Deb Haaland prepares for Congress after historic win

Before Democrat Debra Haaland heads to Congress, she threw a “thank you” party for her supporters on Nov. 26 at Hotel Andaluz in Albuquerque.

Haaland won the seat for District One,  defeating contenders, Republican Janice Arnold-Jones and Libertarian Lloyd Princeton, in the November election. She made history by becoming one of two Native American women elected to Congress.

Haaland succeeds Democrat Michelle Lujan-Grisham, who won the New Mexico governor race against Republican Steve Pearce.

“Now, moving forward with all of the things we talked about during the campaign, I feel like I have a lot of support from the community to move forward with the issues that I campaigned on, like climate change and renewable energy and healthcare and public education, protecting our LGBTQ community and immigration and so many other things,” Haaland said.

In preparation for her Jan. 3 swear-in date, Haaland attended one week of orientation for new members of Congress in Washington, D.C. She listened to lectures about committee processes, ethics rules and the importance of “franking.”

Franking is an official mark or signature on a letter or parcel to indicate government-paid postage.

“Every time that gets sent through the mail, it deducts from your member account,” Haaland said. “It’s all official, that’s the way you reach your constituents.”

Upon arrival in Washington, D.C., Haaland said, she was greeted with excitement — especially as she was among the many women, including women of color who decided to run because of what they had gone through in their own lives, Haaland said.

“People who have been spurred to action because of their personal history and experience, I’m just honored to serve with those people,” Haaland said.

Despite Haaland being greeted with enthusiasm, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of New Mexico, Michael S. Rocca, Ph.D., said the Democrats can expect gridlock in Congress.

“The complicated factor here is the Senate,” Rocca said. “They’re not going to be able to get much through the United States Senate because it’s still controlled by the Republicans, and in fact, they gained seats in the Senate.”

Democrats are taking the majority in the House of Representatives, so they will control everything from rules to agendas in the House, Rocca said.   

Rocca said Haaland had some structural advantages going into the election because District One is comprised mostly of registered Democrats. But, “descriptive representation” also played a role in Haaland’s historic win, she said.

“It’s the idea that that members of Congress, who they are, what they look like, who they represent, that those descriptive attributes matter in how they do their business and how they do their job in the United States Congress, and that’s a very, very powerful thing,” Rocca said.

Haaland said her Native American upbringing contributed to her inspiration to run for office.

Haaland was raised in a Laguna Pueblo military household, but her mother kept her grounded in their Pueblo beliefs, and whenever they were close to New Mexico, they would visit and participate in their culture.

Haaland spent her summers with her grandparents and would walk down with her grandfather to learn the ways of the land and irrigate the fields, she said.

“All of those things, I felt those cultural things influenced my belief that we need to protect our environment, we need to protect our water,” Haaland said. “That language and culture is important, and we should honor those things for the various cultures we have in this country.”

Haaland got her start in politics as a phone volunteer working on various campaigns, showing up in person and knocking on people’s doors, she said.

She recalled being inspired to run for office by Democrat Tim Johnson of South Dakota and his race for the U.S. Senate.

People went to bed that election night thinking Johnson had lost to his opponent, but the next morning he won, thanks to votes from Indian country, Haaland said.

“I remembered back in 2002, I was so inspired by that,” she said. “I feel like that’s really the piece of history that originally got me thinking that I could have a part in getting out Indian votes, and that’s exactly what I did here in New Mexico.”

Melinda Moffitt volunteered her time to Haaland’s campaign by knocking on doors and seeking donations. She said she looks forward to Haaland in Congress.

“I hope that Deb continues to believe her progressive values, and I really think she will, so that we can expect a champion for our environment, for Native peoples, for all people of color and especially those who have been living in poverty and difficult circumstances,” Moffitt said. “I think she’ll be the champion of all people.”

Although the election is over, Haaland has a few more weeks until she occupies the seat, and a fair bit of work to do.

Haaland is seeking an apartment in Washington, D.C., where she will reside Mondays through Thursdays. Meanwhile, she said she is staffing her Albuquerque office to tend to the needs of her constituents before she leaves.

“So those are all things I’ll work on, having a successful transition from New Mexico to D.C., so that I can be ready to hit the ground running on Jan. 3,” Haaland said.

You can follow Alyssa on Twitter @albitsie.