Meet Deb Haaland, a potential historic Biden pick for Interior secretary. She'd be the first Native American to hold the job.

  • Several names are floating around for Joe Biden's possible nominee for Interior secretary, but in recent weeks Rep. Deb Haaland's name has risen above the din.
  • The New Mexico Democrat could become the first Native American to lead the Interior Department. She has lawmakers, tribal leaders, progressive groups, and even Mark Ruffalo backing her for the job.
  • Haaland made history in 2018 as one of the first Native American women to be elected to Congress along with Sharice Davids, a Democrat from Kansas.
  • Should Biden pick Haaland for the top Interior job, she would oversee the agency most involved in tribal affairs and the one that's most at loggerheads with tribes.
  • "History is a very powerful force," House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva told Insider. "This moment in history belongs to Deb Haaland, and nobody else."

Rep. Deb Haaland speaks at the Capitol on February 4, 2020. Should Biden pick her for the top Interior job, she would oversee the agency most involved in tribal affairs. Photo by Alex Edelman/Getty Images

Lots of names are floating around for Joe Biden's Interior secretary, but in recent weeks, one has risen above the din. Rep. Deb Haaland, who made history as one of the first Native American women elected to Congress in 2018, could soon shatter yet another glass ceiling.

A sprawling grassroots coalition of tribal leaders, lawmakers, progressives, a handful of Republicans, and even a Marvel superhero has sprung up to urge Biden to choose the New Mexico Democrat as Interior secretary. As a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe in New Mexico, she would be the first Native American to hold the post.

"I'm not out campaigning for this position," Haaland told Insider on Friday. "But look, if that's the decision that President-elect Joe Biden makes then of course I would always be honored to serve my state, my people, my country."

Haaland credited tribal leaders around the country for starting the push.

"You know, they showed up in 2020, and they feel like they've waited a long time, and would like to see a Native American in the Interior," the congresswoman said.

Overseeing Interior would place her in charge of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education, the agencies most involved in Native American issues and the ones that are most at loggerheads with tribes. Her backers argue that her lived — as well as governmental — experience make her the best candidate for the job.

In her interview with Insider, Haaland said that if appointed as Interior secretary, she would work to shore up the tribal consultation process, which requires the government to involve tribal governments in its decision-making processes when considering matters that impact tribal communities.

The tribal consultation process is one of the most contentious processes in federal rulemaking as it has to take into consideration a wide range of issues including the impact on the environment, tribal drinking water sources, burial grounds and other sacred sites.

She accused the Trump administration of throwing that consultation "out the window" as his administration has sought to open more public lands to development and exploration for minerals.

Politicians who have worked with her since her early days in New Mexico politics attributed Haaland's "meteoric" rise to her ability to compromise while still sticking to her beliefs, and centering tribal communities and the environment at the heart of her politics.

"She knows what needs to be done internally and externally in terms of rallying people on the side of conservation and climate change," Rep. Raúl Grijalva, the Democratic chairman of the House National Resources Committee, told Insider.

The Arizona lawmaker is perhaps Haaland's most ardent supporter in Congress and appointed her chairwoman of the panel's National Parks, Forests and Public Lands subcommittee shortly after she came to Congress in 2019. 

The Interior Department manages half a billion acres of land across the country and parts of its waters. Agency officials must juggle the often-competing needs of conservation with the exploration of the country's natural resources.

It also goes without saying that the Native American community is not a monolith; there are 574 nationally recognized Indian Nations, all of which have their unique cultures, needs, and relationships with the federal government. They have representation among both the Democratic and Republican parties. 

Grijalva has publicly backed Haaland for the Interior job after privately ascertaining her interest.  Dozens of members of Congress, including progressive "Squad" members like Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and more moderate Democrats like Rep. Jim Costa of California, have also signed a letter to Biden supporting Haaland for the job.

To top it all off, Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young, who also sits on the Natural Resources panel, told Data for Progress' Julian Brave NoiseCat that Haaland was a "consensus builder" and that she "would not only make history as the first Native American to serve in the role but would pour her passion into the job every single day."

From baking cakes in Albuquerque to making laws in Washington

Haaland was born in Arizona 60 years ago, but her military family relocated multiple times before eventually landing in Albuquerque.

Before climbing the ladder in New Mexico politics, a teenage Haaland worked her way up at Zinn's Bakery in Albuquerque. Politicos who campaigned alongside her in later years regaled Insider with stories of the cakes and pastries she'd whip up to fuel them for long days on the trail. 

Her past struggles with poverty, alcoholism and two drunk-driving charges decades before she ran for Congress have shaped her perspective as an elected official. 

"I pushed through college, and law school as a single mom, and I'm 30 years sober," she said in a 2018 campaign ad. "But struggle made me fierce."

In 2010, she joined the board of directors for the Laguna Development Corporation, which oversees casinos and gaming on the reservation. It was there where her signature trifecta of tribal issues, environmental advocacy, and knack for compromise began to take shape.

"She's very strong in her concern for ensuring we were considering environmental impacts...and she understood that in order for a company to do this they had to be profitable," said Jerry Smith, a fellow member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe who was executive director at the time and identifies as a conservative.

