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New Mexico Could Elect First Native American Woman to Congress

New Mexico Could Elect First Native American Woman to Congress

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Deb Haaland shook New Mexico’s political establishment by sailing to a primary victory on Tuesday over five Democratic opponents.CreditJuan Labreche/Associated Press

By Simon Romero

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — For Deb Haaland, the New Mexico lawyer seeking to make history in her bid to become the first Native American woman elected to Congress, proclaiming defiance to the Trump administration has echoes in the brutal history of the Southwest.

“How can we not be outraged by the separation of families?” Ms. Haaland asked in an interview on Wednesday, referring to the government’s intensifying crackdown on undocumented immigrants crossing the border with Mexico. “It’s like we’re reliving the past.”

In an explicitly progressive campaign emphasizing her criticism of Mr. Trump on matters ranging from immigration to tribal sovereignty, Ms. Haaland, 57, shook New Mexico’s political establishment by sailing to a primary victory on Tuesday over five Democratic opponents in a district encompassing Albuquerque.

Some voters attributed Ms. Haaland’s win, which may position her favorably in the general election against Janice Arnold-Jones, a Republican, to her pioneering effort to frame issues from a Native American perspective in a state long dominated by Anglo and Hispanic politicians.

“Deb has been forceful in challenging a president known for his discriminatory remarks about native peoples,” said Cheryl Fairbanks, executive director of the Native American Budget and Policy Institute, a group in Albuquerque seeking to empower indigenous communities.

“We’ve endured federal policies aimed at terminating and marginalizing us, so it’s unifying to have someone to speak with such pride of her native background,” Ms. Fairbanks said. “We’re on the cusp of a historic moment if she wins.”

While denouncing Mr. Trump’s immigration policies, Ms. Haaland delved into her own family’s experience of being separated by white authorities, who for decades placed Indian children in boarding schools in attempts to promote assimilation.

Ms. Haaland said her great-grandfather was taken in the 1880s from his family that was part of Laguna Pueblo, one of New Mexico’s 23 Indian tribes, and sent to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. Ms. Haaland said her grandmother was similarly separated from her parents and placed in a Santa Fe boarding school at the age of 8.

“It was shameful and inhumane then to separate families and it’s shameful and inhumane now,” said Ms. Haaland, emphasizing that she supports defunding the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

Mr. Trump, she said, has shown hostility toward Native Americans, most publicly with his repeated use of the slur “Pocahontas” to describe Senator Elizabeth Warren, the prominent Democrat from Massachusetts. But it has also been demonstrated in policy, she said, with the administration’s recent contention, during a discussion of Medicaid benefits on tribal lands, that Native Americans should be considered as a racial category — a move that some tribes believe could impinge on their treaty rights as sovereign governments.

Ms. Haaland’s perspectives seem to have resonated with voters in the Albuquerque-area district, which was a Republican bastion for 40 years after its creation in 1969. The last Republican to hold the seat was Heather Wilson, who was replaced by a Democrat in 2009 and now serves as Mr. Trump’s secretary of the Air Force. Michelle Lujan Grisham, the Democrat currently representing the district, won the Democratic nomination for governor in Tuesday’s primary.

The race against Ms. Arnold-Jones, a conservative former state representative who ran unopposed in Tuesday’s primary, is expected to largely turn on issues such as immigration, gun laws, policies aimed at strengthening New Mexico’s weak economy, and criticism or support of Mr. Trump. The district has favored Democrats, giving Ms. Haaland a presumed edge, but Ms. Arnold-Jones is emphasizing her record promoting transparency in government in the State Legislature and her credentials as a former small-business owner and volunteer.

Ms. Haaland is benefiting from years in Democratic politics in New Mexico, running unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2014 and being elected as chairwoman of the state Democratic Party in 2015. She has been involved as an activist here for more than a decade, working to boost voter turnout.

Congress did not grant full citizenship or the right to vote to Native Americans until 1924, but allowed states to decide whether to expand such voting rights. New Mexico, where Native Americans now account for about 10.5 percent of the population, was the last state to enfranchise them, in 1962, according to the Library of Congress.

In recent years, a variety of factors, including increased revenue from casino gambling in Indian country, have begun to draw some Native American candidates more prominently into New Mexico’s political landscape.

But Ms. Haaland is not seen as a niche candidate. Political analysts here say her resounding win in the primary — she defeated the closest of five challengers by nearly 2 to 1 — involved cobbling together a coalition of liberal voters drawn to her support for issues such as gay rights, renewable energy projects and expansion of public health care.

“Haaland appeared to score big with Anglo progressive voters who showed up in large numbers,” said Joe Monahan, a longtime blogger on New Mexico’s politics. He pointed to the endorsement Ms. Haaland received from Pat Davis, an Albuquerque city councilor who dropped out of the race after gaining national attention for eviscerating the National Rifle Association in a campaign ad.

But others point to how her policy views as a Native American woman — forged by working her way through law school and raising her daughter as a single mother — resonate with a broad section of voters.

“People relate to her story as someone from a tribal community who can speak with authority about energy development, threats to sovereignty, how to balance family responsibility with politics,” said Tara Gatewood, a member of the Pueblo of Isleta tribal community who hosts Native America Calling, a radio program produced in Albuquerque.

“Her candidacy could finally give us a voice on the inside,” Ms. Gatewood said. “For us, that’s critical.”

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A14 of the New York edition with the headline: A Chance to Be the First Native American Woman in Congress. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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