Deb Haaland moved around a lot as a kid. Her dad was in the Army, her mom was in the Navy, and she says she attended 13 schools before graduating in Albuquerque. But she has deep roots in New Mexico — really deep. The Pueblo of Laguna tribe, of which she’s a member, have lived in the area since at least 1300 A.D. Her grandfather worked for the railroad in Winslow; her grandmother told her stories of watching the road that would become Route 66 as it was paved for the first time. It’s hard to imagine that there are any firsts left when you’re talking in terms of millenia, but next January, Haaland is likely to take her place as the first Native woman ever elected to Congress. (She’s running in a deeply Democratic district for the seat vacated by Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham.)
A grassroots organizer who cut her teeth on the Kerry and Obama campaigns before rising to the very top of New Mexico’s Democratic Party, Haaland is not taking anything for granted. She has a detailed field plan to make sure she makes history in November. Rolling Stone caught up with the mother and perhaps soon-to-be congresswoman from New Mexico to talk about the lessons she learned leading the state party through the 2016 election, her plans to hold Trump accountable, and her fight for working families.
How’d you get involved in politics?
I’ve been a Democrat for a long time, but I’ve mostly been a volunteer. One of the first campaigns where I started doing a lot more was the John Kerry campaign in 2004. I would go into the campaign office, ask for a list of Native voters around the country and call them. That turned into me wanting to be more boots-on-the-ground: to talk to voters face-to-face. In 2008, I was a full-time volunteer for Barack Obama’s first election. I’d take a carload of people and we’d go and canvass in a Native American community every evening. We really did a great job in Indian country, to the point where I remember we went to Santa Ana Pueblo one evening and this guy came out of his house and said, ‘Go home! You’ve been here every day! We’re going to vote, don’t worry about it!’
Expanding the voter base and turning out existing voters is going to be key for Democrats in the midterm elections. As a field organizer, how did you do that in New Mexico?
As long as I have been working on campaigns, I’ve really wanted to get out [the vote in] underrepresented communities — which, in New Mexico, are Native American communities. A lot of them are very rural. In Indian communities, it’s a separate sovereign government, so you have to get permission from the tribal leadership before you can start campaigning on their land. And when you’re in a community like that, you take advantage of their public activities. In the Navajo nation, they have Navajo Nation fairs, they have Navajo Nation parades, they have chapter-house meetings — those are all events that you take advantage of by showing up, pitching a voter-registration booth.
You went on to chair your state’s Democratic Party. Was that a natural evolution for you, from working on campaigns?
You know, when you’re successful, you keep wanting to do it. I ran for state party chairwoman in 2015. We had lost our Statehouse in 2014 after 60 years, and the party had accumulated seven years worth of debt. I said I would pay off the debt and win back our Statehouse, and we did both. We, as a team, went to every small community, every county. We had the idea that there are Democrats everywhere, even in red counties, and let’s find every Democrat and make sure they know we care about them and want them to get out and vote. And we were successful. We got Democrats elected up and down the ballot.
It must have been awkward on election night in 2016 to be celebrating all of these local victories while at the federal level the outlook for Democrats was… less rosy.
That was a total bummer. We had a big event for the party — our secretary of state won that night, Maggie Toulouse Oliver. Michelle Lujan Grisham won her reelection. We had Democrats that won across the state. It was exciting, but after we realized that the election was not successful across the country, nobody wanted to celebrate. It was just devastating to all of us.
You’re likely going to be the first Native woman in Congress. How are you grappling with that responsibility? What do you want to do?
One, I can push the Congress to embrace the fact that the U.S. government has a trust responsibility to tribes. I think, in a lot of cases, folks don’t understand what that means, so I hope I can be a voice on that. Second, I think it’s important to recognize that I won’t actually be a voice for my tribe or any tribe, but I hope that I can facilitate tribal leaders coming to the table and being able to voice their own concerns. Tribes have a government-to-government relationship with the federal government, with the state government. They are heads of state, essentially, and they really deserve to be at the table when these decisions are being made.
When you say “these decisions” what do you mean?
For example, tribal consultation when it comes to environmental issues, like the Dakota Access Pipeline. Tribes should be at the table, they should have opportunities to weigh in on those important decisions. If I can help raise those issues, I would be happy to try, of course.
You still have the general election to get through, but you’re in a very Democratic district so I imagine it’s hard not to be thinking about January already. What are you looking forward to getting done, once you’re actually in Washington?
I think we have a really good chance of winning back the House — I really do. And if we win back the House, we have more and better opportunities to steer things, to hold government officials accountable. This whole Russia thing — it’s nuts in that there are no consequences. President Trump is not feeling any consequences at all. If we’re in the House, we can push to make sure that the investigations continue uninterrupted, that we are making some real progress on holding people accountable.
Have you thought at all about who you would look to join forces with in the House?
I will join the progressive caucus. I think I can be a strong voice on those issues: renewable energy, Medicare-for-all. There is a Native American caucus, and two Native Americans in Congress right now. They’re both males, both Republicans and both from Oklahoma. I’ll absolutely work with them to move Indian issues forward.
What’s on your agenda between now and the election?
I’m just staying completely focused on an extremely strong field program in District 1 and beyond. We’re just going to be completely focused on having a robust voter turnout in November.
What have you found are the issues that are most animating for voters in your district?
Renewable energy and climate change are very important to a lot of people, because we need jobs and we really, really believe that we can create jobs by moving down a path toward 100 percent renewable energy. As a state, half of our population is Medicaid-eligible, so health care is extremely important. We are pushing for Medicare-for-all. That’s an economic issue — it really is. And if we can work toward a fair, more-equitable system for working families, everybody would have health care. It’s too inequitable. People need a break.