ALBUQUERQUE — Debra Haaland, who was the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor last year, was elected Saturday as the new state Democratic Party chairwoman.
Haaland, 54, who is a member of Laguna Pueblo, is the first American Indian to be elected to head either major political party in the state.
At a meeting in the Valley High School gymnasium, the party’s State Central Committee elected Haaland over former Santa Fe County party chairman Richard Ellenberg. The vote was 214 for Haaland, 168 for Ellenberg.
Haaland, whose term begins immediately, replaces Albuquerque lawyer Sam Bregman. Bregman showed up to the meeting for a few minutes but didn’t stay for the election of new officers.
“My main goal is to train volunteers so we’ll have a pool of volunteers when the national campaigns come here,” she said after the vote. “Usually they bring in people from out of state, and we love them, but I want to train our people, so there will be a pool of fully trained volunteers.”
Haaland is chairwoman of Laguna Development Corp. and works as tribal administrator for San Felipe Pueblo.
The party is trying to recover from a crushing election last year that saw the re-election of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez and the GOP taking control of the state House of Representatives for the first time in more than 60 years.
Haaland noted that her mentor, former U.S. Sen. Fred Harris in his nominating speech Saturday, said she has a talent for recruiting volunteers. “And that’s better than money,” Harris said.
But Haaland said she’s not forgetting about money. She said her first act as chairwoman will be a letter of thank you — and a plea for funds for the state party, which is in debt after last year’s election.
The party currently has $10,891 cash on hand but has outstanding bills of more than $55,000. Some Democratic candidates have offered to help pay those debts from their campaign funds, Haaland noted.
Raising funds for state parties has been more difficult for both Republicans and Democrats in recent years largely because of the rise of Super PACs and politically oriented nonprofits, which, unlike parties, are not bound by campaign finance laws.
“We’ll never be able to compete with them,” Haaland said. But there are other ways a state party can help Democrats win elections, she said.
Voter registration efforts will be a priority for the party, Haaland said, and will include a major outreach effort to American Indian communities.
She told reporters an anecdote from the 2012 presidential campaign, when she was Native American vote director for Barack Obama. One day, she said, she registered seven American Indian first-time voters from one house. One of them, a man in his 50s, told her, “I always wanted to vote, but I didn’t know how.” Indians were not allowed to vote in this state until 1948, Haaland noted.
Also reaching out to independent voters, who Haaland said are the people who really decide elections in New Mexico, will be a major priority for her.
While campaigning for the leadership position, Haaland said the state party should hold training sessions for Democratic candidates. “We should give them a place to practice their stump speeches,” she said. “We should teach them how to write press releases.”
Asked about possible changes to the state party staff, Haaland said that current executive director Jon Lipshutz has agreed to stay on for the time being but she intends to form a search committee to conduct a nationwide search for a new director. This committee will include past state chairmen and chairwomen and perhaps elected officials, she said.
Besides Harris — who represented Oklahoma in the Senate but has lived in this state for decades and himself is a past state chairman — Haaland was endorsed by the state’s largest public employee union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; former Lt. Gov. Diane Denish; State Auditor Tim Keller; former Ambassador Ed Romero, a major contributor to state Democratic candidates; and several state legislators.
In his campaign for the chairmanship. Ellenberg, a retired lawyer, stressed that he would be able to devote all his time the party. Haaland, after the vote, told reporters that she also will be a full-time chairwoman. “I’m a woman. I can multitask,” she said.