Haaland confirmation sets off mad scramble to claim her seat in Congress

Rep. Deb Haaland’s (D-NM) historic confirmation on Monday as the country’s first Native American Cabinet secretary set off a mad scramble to claim her seat in the House of Representatives. The race, already in motion, is a crowded one, with eight Democratic candidates now jockeying to succeed Haaland, a one-term congresswoman and former state party chair, in New Mexico’s 1st congressional district, which covers most of Albuquerque. Because the district is reliably blue, whoever earns the nomination is all but assured safe passage in the general election.

But overcoming the state’s somewhat unusual candidate selection system presents its own set of challenges in a special election with no primaries. Instead, candidates from each party will be chosen, as New Mexico law mandates, by a group of elected state central committee members — a process upending the traditional campaign dynamic because it requires that candidates earn favor with party insiders rather than appealing to voters and soliciting donations in order to get on the ballot.

The selection process has earned critics on the left and right who allege it is undemocratic, and a bipartisan bill that would establish a primary system to fill congressional vacancies is currently making its way through New Mexico’s state legislature. But state representative Daymon Ely, a co-sponsor of the legislation, believes it has little chance of passing with just four days remaining until the state’s two-month legislative session comes to an end. “I’m not hopeful,” he said in a recent interview with Jewish Insider.

“If the legislation doesn’t pass then it will be a popularity contest among the Democratic Party insiders on the central committee,” said Fred Nathan, executive director of Think New Mexico, a nonpartisan public policy think tank in Santa Fe.

Lonna Atkeson, a professor of political science at the University of New Mexico, echoed that view. “You’ve got a really inside election,” she told JI. “They’re going to want one of their insiders.”

So which candidate has the edge? Political strategists in New Mexico who spoke with JI divide the eight Democrats currently vying for the seat, most of whom are women, into separate tiers, with a trio of formidable candidates viewed as most likely to prevail: Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, a 63-year-old state senator and former law professor who ran against Haaland in the 2018 primary, pulling in more than $1 million in donations; Melanie Stansbury, a 42-year-old rising star in local politics who serves as a state legislator and previously worked on Capitol Hill; and Randi McGinn, 65, a prominent trial lawyer and confidante of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).

Melanie Stansbury

“They’re the most well-known and have the most momentum in the party right now,” said Matt Gloudemans, a Democratic campaign consultant in New Mexico who is not working for any of the candidates.

The wild-card candidate is Georgene Louis, 43, a state representative whose compelling personal story will no doubt appeal to central committee members who are looking for continuity now that Haaland, one of the first Native American women in Congress, is moving on. Louis, a Native American who currently practices tribal law, was born and raised on the Acoma Pueblo reservation, about 70 miles west of Albuquerque. 

“My view is that a progressive native woman’s seat probably should be replaced, ideally, by another progressive native woman,” said Julian Brave NoiseCat, vice president of policy and strategy at Data for Progress, who lobbied for Haaland’s confirmation.

The four remaining candidates, all of whom are regarded as relative underdogs despite their unique credentials, include Selinda Guerrero, Patricia Roybal Caballero, Victor Reyes and Francisco Fernández. Guerrero, a 44-year-old community organizer who identifies as Chicana, Black and indigenous, argues that she is running to represent a “new wave” of the working class, while Roybal Caballero, a 70-year-old state representative, has deep connections with progressive activists in the state. “She has consistently been a grassroots campaigner,” said Dede Feldman, a political consultant and former New Mexico state senator.

Reyes, 28, is a former legislative director for New Mexico’s Democratic governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, and has been endorsed by Reps. Ritchie Torres (D-NY), Chris Pappas (D-NH), Marc Veasey (D-TX) and David Cicilline (D-RI). If elected, Reyes boasts that he would be the youngest Democrat in the House as well as the first openly gay congressman to represent New Mexico. So would Fernández, a 39-year-old former TV and film industry worker who is HIV-positive and vows to provide a voice “for those who are most marginalized,” including people with preexisting conditions. 

Randi McGinn

“I am very much a political outsider,” Fernández told JI in a recent phone conversation, adding that he is a “lifelong social justice advocate.”

In interviews with JI, the candidates were eager to highlight their progressive policy agendas on issues like universal healthcare, climate change and the $15 minimum wage hike in a race where it is politically expedient to lean left, given the partisan makeup of the district.

But their views on foreign policy, particularly around Israel, are less predictable — and illustrate a growing tension between progressives who are supportive of the Jewish state and those who are more critical of the longstanding U.S.-Israel relationship.

