Q&A: Dem chair blames GOP gains on Citizens United

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Debra Haaland says recent Republican gains in New Mexico aren’t a sign of problems in the Democratic Party.

Debra Haaland

Debra Haaland, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of New Mexico

Instead, the new chair of the Democratic Party of New Mexico says Republicans took control the state House of Representatives for the first time in six decades and won other seats by spending massive amounts of money “to create a perception that they care about the people.” Haaland blamed the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that allows such spending on elections.

In an extensive interview conducted by email, NMPolitics.net pointed out that Democrats, like Republicans, have embraced Citizens United. Haaland, the 2014 Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, took time to respond to our initial questions and engage in some back-and-forth dialogue.

Haaland is the first Native American woman to chair the state Democratic Party. A member of Laguna Pueblo, she’s also the tribal administrator for San Felipe Pueblo and the first woman to chair the board of directors for Laguna Development Corporation, the second largest gaming enterprise in the state.

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Haaland, who was the Native American vote director for President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign, has worked on issues including increasing voter turnout in underrepresented communities. In addition to talking with NMPolitics.net about Citizens United and Republican gains, she discussed her plans for the state Democratic Party and the significance of Democrats selecting her to be their party’s chair.

Here’s the full interview, with questions in bold and answers immediately following:

Just six years after Obama won big in New Mexico, it could be argued that Democrats here have lost the people. Voters have given Republicans the majority in the New Mexico House. Republicans are part of a coalition that determines leadership in the Senate. Voters have also placed Republicans in the majority of statewide offices – governor, lieutenant governor, land commissioner and secretary of state. How did a historically Democratic-leaning state get here?

We essentially got here because of Citizen’s United and the unfettered influx of corporate money into the election process; because the Republicans have used that money to create a perception that they care about the people of New Mexico; because a national trend of money and misperception influenced a large number of people who don’t necessarily take the time to research candidates on their own and rely on sound bites to sway their opinions about which candidates would better serve their interests.

You say Republicans have used money allowed by Citizens United to win races, but it’s been demonstrated that Democrats have similarly embraced Citizens United. In New Mexico we have Super PACs operating on both sides. In the last election cycle unions gave millions in New Mexico, most of it to Super PACs trying to win state House races for Democrats. With Republicans and Democrats both taking full advantage of Citizens United, I don’t understand how you can give credit to Citizens United for Republicans winning so many seats in New Mexico in 2014. Can you elaborate?

Super PAC money wasn’t just spent on House races, but we shouldn’t forget that Governor Martinez and the Republicans were pushing  right-to-work extremely hard, and the unions had a great deal to protect. If Democrats had had a larger majority, perhaps the urgency would not have been felt as much and unions would not have spent so much money.

Across the country Republican super PAC money was like water flowing across every local and national campaign. I remember the day that the Obama Campaign announced that it would embrace super PAC money, and it seemed sad and practical at the same time.

Citizens United is still a bad decision and is detrimental to the process of electing the best candidates. The ability for PACs to contribute huge sums of money, combined with the electorate’s general dissatisfaction with the people in charge during the last election cycle, hurt Democrats across the country and New Mexico was no different. I don’t like what Citizens United has done and I support its reversal – even if it means less Democratic PAC money.

Are there internal problems in the state’s Democratic Party?

No. We just need to reach out more. We need to remind people why being an active Democrat pays dividends at polling locations and in having opportunities to enact our agenda. We care passionately about many issues and sometimes we differ in how to get there. I look forward to leading a dialog that will help us prioritize our objectives and clarify a consistent message.

Are the candidates the Democratic Party is putting forward turning off voters?

No. If you look at the majority of State House races in 2014, we lost by a slim margin. We needed to register more voters and to turn them out.

New Mexico Democrats have succeeded at registering new voters in the past – including in 2008, when President Obama was elected – and some of those people turned around and voted for Gov. Martinez in 2010. With an electorate in New Mexico that appears to swing widely, how is registering more voters and turning them out the answer to Democrats’ problems, rather than convincing voters to more consistently support Democrats, or doing something else?

It’s both. Thinking back to 2010, Susana Martinez realized that by linking Diane Denish tightly to Bill Richardson she could gain votes, and she also used that tactic in 2014 against Gary King. With the barrage of negative campaigning voter participation was driven down significantly – more in 2014 than in 2010. Having a Hispanic woman on the ballot coupled with a smoke-and-mirrors campaign about how well she had done for our state was a tough thing for Democrats to overcome. Additionally, Democrats are very lax about getting out to vote in mid-term elections, whereas Republicans are not. Registering voters is always a necessity, and I stand by this statement.

I think the way to get more Democrats to the polls is by clearly and consistently communicating how and why we are the party of working families. We are the party that supports issues to improve the lives of every citizen – raising the minimum wage, providing better tools for our teachers, and funding early childhood education, to name just a few. Effective, impactful, consistent messaging will generate voter registration and a turnout of Democratic voters.

Are Republicans simply doing an excellent job of convincing voters that their candidates will better serve New Mexicans?

I would say they do an excellent job of spending a great deal of money on negative campaigning, which serves to suppress voter interest and participation in the process.