For five years, Haaland successfully pushed her colleagues to adopt changes such as eco-friendly LED lights in their casinos, recycling programs, and electric vehicles for the security team. Smith recalled a time Haaland tried to convert the casinos to non-smoking due to air quality concerns. He said it didn't work out.

There are dozens of environmental and energy issues that could land on Haaland's plate if she's chosen for Interior. Perhaps most significantly, Biden has pledged to ban new drilling on public lands in a major reversal from Trump's policy of expansion.

Biden's position is certain to face pushback from industry and oil-rich states, including Haaland's own New Mexico.

When asked whether she supported Biden's proposed drilling ban, Haaland said she'd emphasize the need to invest in renewable energy "because I think that industry can create jobs" while at the same time helping to combat climate change.

"There's entirely not enough renewable energy projects and too many extractive industry projects on our public lands," she said. "I would like to explore the idea of making our public lands more accessible to people and making them cleaner so that we are not polluting as much."

The Biden transition team declined to comment on any potential nomination for Haaland, though Politico reported that they're vetting her.

'She was the underdog and nobody thought she would win'

As Haaland became entrenched in the world of tribal economics, she also got politically active. Things moved quickly from there on in. 

"Deb felt for the longest time that Native Americans were being left out of the conversation," said Scott Forrester, Haaland's district director and 2016 campaign manager.

She aggressively canvassed the state's tribal communities for Barack Obama in 2012, knocking on doors and encouraging them to register and vote. Early in Tom Perez's tenure as DNC chair, Haaland pushed him to bring more Native Americans into the party so they would have enough members to form a caucus, Rion Ramirez, now the Native American caucus chair told Insider.

After Haaland ran for lieutenant governor on an unsuccessful ticket in 2014, she turned her attention to running for the job of the New Mexico Democratic Party chairwoman. She won. 

"I think what she was best known for was shaking up Democratic politics in New Mexico," said Raina Thiele, a former Obama White House staffer who came to know Haaland through her work with the state party.

"I think she helped make it a more inclusive environment. I think she made it more effective, to be honest," Thiele added. "She brought communities into the fold that really hadn't felt like they were a part of the party before."

Prior to Haaland's arrival, New Mexico Democrats had had a rough go of it. After the departure of the larger-than-life Bill Richardson, the governorship swung back to Republican control in 2011. In 2014, Democrats lost control of the New Mexico House of Representatives for the first time in 60 years. 

Forrester, himself a former state party official, told Insider that after Haaland took over the party she hired full-time staff, strengthening its infrastructure and allowing it to make gains at the local and federal level over the next few years. She also worked to canvass Native American voters throughout the state.

Two years later, Democrats reclaimed both chambers of the state legislature in Santa Fe. In 2018, the year Haaland was elected to Congress, New Mexico Democrats swept all three of the state's congressional seats, and reclaimed the governor's mansion.

That was also the year that Haaland truly arrived on the national scene. For the 2018 cycle, she hired Forrester to manage her campaign and set about winning a competitive primary.

Polls consistently showed her down, Forrester said. 

"She was the underdog and nobody thought she would win, raise the money," he told Insider. 

And then, she won, first the primary and later the general election, earning her place in Congress as well as the history books. She became one of the first Native American women ever elected to Congress, along with Sharice Davids, a Democrat from Kansas. She has made environmental and indigenous issues signature components of her work.

"You can cry identity politics, but try not being represented for over 200 years and all the sudden have somebody who looks like you," Haaland told the Washington Post after her election while reflecting on the gravity of her win. "I think that just causes a lot of emotion for people."

'This moment in history belongs to Deb Haaland'

Haaland finds herself in a similar situation today as she did in 2018. She's once again on the precipice of history and carrying a torch for millions, but with several other contenders potentially in her way. And once again, she's the underdog.

New Mexico is having a moment in the sun as Biden considers who to add to his Cabinet. In addition to Haaland, Biden's transition is reportedly looking into a pair of other New Mexico politicians, Sen. Martin Heinrich or retiring Sen. Tom Udall, for the Interior post. 

Biden's team had also offered New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham the Interior slot, which she declined, Politico reported.

Michael Connor, a deputy secretary of the Interior under Obama who is also of Native American ancestry, is reportedly another top contender.

Some more Democratic math might work against Haaland. The party's majority in the House has shrunk after unexpected Republican gains in the November elections. And while Haaland's seat is safely Democratic, nominating her for Interior would deprive House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of a vital vote for several months while the state holds a special election.

 Still, that hasn't stopped Native American leaders and activists from publishing a wave of letters, op-eds, and petitions for Biden to choose Haaland and make history. We Stand United, a progressive grassroots movement co-founded by actor and activist Mark Ruffalo, cut an online ad featuring tribal leaders who pressed Biden to consider the unprecedented achievement of elevating a Native American woman to the Cabinet. Dozens of members of Congress have vocally taken up the cause.

While Haaland faces many obstacles, several people Insider spoke to say that the pressure on Biden to select a Cabinet that reflects the diversity of the country could help push the president-elect towards Haaland.

"History is a very powerful force," Grijalva said. "This moment in history belongs to Deb Haaland, and nobody else."


Source: Business Insider