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Before President-elect Biden had publicly announced that he was nominating Congresswoman Deb Haaland as his new secretary of the interior, the rumor mill was already spinning. Haaland had made history as one of the first Native American women to serve in Congress, and she had secured that seat for the next two years. Prior to her historic win in 2018, Haaland was little known in the rank and file of politics. She came up quickly, and she is often quoted as saying “fierce.” She’s gained national attention and notoriety in the Democratic party, and there is poetic justice in her appointment. If confirmed this will be the first time a Native American has served as a secretary of any department in U.S. history.
So what does that mean for the gaping hole in New Mexico’s first district, where Haaland currently serves? It means that in a special election it’s going to be a crowded race. Already, several contenders have thrown their hat in the ring. As of Dec. 21, two Democrats had confirmed they were running. State Senator Antoinette Sedillo Lopez of Nob Hill and State Representative Melanie Stansbury of the Heights have already announced that they’ll be running. Westside State Representative Georgene Louis from Acoma Pueblo said she’s also considering a run and will decide in the next few days. Louis said it would be an honor to serve in Haaland’s spot if the Congresswoman is confirmed. “Deb is paving the way for women like me, and women of color. I grew up on the reservation, and it’s important that Native voices continue to be heard in Congress,” Louis told The Paper.
In the coming weeks, it’s likely that several other Democrats will come forward with their campaigns, and we haven’t even gotten to the Republican contenders yet. State law dictates that political party insiders pick the nominee, but that could change. Currently, State Representative Damon Ely (D-Corrales) is working on a legislative bill for the 60-day session called a “Jungle General,” that would take the place of a primary and a general election for vacated Congressional seats. “I am all for a fair election, but our current system isn’t fair; it isn’t inclusive, and it’s not transparent.” said Ely. Under his plan candidates from the Republican, Democratic and independent parties would qualify via a signature petition, not through the parties’ internal nominating process. Ely feels it would level the playing field, and voters could decide who they think is the best candidate. “It’s not fair that 150 people from both parties get to decide who the nominee is. It’s just not a fair process,” he said.
For now, it’s all just speculation. Haaland must still be confirmed by the U.S. Senate in a process that could take weeks or months. And although Biden has signaled his intent to pluck Haaland, Congressional leaders have discussed waiting to hear Haaland’s confirmation until after Biden’s first 100 days, keeping Haaland in the U.S. House where she would provide an important Democratic vote for the new president’s ambitious agenda. If that happens, the race to replace Haaland could extend into next summer.
If Haaland is confirmed, Secretary of State Maggie Tolouse Oliver will need to call the election within 77 to 91 days after the seat is vacated. If Ely and his bill’s supporters pass that bill in 2021, it won’t affect the selection process for Haaland’s vacancy and will go into effect in July of 2021.