Deb Haaland, the former New Mexico state Democratic party chair who is seeking to make history as the first Native American woman elected to Congress, had just one question before running: could she win?
Yes, she thought, she absolutely could.
“As a 35th-generation New Mexican, I felt I had a lot at stake,” Haaland said in an interview at a coffee shop near the US Capitol in Washington. “So I decided to run.”
Haaland is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna tribe and one of a record number of Native American women running for office this year. None have served in Congress – and the possibility of a landmark election is galvanizing voters in New Mexico.
“Congress has never heard a voice like mine,” Haaland says in a campaign ad that emphasizes her working-class background and progressive platform.
Last month, she soundly defeated five Democratic opponents to win the primary for an open congressional seat in a district that includes Albuquerque, the state’s largest city.
In November, she will face the Republican Janice Arnold-Jones, a former state lawmaker, and Lloyd Princeton, a Libertarian candidate, in a general election race that is expected to center on immigration, healthcare – and Donald Trump.
“Trump has given many people the courage to be bold in their racism. He gives the white supremacists and the far-right folks cause to be,” she said.
The president, Haaland says, is completely ignorant of Native Americans’ place in the country’s history. His repeated attacks on the Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren, whom he mockingly refers to as “Pocahontas”, are “disgusting and disgraceful”, she said. At a recent rally in Montana, Trump mused that he might “toss” a DNA test at the Massachusetts senator, challenging her claims to Native American ancestry.
“First of all, he doesn’t get to decide who’s native,” Haaland said. “And it is extremely disrespectful for him to continue to use the name Pocahontas as a racial slur.”
But she said Trump’s policies, even more than his words, posed an urgent threat to Native American land and traditions. Haaland pointed to the administration’s plan to enforce Medicaid work requirements for Native Americans, a move that tribal leaders say would restrict access to healthcare and undermine their sovereignty. She is also alarmed by the administration’s decision to shrink national monuments and roll back federal land protections.
The daughter of military veterans, Haaland attended 13 schools before she graduated high school. To pay her way through college, she decorated cakes and started a salsa business. She earned a law degree while raising a daughter as a single mother and working part time at an antique auction shop. At times, her family relied on food stamps, a reality she said many New Mexicans face as the state has one of the highest poverty rates in the country.