opportunity to take their family on a summer vacation,” Haaland said. “I just feel like I know what it’s like. I know their struggle.”
UNM Provost James Holloway said Thursday the university was proud of the congresswoman.
“Haaland displayed grit and determination in pursuing her bachelor’s and (law degree) at UNM, and I’m excited to see that determination deployed in service to all the diverse communities of our nation,” Holloway said.
Due largely to its public land oversight role, the U.S. Department of the Interior has been frequently helmed by Westerners in recent decades.
Two New Mexicans have led the agency, most recently Manuel Lujan Jr., who was appointed by former President George H.W. Bush and served from 1989 to 1993.
U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., who is leaving office at the end of this year and had also been mentioned as a possible Interior secretary pick, called the appointment of Haaland a watershed moment, adding that she was fully qualified for the job.
“President-elect Biden has chosen an outstanding leader in Congresswoman Haaland, and I am confident that she will be both a historic Interior Secretary and an excellent one,” Udall said in a statement.
“She will undo the damage of the Trump administration, restore the department’s workforce and expertise, uphold our obligations to Native communities, and take the bold action needed to tackle the accelerating climate and nature crises,” he added
Meanwhile, Haaland’s appointment marks another political milestone for Native Americans. There were a record-high number of Native and Indigenous politicians, including Haaland, elected to Congress in the 2020 general election.
Additionally, the Native American vote was instrumental in helping Biden flip key states like Arizona, leading Native American voting rights activists to express hope the election results would help increase the voting bloc’s political influence going forward.
University of New Mexico political science professor Gabriel Sanchez said Thursday that Haaland’s appointment was a “huge deal” in terms of Native American representation in positions of power.
“With a higher turnout than expected (in the 2018 and 2020 elections), and the argument that Native Americans were consequential in Arizona and Nevada, I think all that led to the need to have somebody at the Cabinet level from the Native American community.”
In addition to being the first Native American appointed to a Cabinet post, Haaland also would become just the third woman to helm the Interior Department if confirmed, following Gale Norton and Sally Jewell.