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Debra (Deb) Haaland may well become the first Native American congresswoman in United States history come November. This June, she defeated Damon Martinez to win the Democratic primary in the race for New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District. Right now, the district is represented by Michelle Lujan Grisham, who is running for governor and is currently New Mexico’s only woman in Congress.
Haaland is quick to point out that she is not the first Native American woman to run for a seat in Congress. Referencing Ada Deer, Kalyn Free, and Denise Juneau, three Native American women who previously ran for Congress and lost, Haaland says “It’s not that we haven’t tried.” There are only two Native Americans currently serving in Congress, both from Oklahoma: Rep. Tom Cole and Rep. Markwayne Mullin. Even though New Mexico’s population is more than 10 percent Native American, the state has never sent a Native American to Congress.
Haaland worked on campaigns for 20 years, focusing on getting Native Americans registered to vote. In 2012, she served as New Mexico’s Native American vote director for the Obama campaign, and went on to become the state chairwoman of the Democratic Party after a losing bid for lieutenant governor. Haaland is running on an “unapologetically progressive” platform, calling for sweeping climate change policies, Medicare for all, protecting reproductive rights, abolishing ICE, and addressing issues unique to Native American communities.
Haaland has drawn on her personal struggles as a single mother and recovering alcoholic to connect with voters, and called her victory in June a win for anyone “sidelined by the billionaire class.”
“I’m not exceptional. I didn’t grow up with privilege,” Haaland said. “I almost feel like my winning is a shoutout to democracy everywhere.”