Sedillo Lopez is perhaps the most interesting test case. In 2018, she earned an endorsement from Justice Democrats, the influential progressive political action committee which previously characterized Israel as a “human rights violator,” and was recently backed by the People for Bernie Sanders. But speaking with JI, she emphasized that she is a staunch supporter of the Jewish state. “Israel is crucial, spiritually as well as politically,” said Sedillo Lopez, who traveled to Israel three years ago on a Latino leadership tour with the AIPAC-affiliated American Israel Education Foundation.

“It was transformative to me in so many ways,” she recalled. “I learned so much, and I know that sounds lame, but the biggest thing was how close everything is together. I live in New Mexico, and it’s a day’s drive to get out of the state. So it was amazing to me to see why security is so crucial.”

Since then, Sedillo Lopez has learned through a genealogy research initiative conducted by the Jewish Federation in New Mexico that she descends from Sephardic Jews who fled the Inquisition in Spain. “I’m very proud of that, although I have to say, like most Latinos, I have Indian blood, but I don’t have any culture,” she said, noting that while she appreciates her Jewish heritage, she doesn’t claim it.

Despite her affiliation with Justice Democrats — a spokesman for which did not respond to requests for comment about whether it would be making an endorsement in the race — Sedillo Lopez believes that Israel has a strong progressive record. “A lot of the things that I advocate for are in place there,” she said, referring to the state’s universal healthcare system along with its relatively enlightened approach to LGBTQ rights. “I was impressed,” she said. “I was like, ‘Hey, it works, this can work.’ You know, these ideas are progressive ideas.” 

Sedillo Lopez rejects the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as continued aid to Israel. 

Stansbury, by comparison, was less well-versed on such matters. Though she spent some time backpacking through Israel in her early 20s, she was unfamiliar with the BDS movement and declined to comment on the 10-year memorandum of understanding guaranteeing military assistance to Israel. “I haven’t dove into this issue,” she said. 

More broadly, she expressed a desire to “lead with diplomacy” in the Middle East, “restore the Iran deal” and recognize the “special relationship” with Israel. “But I also am a major proponent of the basic self-determination and human rights of Palestinians and their ability to establish a sovereign state,” Stansbury added. “So to the extent that, as a congressperson, I weigh in on these issues both in terms of legislation and the budget and the way in which the U.S. supports both Israel and aid to Palestine, that’s the kind of lens that I look through all this.”

Georgene Louis (Courtesy)

Stansbury, a scientist who is deeply invested in water resource management in New Mexico, sees parallels between her state and Israel — and hopes to learn more about the connection if she is elected. “There’s a lot we can learn from the innovation that’s been happening in Israel,” she said. “How do we modernize our infrastructure? How do we help farmers make the transition to more water-efficient agriculture? The work that’s been done at universities like Ben-Gurion and folks in the Negev is world-class,” she added. “That is the beacon.”

Because of her experience on such matters, John Feldman, a rabbi in Albuquerque, believes Stansbury is strongly positioned to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Her expertise in water as a scientist and her concern for human rights and her support for Israel all dovetail in such a way that, I think, she could really be a constructive mediator in terms of our U.S.-Israel relationship,” he said, adding that water and science “could well be a bridge for peace.”

McGinn, who supports continued aid to Israel and opposes BDS, said she has had conversations with J Street in her time as a candidate. “Israel will always be our biggest ally and our friend,” she said, but added her concern that the Trump administration had destabilized the region. “This has been a problem for thousands of years, and I think this last administration has actually harmed the peace process,” she said. “They keep saying they’re doing great. But in fact, I think they’ve gone backwards, and we’re stoking the fires and making things more difficult.”

She endorsed a two-state solution as the “only way forward to peace,” but said it would be difficult to get there given the charged geopolitical dynamic. “I’m just afraid that we are farther away from that than we were four years ago,” McGinn, who has never been to Israel, told JI. “That’s my concern about the region.”

Patricia Roybal Caballero

Perhaps because Israel is unlikely to be a major subject of debate in a race that is expected to be centered on domestic policy matters, the other candidates displayed varying levels of familiarity with issues of concern to Jewish community members as well as pro-Israel advocates — though all made clear their desire to take an active role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Roybal Caballero expressed a strong kinship with Jewish community members in the Southwest, noting that she was a founder of the Mexican American Jewish Relations Coalition in El Paso. “We met for the express reason of trying to improve relationships in our communities,” she recalled, “because we found out that we didn’t know enough.”

Though she has no position on BDS, she said she was eager to visit Israel, describing a trip there as a “dream.” Roybal Caballero, who favors a two-state solution, added that she would support President Joe Biden’s approach to the conflict as he hones his Middle East foreign policy agenda during his first term. “I think a two-state solution is probably the best hope, and as the settlements continue, it’s going to force a solution, and we’ve got to be attentive to that,” she said. “We’ve got to continue to create an approach or relationships from mutual respect.”

