New Mexico candidate hopes to be first Native American congresswoman
Michael Anaya Gorman(WASHINGTON) — Deb Haaland — a Native American woman running for Congress in New Mexico — has never seen anyone who looks like her in elected government.
But if she wins in the 1st Congressional District Democratic primary election Tuesday, she might be able to change that, for herself and for Native American women across the country.
“In 230 years, there’s never been a Native American woman in Congress. I have never seen myself in that body of our government,” Haaland said in an interview with ABC News. There are currently two Native American representatives in the House — both men from Oklahoma.
Unfortunately, that lived experience can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy for some. “Ten years ago, when I was out in Indian country knocking on doors and driving folks to the polls, I never thought I would run for Congress,” Haaland acknowledged. But eventually, a desire to serve her community lead her to politics.
Haaland is running for the seat left open by Democratic Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who is now running for governor.
Before deciding to run for the House of Representatives, Haaland volunteered in former President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. She then became the chair of the Democratic Party of New Mexico and helped flip the state House back to blue. In 2014, she ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor.
Haaland is an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna, a federally-recognized Native American tribe.
“It’s home to me, I go home as often as I can,” said Haaland.
Her mother, who served in the Navy, still lives there. Her father, a Marine, is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Now, she wants to bring diversity to Congress, both as a woman of color and as someone who feels she’s lived through many of the difficulties facing the constituents of New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District. As a single mom, she knows what it’s like to struggle, she said, whether that meant facing the reality of food stamps or trouble accessing affordable healthcare.
“I think it’s important to always have diversity, in our Congress or anywhere, but you also need diversity not just for women of color who are most underrepresented, but diversity in different walks of life,” Haaland said.
In New Mexico’s 1st district, Haaland faces a crowded Democratic race with four opponents. Haaland and two of her opponents, former U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez and former law school professor and activist Antoinette Sedillo-Lopez, have raised the most money and come out as frontrunners.
The race is diverse among the remaining five candidates in gender, career and ethnicity — a reflection of the majority-minority state. The current governor, Susana Martinez, was the first Hispanic female elected governor in the history of the United States.
More than 10 percent of the state is Native American, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Out of the states that might elect the first Native American congresswoman in 2018 — and there are candidates running across the country — New Mexico would be a good bet, said Lonna Atkeson, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico.
“From that perspective, we’re uniquely qualified because we’ve been doing it for a long time,” she said of New Mexico’s diversity in Congress and across the state.
But the diversity and multitude of candidates in the race has also led to narrower campaigns in the primaries, Atkeson said.
“Democratic candidates are fighting for a small sliver of progressive voters but [New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District] is a much deeper and richer community than that particular narrow sliver of voters,” Atkeson said.
With six candidates, it’s a hard race to predict, she said. The race may come down to name recognition and candidate heuristics — especially the role of identity politics, according to Atkeson.
“There’s this sort of difficulty, especially in a five-way race, where you have to really focus your message,” said Atkeson.
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