What do Democrats need to do to win back the hearts and minds of New Mexicans?

Democrats have been the champions of the middle class; the party of innovation and ideas like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act, the GI Bill, and unemployment insurance. We are also the party of equality and fairness. We’re the party of Roosevelt and Kennedy. We have a wonderful history of reaching out, of inclusion, and of building America both literally and socially. I intend to remind every New Mexican I talk to that our agenda and our candidates have consistently been on the side of working families.

How do you plan to help make that happen as chair of the state party?

We’ll rebuild a successful grassroots organization and win elections. By coalescing around a consistent message of progressive ideas we will create excitement, energy and momentum for our agenda.

Campaign finance changes including Citizens United have arguably made political party organizations less influential than they once were. Much of the money is being spent elsewhere, often through independent expenditures that wealthy donors directly control. How influential can the state Democratic Party be in trying to win New Mexicans back?

We will not have shamefully rich donors, like the Koch Brothers, who don’t care about climate change, pay equality, women’s issues, education, or starving children, but the Democratic Party is the face of these issues and more. In my brief time as chairwoman of this organization, and the hundreds of phone calls, text messages, emails, and social media posts I’ve received, I have no doubt that the DPNM carries a tremendous amount of influence within New Mexico. People are looking for leadership and a clear strategy for how we achieve our political, policy and social objectives. I am excited about the opportunity we have to create change for New Mexico.

As of April 6 the state Democratic Party reported having just $3,638.69 on hand. Do you plan to increase the party’s fundraising and, if so, how?

We will raise money by inspiring Democrats, by holding fundraising events, by getting on the phone and calling people, but we’ll also increase our volunteer base and ask Democrats to answer a call to service. Volunteers are better than money!

Other than fundraising, what else can the state party do to help Democrats win over New Mexicans?

We can recruit great candidates. We can talk about the issues that affect people here and make sure they know we have their backs.

How does it feel to be the first Native American woman to chair the state Democratic Party?

I am honored to have the opportunity to step out and use the lessons I’ve learned from my parents and grandparents to help the community I love. Native Americans didn’t have the right to vote in New Mexico until 1948, and I look forward to the opportunity to represent Native Americans and the entire state of New Mexico in this important job. I am also gratified that I can work to remedy our past shortcomings as a society.

What challenges, if any, do you think you’ll have to overcome as a woman of color in this position?

I don’t see many challenges as a woman of color; however, the challenges we face as a society with respect to income disparity, the decline of public education in favor of privatization, and the outright denial of climate change, which is leading to a terrifying number of natural disasters, keep me awake at night.

Republicans in New Mexico have done a decent job in recent years of putting people of color on the ballot and getting them elected. Three of the four statewide elected Republicans, for example, are Hispanic, while one of the three statewide elected Democrats is Hispanic. Talk about the significance of Democrats choosing you, a Native American woman, to chair the party at a time when Republicans hold so many seats Democrats want to win back.

I believe I was chosen less because I’m Native American and more because I am known to be a hard worker. I step up when someone needs to step up. I’m here because I answered a call to service to the party again and again. As a Pueblo woman, I was taught to be this way.

But with respect to “people of color,” I believe one must care about people of color if one labels themselves as such. If we look at the current Republican agenda here in New Mexico: 1. take drivers licenses away from undocumented residents; 2. Bust unions; 3. Move toward privatizing public education; not to mention taking away SNAP benefits and rejecting opportunities to truly get on board with renewable energy — none of these Republican agenda items benefits working families (which predominantly are people of color).

I just don’t believe that anyone who displays an abject disregard for poor and struggling folks, our environment, and public education has the best interests of “people of color” at heart.

It sounds like you see some of New Mexico’s problems as matters of poverty, education and other issues besides race. Do you think New Mexico is a society where racism is no longer a problem? Have we overcome, reduced, or even eliminated structural racism? Can you elaborate?

I think racism is always a problem, and we should never think it has been completely eliminated. I don’t think we have crossed over to being a perfect society anywhere in our country or in New Mexico. The driver’s license issue is a good example. When the Republicans advocate taking driver’s licenses away from “illegal immigrants,” what is the first ethnic group you or any New Mexican thinks of?

This issue in and of itself creates a great deal of passionate discourse on both sides, and I’ve heard people who want driver’s licenses revoked from such people say the most unkind things about their perceptions of the people who possess these driver’s licenses. It is a divisive issue and I think poverty ties into it. I imagine the vast number of undocumented residents with driver’s licenses are hardworking people who have families to provide for.

Poverty is also the worst enemy of education, and education is likely the best course to climb out of poverty and out of many other issues related to that. Jails and prisons across the country are filled with people who may not be there if they’d had certain opportunities at certain times in their lives, and early childhood education is one opportunity that would certainly influence many lives early.

The cultural diversity we enjoy here in New Mexico provides us with an advantage in terms of lessening the misunderstandings, stereotypes and fears that lead to racism in the first place, though we may never completely eliminate racism in our society as a whole.

Editor’s note: You can also read a Q&A with the chairwoman of the state Republican Party.