There is something special, something profound about being the first. First woman in space. First Latina on the Supreme Court. First Native American woman in Congress.
Deb Haaland has to share that last honorific with fellow Democrat Sharice Davids of Kansas, but somehow that makes it something even more profound. What better way for a woman who champions the values of community to embrace this unique honor than to share it?
After years spent getting others elected, Haaland finally decided it was her time to run, and she was right. The former tribal administrator and chairwoman of the state Democratic Party was elected this November to take a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Her time starts now.
A single mom and former small-business owner who put herself through law school, Haaland also was the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor of New Mexico four years ago. Now she’s headed to Washington to pursue a decidedly progressive agenda that stands in stark counterpoint to the capital’s current bent. She says she’s ready to fight the good fight.
As she crisscrossed her district for her historic campaign, Haaland took a few minutes to talk to UNUM about her journey to get to where she is today, her inspirations, and her hopes for the future.
UNUM: How has your past influenced who you have become today?
DH: I have a rich but, of course, struggled history of my ancestors here in New Mexico. I am very proud to be a Pueblo woman from Laguna Pueblo. My grandparents and my parents taught me the value of hard work and conservation with respect to our environment. I bring everything they taught me about caring for our environment and the importance of working hard to make a difference.
Haaland’s commitment to progressive causes, the environment, and the struggles of Native Americans in America has taken her to protest at Standing Rock and saw her lead the divestment of the state Democratic Party from Wells Fargo because of the bank’s heavy investment in the Dakota Access Pipeline as well as for-profit immigration detention facilities.
UNUM: What inspired you to run for office?
DH: I was just finishing up my service at the Democratic Party of New Mexico and we had won across New Mexico. I was proud to have led the party during the 2016 elections — and we won across the state, so I felt like my activism, my hard work, what I had worked for over the years would be a great value for the people. I felt like I could work very hard for them and fight for the things that people in this district and all of New Mexico need: like working hard toward 100% renewable energy, knowing that would create thousands of jobs; making sure that people have healthcare; and of course fighting for public schools, always. I felt like I had already been advocating for those things for a long time and that I could be a strong voice and advocate for these issues.
UNUM: Tell us about women in your life that have had a significant impact on you or inspired you?
DH: I have had so many strong women who have helped me along the way, including my mom and my grandmother. But right here in New Mexico we have an amazing female Native American activist, Ladonna Harris, who has worked for decades to help move Native issues to the forefront. She has never quit! I admire her immensely and am grateful to have her support, and to be able to look up to her.
UNUM: Can you talk about your experience or any obstacles you have faced, running for office, both as a woman and as a Native American?
DH: Of course, we’ve never had a Native American in Congress, so, first, there wasn’t anyone that I could approach, that I could call up and say, “How did you do it?” and, “Help me to get there.” We worked our way up. There were a number of folks in the state who said I couldn’t raise the money because of the large amount of money it takes to run a professional campaign. I just felt like, you know what, regardless of what anyone says, regardless of who thought I would lose, I felt like that I could work hard enough that I could outwork anybody. And that’s just what we did. I assembled a team of terrific people that had worked on many campaigns here in New Mexico. I credit my team for really helping us to get strongly past the finish line in the primaries. I feel like anything negative that came during that primary, or even now, we just worked harder and prevailed.
And prevail she did. Haaland was a runaway victor over her Republican opponent, easily outgaining her by 23 percent of the vote on election night. Haaland took the opportunity that night to reaffirm her commitment to fight for the disenfranchised.
UNUM: What do you hope to accomplish?
DH: There are issues right now that we need solutions to. One is climate change; I think we can move ahead so our country uses 100% renewable energy. I would like to make New Mexico a global leader in renewable energy because not only will it fight climate change, but it will help us to provide jobs for thousands of New Mexicans. I want to make sure that we have universal healthcare. Healthcare is not a privilege; it’s a right. Not enough people in Congress right now are thinking enough about universal healthcare, and that needs to change. When people don’t have the healthcare they need, it’s hard for them to do the work 100% of the time. And of course, as I said, I am a huge supporter of public schools. We should have a bigger shift in office to people who don’t want to give our taxpayer money away to private schools. I am against that wholeheartedly, and I just feel like the more that we can provide a quality public education to every single child, the better this country will be, and that’s including early childhood education.
UNUM: What are your words of wisdom or words of inspiration for other women who are pursuing their own passion or dreams?
DH: I started by first volunteering on a campaign for a candidate who I liked; now I’m running for Congress. I’ve thought about this a lot over the last few days of just watching the Supreme Court process, with all of the things that came out about Judge Kavanaugh and the privilege that he has — just going to a prep school, being able to do anything he wanted, and still become a federal judge. He had a lot of folks who were able to help him find his way. It’s really not that way for a lot of people who are struggling. I am proud graduate of a public school here in New Mexico. I went to a public university and to UNM School of Law. So I feel like the folks who are struggling in this country, the people who haven’t had everything handed to them on a silver platter, they need opportunity also. Neither one of my parents graduated from college. I am going to work very hard to make sure that everybody gets an opportunity to succeed, not just the folks who are privileged.
Haaland’s election, once she got past a contentious primary, came as little surprise in a blue-leaning district. What was (a little) surprising was the fact that she was going to have to share the honor of being first. In a widely predicted win over a four-term incumbent in a district that has been solidly red for a decade, Sharice Davids became the first openly LGBT person to represent Kansas and, along with Haaland, the first Native American woman in Congress.
Deb is an American politician from New Mexico, elected to Congress on November 6, 2018. She is a former Chair of the Democratic Party of New Mexico. Deb was the 2018 Democratic nominee for the United States House of Representatives to represent New Mexico's 1st congressional district, and defeated Republican nominee Janice Arnold Jones. She is one of the first two Native American women to be elected to Congress, alongside Sharice Davids, both in 2018.
This interview was written by Tricia English and Christopher Hall