Republican senators opposed to Rep. Deb Haaland's nomination to be President Joe Biden's leader of the Interior Department are centering their resistance on what they call the New Mexico Democrat's "extreme views" on fossil fuels and use of federal lands.
But supporters of Haaland, who would be the nation's first Native American to serve in a presidential Cabinet, say they see a familiar pattern in the Republicans' rhetoric and their unusual move to voice their opposition even before her nomination hearing was scheduled. They say she's facing a level of criticism above and beyond the normal fiery Washington political rhetoric.
“Being a minority person and being a person of color, it makes you wonder if she would get this treatment if she wasn’t a person of color, if she wasn’t Indian and if she wasn’t a woman,” said Montana state Sen. Shane Morigeau, a Democrat and a member of the Salish and Kootenai tribes, in an interview. “She became an easy target because we haven’t gotten to this place in our country where we give — especially women and people of color — a fair shot.”
Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, has been a sharp critic of fossil fuel development, a stance that has made her nomination among the more contentious of Biden’s picks. And she may also face tough questioning from the Democratic chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Sen. Joe Manchin, who is the most pro-fossil fuel Democrat and whose opposition may have scuttled another Biden nominee, Neera Tanden.
Haaland has been a rising star among progressives since her election to Congress in 2018. She grew up in poverty and her official disclosures show she is still paying off the loans from the University of New Mexico law degree she earned in 2006. She worked on former President Barack Obama's campaign in the state in 2012 and later chaired the state's Democratic Party, where she was credited with fixing its finances and rebuilding it after electoral losses.
Leading the GOP opposition to her appointment are Sens. Steve Daines of Montana and John Barrasso and Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, white lawmakers from states with sizable American Indian populations. Lummis blasted Haaland's “extreme views,” while Daines and Barrasso called her “radical" — and Daines suggested he would attempt to block her nomination altogether.
The three have cited her opposition to the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines, projects that she would have little influence over if she becomes Interior secretary. (Biden has already blocked the Keystone XL pipeline.) And they’ve railed against early executive action from Biden that paused new leases for oil and gas drilling on federal lands and waters, which contribute about 20 percent of U.S. production.
But multiple Native Americans told POLITICO that the senators’ sharp critiques of Haaland, before she's had a chance to address their concerns, reminds them of the stereotyping and dismissiveness that tribes have long experienced in dealings with the U.S. government.
Democratic Montana Rep. Tyson Running Wolf, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, called the Republican opposition a “political ploy” familiar to Native Americans who have entered politics, where there exists a “preconceived notion from others that you’re 25-30 percent dumber.”
“It’s wrong that they haven’t given her the chance,” Running Wolf said. “Let her bring some of those homegrown Native American values that she’s grown up with and established from her home, and bring them and surprise people. And then let her work be evaluated.”
Both Morigeau and Running Wolf signed a letter from the Montana American Indian Caucus urging Daines and Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.) to reconsider their opposition to Haaland’s nomination.
Several tribal members said young people in their communities regard Haaland and fellow Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.), who made history in 2018 as the first Native American women elected to Congress, as heroes who helped give Indigenous groups a seat at the table in governmental decisions.
And they said the reflexive GOP opposition is impossible to separate from the federal government’s actions over many generations that marginalized and isolated tribal communities.
Joye Braun, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota who attended demonstrations against the Keystone XL pipeline, said she thought Daines, Barrasso and Lummis were mainly opposing Haaland in an attempt to defend the oil, gas and coal industries in their states. But she also said she felt an uglier sentiment underlying their comments.
“It doesn't surprise me that they are attacking her,” Braune said in an email.
In response to the criticism from tribes, Daines spokesperson Katie Schoettler said his opposition to her nomination has nothing to do with her Indigenous background and came after meeting with her one-on-one.
“Senator Daines is proud to have a strong relationship with Montana's Tribes and will continue working on issues important to Indian Country,” she said in an email. “This is about the Congresswoman's radical views that are completely out of touch with Montana and the nation. The Congresswoman is ranked one of the top ten most liberal members of Congress. Her job-killing, anti-energy views threaten Montana jobs, public access to public lands, outdoor recreation and our energy independence.”
An aide for Lummis said: "Senator Lummis opposes Rep. Haaland for one reason and one reason only: her radical statements and positions on lands and energy issues," while Barrasso's office did not respond to request for comment.
Another Republican on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota, indicated in a statement that Haaland would have a tough time winning his support as well. Other GOP lawmakers on the committee declined to comment on Haaland's nomination.
“We are concerned with Rep. Haaland’s record on energy development,” Hoeven said. “That includes opposition to important energy infrastructure like pipelines, as well as her support for policies like the Green New Deal, which raises prices for consumers while increasing our reliance on foreign energy sources. We plan to raise these concerns with her during her confirmation hearing, and ultimately we need her strong commitment to ensuring that taxpayers are able to benefit from our abundant energy reserves on our federal lands.”
After a weekslong delay in scheduling Haaland’s hearing, the committee set a Feb. 23 date to consider her selection. Hundreds of groups, including tribal representatives and environmental justice advocates, have urged Senate leaders for a “rapid confirmation” of Haaland in a letter.
Not all Republicans have opposed Haaland’s nomination. Rep. Don Young of Alaska and Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a state with a significant Indigenous population, voiced support for her in comments for a November POLITICO Magazine article.
But senators, not House members, have the power to slow her nomination. And Native American groups have said the vehemence of the senator’s complaints against Halaand, a current House member and daughter of a Marine veteran, rings in their ears as the type of prejudice they’ve experienced for decades in American politics.
Other critics said the Senate Republicans are making Haaland a scapegoat in a proxy fight against Biden’s early executive orders revoking a necessary permit for the proposed Keystone XL pipeline and giving priority to clean energy projects. Haaland, the prior vice chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, had backed bills that would have used federal land to expand electric transmissions networks that could connect wind and solar farms to broader markets.
Barrasso, Daines and Lummis received a combined $1.8 million in campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry in the last election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign financing.
Seeing a nominee to lead Interior who has a background different from previous heads of the agency and opposes the oil and gas industry’s priorities may be triggering the Republicans' angst, said Julia Bernal, director of Pueblo Action Alliance and a member of the Sandia Pueblo in New Mexico. There have been Hispanic men and white women that served as secretaries, but Haaland is a groundbreaking pick as a Native American woman.
Haaland “is going to shift a worldview on how we’ll be managing water, land and natural resources in the future,” Bernal said. “Change is disconcerting to some folks. It’s a paradigm shift. The way we’ve been misusing resources and mismanaging land has resulted in a climate crisis. Seeing a change in who holds that power, if that threatens the interests of oil and gas, that definitely reveals what's wrong with things.”
Haaland's supporters say the senators’ focus on her past backing for renewable energy and criticisms of oil and gas projects ignores what her leadership of Interior would mean for a country that for much of its history made killing and exiling Native Americans official government policy.
“The senators are probably listening too much to their benefactors and they're probably afraid of Deb Haaland,” House Natural Resources Chair Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) told POLITICO. “Interior in many ways was set up to take care of the Indian problem — either through taking of land, through almost elimination of people themselves, culture, or forced assimilation. [It’s] come full circle and you're going to have an Indigenous person run the department. I think as a country we should see that moment as some redeeming moment.”