Perhaps no one has risen faster in New Mexico politics than Congresswoman Deb Haaland, who hasn't yet completed her first term.

She is a leading contender to head the U.S. Department of the Interior under President-elect Joe Biden.

Haaland's emergence as a national figure was unimaginable six years ago, when she was part of the Democratic debacle in New Mexico.

As a 53-year-old rookie candidate, Haaland lost the race for lieutenant governor in 2014. She was part of a hopeless campaign headed by Democratic gubernatorial nominee Gary King.

King couldn't raise money, and he didn't inspire voters. He dragged down the Democratic slate in what proved to be the last big year for state Republicans. Not only did Republicans hold the Governor's Office, they won control of the state House of Representatives for the first time in 62 years.

A few months after the painful defeats of 2014, Democrats elected Haaland as state chairwoman of their party.

She had a hard job, but an easy act to follow. Trial lawyer Sam Bregman had done little as the Democratic chairman, and the 2014 election results proved it.

Haaland lacked Bregman's bravado, which was on display whether he was appealing to a jury or making a political speech.

Haaland would not be a show horse. In fact, she called herself a workhorse. She had labored for years to elect Democratic candidates.

Now she had a big title in a difficult time. With their surge in power, Republicans had their best chance in decades to reshape policy.

Haaland was relentless on Democratic issues, and she learned soon enough how to deliver biting commentary.

Republicans in the state Legislature tried in 2015 to outlaw compulsory fees if workers chose not to belong to a union. Many public unions in New Mexico didn't even charge the fees, but the Republicans made the bill their signature cause anyway.

Haaland had a sardonic reply.

"I've never heard so many Republicans talking about how we need to support choice," she said.

The Republican measures to reform labor law died in the state Senate, and Haaland made a favorable impression on fellow Democrats.

She helped rebuild her party with a significant assist from state Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe.

In 2016, Democrats regained control of the state House of Representatives and increased their majority in the state Senate. Hillary Clinton also carried New Mexico, though she lost the race for president to Republican Donald Trump.

The quick turnabout made it practical for Haaland to again run for public office. She decided to start near the top in 2018 with a campaign for Congress.

Haaland was one of six Democrats competing for the nomination in the Albuquerque-based 1st District.

Polling showed a tight race. More liberals were running than moderates. Many believed the large field would favor Damon Martinez, a former U.S. attorney for New Mexico and the most conservative of the Democratic contenders.

Not many saw a blowout coming, but it happened. Haaland won the primary with more than 40 percent of the vote. Martinez finished a distant second, 15 percentage points behind her.

Haaland, of Laguna Pueblo, easily won the general election over Republican Janice Arnold-Jones.

And Haaland made history in the process. She became one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress. The other is Rep. Sharice Davids, a Democrat from Kansas.

As a freshman congresswoman, Haaland took up causes centered on Native Americans.

In a famous one, she co-sponsored a resolution calling on the International Olympic Committee to list Jim Thorpe as the sole gold medalist of the two events he won at the 1912 Games in Stockholm, the decathlon and the pentathlon.

Thorpe, who was an enrolled member of the Sac and Fox Nation, was stripped of his medals for a long stretch. He had made a few bucks playing semi-pro baseball when the Olympics was billed as a competition for amateur athletes.

Haaland also welcomed debate with Republicans. She focused attention on affordable health care a year before the coronavirus pandemic, and she voted to impeach Trump.

After Haaland easily won reelection this month, she surfaced as one of Biden's leading candidates to head the Department of the Interior, which manages the nation's public lands.

It's a job coveted by Westerners. New Mexico's two sitting U.S. senators, Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, also have been mentioned as possibilities for the appointment, though neither with the frequency of Haaland.

None of this would have seemed possible on the gloomy night in 2014 when the King-Haaland ticket lost the race for governor and lieutenant governor.

Party regulars who gathered to watch the returns told Haaland it was all right, that she would make a comeback.

It was happy talk on a somber night, but they were right.

Haaland might have escaped a dead-end job. No lieutenant governor of New Mexico has ever gone on to win election as governor.

But a loser for lieutenant governor might soon be managing 450 million acres controlled by the U.S. government.

Hollywood would have rejected the screenplay as unbelievable. There might even have been a time when Haaland agreed.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080.

(26) comments

Peter Romero

I think Yvette Herrell was elected before Halland as Native American Woman. Harrell is a member of the Cherokee Nation with no arrests for driving while intoxicated.

Jim Klukkert

Nope Peter Romero, wrong again! Congresswomen Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids, D-KS, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, were both elected in 2016.

Deb grew up hard, and triumphed over some serious challenges on the way to a J.D. and a seat in Congress. Is that what your chauvinistic shot is meant to disparage.

Cheap shots, Peter, will win you no friends.

Jim Klukkert

As much as I am a fan of the Udall family, Tom in particular, I favor a Native American at the helm of Interior. 


It is time for the Democratic Party to acknowledge with positions of leadership, the people of color whose votes powered us to electoral victory to depose Trump. Such a step also fits neatly into the theory that the ‘last will be first’, and from the the most oppressed, will come the greatest leadership.

