Biden picks Rep. Deb Haaland to run the Interior Dept. She will be first Native Cabinet member ever
In a move pushed by more than 100 Native tribes, environmental advocates, and scores of members of Congress, President-elect Joe Biden picked Rep. Debra Haaland, the progressive representative from New Mexico’s 1st District, to serve as secretary of the Interior, it was announced Thursday. She has been on his short list for the post for months. But there had reportedly been concern among some Democratic leaders that Biden was pulling too many people out of the House of Representatives where the Democratic majority is already slim. On Wednesday, it was reported that Speaker Nancy Pelosi had given her okay for Biden to pick Haaland despite that concern.
If confirmed by the Senate, the 60-year-old congresswoman will be the first American Indian to serve in the Cabinet. Haaland will only resign from her current post once confirmed, at which time the New Mexico secretary of state will have 10 days to set the date of a special election to fill the 1st District seat. By law that must take place within 77-91 days of its becoming vacant.
A long-time Democratic activist, Haaland is an enrolled member of the 7,500-member Laguna Pueblo. The symbolism of picking her can’t be stressed enough. Interior is charged with managing the nation’s natural resources and public lands, including millions of acres from which Natives were forcibly removed as well as 55 million acres held in trust for the tribes. Encompassing a dozen bureaus and agencies, among them the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Interior also has the obligation—poorly carried out according to reports dating back to the 1920s—of fulfilling treaty commitments via the chronically underfunded and understaffed Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education.
Since her election to Congress in 2018, Haaland has served on two key committees—Armed Services, and Natural Resources, the latter as vice chairwoman, and as chairwoman of its subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands. She also serves on Biden’s Climate Engagement Advisory Council. She has a reputation as a strong fundraiser for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
At the virtual Democratic National Convention this year, Haaland gave this speech:
One of Haaland’s most prominent supporters has been Raul Grijalva, the veteran Arizona congressman who heads the Natural Resources Committee. Last month he told Emma Dumain at E&E Daily:
“As her colleague on the Natural Resources Committee, I have seen first-hand the passion and dedication she puts into these issues at the forefront of the Interior Department from tackling the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women to crafting thoughtful solutions to combatting the climate crisis using America’s public lands,” he wrote in a letter to members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which had put Grijalva’s own name forward as possible contenders for the post.
“It is well past time that an Indigenous person brings history full circle at the Department of Interior,” Grijalva said. “It should go without saying, Rep. Haaland is absolutely qualified to do the job.”
The vigor of support from the tribes was unprecedented. One coalition of Native groups affiliated with the Indigenous Environmental Network pushed hard for Haaland to lead Interior, sending a letter to Biden on Nov. 14 that stated in part:
We are grassroots Indigenous Peoples, tribal citizens enrolled in our respective Native Nations that embrace Indigenous Knowledge, and maintain our spiritual and cultural ways. We are organized as Indigenous non-governmental entities and have always expressed our voices, within the sovereignty of our Native Nations, afforded the same opportunities to participate in US government decision-making processes as would any other US citizen or non-governmental organization. We want a future for our children in which these ways continue to thrive. In the past it has always been a struggle to have government agencies understand this. Sometimes progress has been made and sometimes we have faced major setbacks. There is a unique opportunity at this time to have a highly competent person take the reins at the Department of Interior that understands all of its dynamics and does not have to be educated on the depth of their meaning.
Our belief is that Representative Haaland will help facilitate the Biden/Harris vision for dealing with climate change, addressing the COVID-19 pandemic in Indian Country, ensuring an effective economic just recovery plan for Tribes and communities, overseeing the protection of public lands and fulfilling all treaty and statutory obligations.
The following interview was conducted by Daily Kos in 2019.