Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
Rep. Deb Haaland was with members of her family watching the Senate vote on her confirmation to be the next secretary of the Interior when two things became apparent.
She had enough support to take a seat at the president’s inner circle. And she was out of tomatoes.
Haaland said she considered a quick run to the store before her security detail increased its presence in her life.
“I kind of realize that things are going to change for me,” Haaland told dozens of her supporters during a Zoom call on Monday.
The New Mexico Democrat was confirmed as the next secretary of the Department of the Interior on Monday, making her the first Native American Cabinet secretary in the country’s history. Senators voted 51-40 to confirm Haaland, who was strongly supported by advocates for conservation and Native American issues.
She will soon lead an agency critical to the Biden administration’s efforts to confront climate change.
Many Haaland supporters watched the vote on a Zoom watch party organized by NDN Collective, an organization dedicated to increasing Indigenous political power. Dozens of people, including actor Mark Ruffalo, wiped away tears as the votes trickled in.
Haaland, who joined the call after the vote, said the confirmation was another crucial step in increasing Native American “visibility.”
“This moment is a culmination of so many of the sacrifices that my ancestors made,” Haaland said on the call. “If we’re visible, that means our needs are being met, that means we’re being taken seriously, that means our issues are at the forefront.”
Jonathan Nez, president of the Navajo Nation, said Haaland’s confirmation was a source of hope for Native American people, especially children.
“It gives us a seat at the table to offer a new and different perspective from a person that has experienced the reality of adversities and challenges of growing up on what federal officials refer to as ‘Indian’ reservations,” Nez said.
Haaland will soon be leading a federal agency with wide-ranging responsibilities on public lands throughout the country. The Interior Department approves oil and gas drilling and mining on federal lands, runs national parks, and is involved in protecting wildlife and endangered species. That’s in addition to its authority in Indian Country, which includes managing government relations with tribes, administering mineral rights and managing the Bureau of Indian Education.
Food stamps to Cabinet
Haaland, 60, raised a child as a single mother, relied on food stamps, and has been upfront about her struggles with alcohol.
She is a Laguna Pueblo member and former San Felipe Pueblo tribal administrator, 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.
In her time in the House, she was a fierce environmental advocate and her nomination was met with strong opposition by Republicans, and oil and gas industry proponents.
Haaland was a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal, has been opposed to oil and gas development on public lands, and has taken other strong environmental stances, such as calling for more protections for the country’s lands and waters.
Her life story has resonated with many Americans, particularly Native Americans, said Julian NoiseCat, vice president for policy and strategy at Data for Progress.
“She’s lived a very real life in many ways,” NoiseCat said. “From living on food stamps to traveling to the camps directly in the path of the Dakota Access Pipeline, and cooking green chile stew and tortillas for water protectors, Native people see ourselves in that story. And seeing ourselves at that level of government gives us hope.”
The vote on Monday was the narrowest margin yet for any of President Joe Biden’s Cabinet nominees. Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina were the only GOP members who voted to confirm Haaland.
New Mexico Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce called her nomination “bittersweet” for New Mexico.
“While Rep. Haaland’s elevation to the Biden Cabinet is a proud moment for our state, her radical position on energy will be devastating to New Mexico,” Pearce said in a statement. “Our oil and gas industry is vital to our state and its financial health, and Haaland has made it clear she opposes fracking, the oil and gas industry, and supports the Green New Deal.”
During her confirmation hearings last month, when asked about prior statements she’s made about environmental issues – such as saying she supports bans on fracking and animal trapping – she said that her role as a congresswoman is different from that of a Cabinet secretary. She said she’ll make decisions based on science, and she acknowledged that fossil fuels will be part of the country’s energy portfolio for years to come.
“Deb Haaland has said she will simply follow President Biden’s orders; sadly, those orders are already killing jobs in Haaland’s own state,” said Larry Behrens, Western states director for Power the Future, which has opposed renewable energy mandates. “During her confirmation hearing, Deb Haaland made a commitment to listen to America’s energy workers; now we will see if she was telling the truth.”
Haaland is not expected to formally step down from her congressional seat until Tuesday afternoon, according to an adviser.
She could then be sworn in as interior secretary by Vice President Kamala Harris on Tuesday or Wednesday, depending on scheduling.
Haaland’s resignation will trigger a special election for her seat in the House. Once the vacancy occurs, the secretary of state has 10 days to issue the proclamation and the election will happen 77 to 91 days later.
Already, more than a dozen people, a mix of Democrats, Republicans and other candidates, have declared their candidacy to fill the seat, which represents most of Albuquerque and the surrounding areas.
Journal staff writer Dan Boyd and The Associated Press contributed to this report.