There is also this, from the New York Times:

"The Department of Interior was the driving force of modern day genocide against the Native American peoples,” said Elizabeth Kronk Warner, dean and professor of law at the University of Utah, and a citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie tribe of Chippewa Indians. “We would be moving from the shadows of perpetuated genocide to a chair at the table, from being classified as a group of people that the federal government was trying to destroy to having a president say, ‘I see you and value you to the point that I will raise you to the highest level of decision-making in the country.’”

How about Taos Pueblo member Michal L. Connor, a former deputy secretary at the Interior Department under President Obama? I am not so informed as to advocate for Mr. Conner, but he may be one to watch.

John Cook

Representative Haaland would be a good choice and the country would be well served with her at Interior. For wide breadth of experience and admirable conservation work over decades; I would choose Tom Udall.

Francisco Carbajal

Mr. Michael Rosenbaum, your comments are disrespectful and shameful. Definitely, to have a good grasp of one's own viewpoint, it is necessary to understand the arguments of those with whom one disagrees. It can be said from time after time, that those who do not completely understand their adversary's point of view, do not fully understand their own. I think that you fit this mole very well.

Comment deleted.
Jim Klukkert

the failing MICHAEL ROSENBAUM snaps off another rebuke! Wow O Wow, another big nothing

MICHAEL ROSENBAUM

LIKE THESE two people are the only ones he can pick from

Khal Spencer

Tough choice. Tom Udall has a massive amount of experience and Senate connections. Rep. Haaland is excellent and a relatively new face in the Party, something it desperately needed a few years back. If I were Joe Biden, I'd have a tough time deciding but would start with their cv's since I wouldn't do it by identity politics but by who is the best person for the job, and how do we grow new leaders?

Usually I growl at Ms. Denish here, but this time she nails it. Too much sour grapes here. People miss meetings. Guess what? Sometimes something urgent comes up. Not an attack on vets, but althoough memorial bills sound wonderful they have all the nutritional value of thin soup.

Mike Johnson

I would disagree Khal, Udall has lots of experience, one day at a time, and works hard, like washing machines do. Deb is certainly superior to him as far as character, life experiences, and grit goes. He is an elite, rich, fortunate son draft dodger, born with a silver spoon (and some would say foot) in his mouth, she knows what it is like to earn a living, struggle and survive in life with 2 hands tied behind her back. The unfortunate thing I learned here is her connections to Egolf and the corrupt Santa Fe Ring, but I think her time and exposure in Congress may have cleansed all that dirt from her record. She would also make an excellent Director of the BIA, and perhaps fix that many decades old mess, but she would be able to help there as DOI Secretary too.

Khal Spencer

You convinced me!

I didn't mean to take anything away from Deb by hedging a little bit. Having grown up with a tin spoon in my mouth and having had to figure it out for myself, I would go with the person who used adversity to hone herself into a fine legislator and leader. As I said, its time to exploit and grow new leaders rather than recycling the old ones. There is something for Tom to do too.

Diane Denish

Thanks for less growling and more realism about what members face.... and yes sometimes they miss appointments...probably something Tom Udall has had to do too. Aren't we lucky that anyone considered for DOI is a New Mexican...all well qualified but in different ways.

Khal Spencer

[thumbup]

B H

[thumbup] I am a big fan of Deb, but also of Tom. And the man from Taos Pueblo whom I had never heard of until a few days ago sounds like a good bet also. I would be happy with any of these and any others with great experience and a love for Native Americans and for the public lands. I am just grateful that all of these candidates for DOI are qualified to serve and weren't just big donors or people who are out to destroy the agency and sell the lands it manages to the private sector.

MICHAEL ROSENBAUM

HER ONLY QUALIFICATIONS ARE: female, native American

Diane Denish

Spoken like a mansplainer -- her best qualifications are her life experience, her wisdom, her persistence, and her grace....something perhaps, you, Mr. Rosenbaum are unwilling to recognize as necessary in the best leaders. She has made NM very proud with her steadfast, commitment to our Native lands and people, to conservation, and to Democracy.

Mike Johnson

Say Di, when are you making your political comeback? Any conversations with Scranton Joe lately?

Steve Gonzales

How many freshman reps with a history of addiction issues get considered for cabinet posts? And after Biden's pandering promise to name a woman of color as his running mate? Dems are bending over backwards to exploit her sex and ethnicity but lose their minds if you mention it. Even people educated in NM public schools aren't stupid enough to overlook the obvious. C'mon!

Elizabeth Pettus

So true!

B H

[thumbup][thumbup][thumbup]

William Schooley

Michael you pretty much nailed it. I had an appointment at her office in DC about a memorial bill for Veterans, she didn't show up.

Diane Denish

I hope you are just a little bit embarassed by your comments....so her appt to DOI should be rejected because she missed an appointment with you? Do you know how to spell NARCISSIST?

B H

[thumbup][thumbup][thumbup]

Jim Klukkert

MICHAEL ROSENBAUM- You have already had one of your comments deleted by the moderator as being abusive. Are you now going for a second in the same topic, on the same day?

Diane Denish

Clearly he is....setting a record for deleted comments?

Jim Klukkert

[thumbup]

Khal Spencer

Your cap locks are on and BTW, it doesn't make your comment any more intelligent.

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