Francisco Fernández (Courtesy)

“History is important,” she added. “Israel’s role in that history, and Palestine’s role in that history, just as our tribal nations’ role in that history, and our Western role, has all been a fight for survival, but not at the exclusion of each other.”

Fernández, who has never visited Israel, was less familiar with a number of the issues, including the memorandum of understanding, during the interview. “I can tell you that I don’t believe in withdrawing aid,” he said. Fernández later emailed his thoughts on the BDS movement after speaking with JI. “While my knowledge regarding the BDS movement is limited, I’d like to make it clear: I would not support it or anything like it,” he said. “Boycotts, divestments and sanctions are not the best means to productively foster peace between Israel and Palestine.”

Louis was also unacquainted with BDS but said she was learning more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as she pursues higher officer. “I’m not the expert, but I have been reading up,” she said. “I have been also talking to members of my community about it. But it’s my understanding that the U.S. and Israel just share an unbreakable bond. We have built on a commitment to our common history, values and interests, where Israel is our most important ally in the region, and one of our most important in the world.”

“I will support the U.S.-Israel relationship, and I think, from what I understand, the two-state solution is the one that seems to be most beneficial,” Louis added. “I just think the United States has a responsibility to work with Israelis and Palestinians, as well as regional and international partners, to reach a peaceful end to the hostilities that are going on right now.”

Reyes and Guerrero were more critical of Israel. Reyes, who supports a two-state solution, told JI that he had not yet made up his mind as to whether he would back the BDS movement as a member of Congress and suggested that he would support conditioning aid.

Victor Reyes (Courtesy)

“Following the Oslo agreement, Israel made a commitment to the U.S. that it would not build new settlements or expand existing ones,” he said. “There are current violations of this treaty. The United States must lead with a human rights-centered approach when evaluating appropriations. Our budget should reflect our commitment to human rights and conditions should be set, as they are in trade agreements and other international commitments, that require an adherence to these values.”

Guerrero went a step further, calling directly for the U.S. to condition aid to Israel. “I am not in support of U.S. tax dollars being used to oppress and harm,” she declared. “We have seen the oppression of Palestinian people for far too long,” Guerrero said, “and we know that Palestinians across the region are suffering greatly.” 

The community activist also supports BDS. “Divestment is a primary thing that I would be advocating for as a U.S. congressperson,” she said, “because we have to be able to support diplomacy and not violence.” Guerrero added that it was not for her to decide whether the Israelis and Palestinians pursue a two-state solution. “I feel like my role is to support equality for all of the people, for all of its citizens,” she said. “This has been a long fight, and so it’s time for us now to stop the violence. We must support them, whether it’s a one state, two state, a confederation, some other form.”

Selinda Guerrero

“The reason I support the boycott and the divestment is because, in particular, we want to put enough pressure so that the violence and the harm can stop,” Guerrero, who said she is actively involved with Jewish Voice for Peace, told JI. “I think it’s important. And so my position is to advocate and support Palestinians and Israelis to make determinations for their own selves with the full rights and support to be able to do so.”

Despite her support for the boycott, Guerrero said she was open to visiting Israel. “I would be honored,” she said. I’ve been invited by many of the people that I do work with in the region.”

Pro-Israel groups, including Democratic Majority for Israel and the Jewish Democratic Council of America, have yet to make endorsements in the race. But Jeff Mendelsohn, executive director of Pro-Israel America, told JI that he was watching with interest. “Pro-Israel America is paying close attention to the upcoming special elections, including the expected race in NM-1 to replace Rep. Deb Haaland,” he said. “While we don’t get involved in every race, we will continue to support candidates who understand and value the U.S.-Israel relationship, particularly when running against candidates who would weaken our strategic alliance.”

Maggie Toulouse Oliver, New Mexico’s secretary of state, said on Monday that the special election will be announced within 10 days, after which it will take place in a few months or so. 

The Democratic Party of New Mexico is now electing new central committee members who will pick the next candidate, with Bernalillo County concluding its ballot counting process on Monday and Santa Fe County on Tuesday, according to Miranda van Dijk, a state Democratic Party spokeswoman, who said a member list was not immediately available. The process for all counties in the district will conclude on April 3.

Brian Colón, New Mexico’s Democratic state auditor, said he was energized by the number of candidates who have entered the race, but discouraged by the process through which the winner will be chosen. “As a former state party chair and statewide elected official, I’m inspired by the abundance of riches we have in terms of the field of candidates,” he told JI. “It is striking, however, that in this situation so few people will get to determine the next representative.”