NEW MEXICO (AP) –President-elect Joe Biden plans to nominate New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland as interior secretary, according to a person familiar with the decision, a historic pick that would make her the first Native American to lead the powerful federal agency that has wielded influence over the nation’s tribes for generations.
Tribal leaders and activists around the country, along with many Democratic figures, have urged Biden for weeks to choose Haaland. They stood behind her candidacy even when concerns that Democrats might risk their majority in the House if Haaland yielded her seat in Congress appeared to threaten her nomination.
Haaland, 60, is a member of the Laguna Pueblo and, as she likes to say, a 35th-generation resident of New Mexico. The role as interior secretary would put her in charge of an agency that not only has tremendous sway over the nearly 600 federally recognized tribes but also over much of the nation’s vast public lands, waterways, wildlife, national parks and mineral wealth.
“With so much of the land in the western United States being tribal land, I think having somebody who is actually Native American with the insights and knowledge is huge, not just for New Mexican’s but Native American’s overall,” said UNM Political Science Professor Gabe Sanchez.
The pick breaks a 245-year record of non-Native officials, mostly male, serving as the very top federal official over American Indian affairs. The federal government often worked to dispossess them of their land and, until recently, to assimilate them into white culture.
Her selection was confirmed by a person familiar with the decision who wasn’t authorized to speak about it publicly and spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity on Thursday.
Biden’s pick could further deplete, at least temporarily, the narrow majority Democrats maintain in the House. Biden has already selected several lawmakers from the chamber, including Louisiana Rep. Cedric Richmond and Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge, to serve in his administration.
The president-elect has been methodically filling the posts in his Cabinet, adding North Carolina environmental official Michael Regan as his nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, according to two people familiar with the selection process. Earlier this week, Biden introduced former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg as his transportation secretary, and he intends to make former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm his energy secretary.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made it clear Wednesday that Biden had her blessing to choose Haaland, saying she would make an “excellent choice” as interior secretary.
The speaker called the New Mexico congresswoman “one of the most respected and one of the best members of Congress” with whom she has served.
South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, the No. 3 Democrat in the House and a close Biden ally, also supported Haaland for the job.
Haaland, one of the first two Native American women elected to the House, said she could see the difference her position made for ordinary Native Americans who came to her with business before the federal government. “They felt comfortable just launching into the issues they wanted,” Haaland told The Associated Press in an interview before her appointment. They would say, for example, “Oh, we don’t have to explain tribal sovereignty to you,” meaning tribes’ constitutionally guaranteed status as independent nations.
Scores of tribal officials around the country and dozens of Democrats had written letters urging Haaland’s appointment. Haaland, is vice-chair of the House Committee for Natural Resources. She previously worked as head of New Mexico’s Democratic Party, as tribal administrator and as an administrator for an organization providing services for adults with developmental disabilities.
Born to a Marine veteran father and Navy veteran mother, Haaland describes herself as a single mother who sometimes had to rely on food stamps. She says she is still paying off student loans after college and law school for herself and college for her daughter.
When Democrats mentioned former Interior Department officials who were male and Native American as alternatives to Haaland, her supporters charged sexism and classism, and stuck with the New Mexico Democrat.
Haaland told the AP before her selection that regardless of what job she had, she’d be working to “promote clean energy and protect our public lands.” Interior’s broad authority includes managing federal relations with tribes, administering tens of millions of acres of land and mineral rights held in trust for Native Americans and Alaska Natives, running national parks and making decisions affecting millions of miles of U.S. lands and waterways, wildlife, endangered species, and oil and gas and mining.
The Oil and Gas Industry is the greatest economic contributor to the state of New Mexico, supporting more than 134 thousand jobs. The New Mexico Oil and Gas Association says they’re hopeful that Deb Haaland keeps that in mind. “This position is one of the most influential positions in all of government, when it comes to working with the oil and gas sector and there’s no state that has a bigger connection to oil and gas production on federal lands than in New Mexico,” said Ryan Flynn with the NMOGA.
Biden has promised the nation’s broadest effort yet to curb the oil, gas and coal emissions that are causing the rapid deterioration of the climate, and Interior would play an important part in that.
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