By Deborah Baker, Journal Staff Writer
Democrats determined to overcome last year’s losses, reclaim the state House and keep control of the Senate have chosen Debra Haaland as the new state party chairwoman.
Haaland was elected at a meeting Saturday in Albuquerque of nearly 400 members of the Democratic State Central Committee.
An enrolled member of Laguna Pueblo, she is the first Native American woman to hold the position.
She succeeds Albuquerque lawyer Sam Bregman, who didn’t run for re-election after the party’s dismal showing in the November election last year. He gave a brief thank-you speech at the outset of the meeting.
Haaland began her two-year term immediately and promised the party would reach out to Hispanics, Native Americans and independents as it gears up for next year’s elections.
“The clock to 2016 is ticking. … Let’s get to work,” Haaland urged the crowd before the vote.
She defeated Richard Ellenberg, the former party chairman in Santa Fe County, on a tally of 214-168.
Haaland, 54, was the party’s nominee for lieutenant governor last year, running with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gary King in an unsuccessful bid to unseat Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.
The crowd at Valley High School gave a boisterous reception to Democratic elected officials who blistered Martinez and the new GOP majority in the House, and cheered at the mention of Hillary Clinton as a possible presidential nominee.
“In the last 60-day session we saw Republicans do all the stuff that we feared most,” said House Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe. For the first time in six decades, Republicans are the majority in the House, with a 37-33 edge.
Republicans are also eyeing the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats, who have a 24-18 margin. All 42 seats are up next year.
“We can’t let that happen, and you are the resources that we have,” Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, told the gathering. He also made a prediction: Democrats will pick up three seats in the Senate in 2016.
U.S. Sen Tom Udall and U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján urged Democrats to pull together for 2016 and reach into their pockets to retire the state party’s debt, which is about $48,000.
Haaland said wiping out the debt is one of her first priorities.
Haaland was nominated by former Oklahoma U.S. Sen. Fred Harris, who has chaired the New Mexico state party and the national Democratic Party. He said she is “exactly the right face, the right spokesperson” for the party.
Ellenberg, a retired lawyer who chaired the Santa Fe County party for six years, touted his organizational and fundraising skills and stressed that he could devote full time to being chairman.
Haaland, who is the chairwoman of Laguna Development Corp. – the tribe’s business arm – as well as the tribal administrator at San Felipe Pueblo, said she is up to her new challenge.
“I’m a woman. … I can multi-task,” she said in an interview after her election. “I’m confident I can do what needs to be done in the time that I have.”
She acknowledged there is no way for the party to compete with the unlimited sums that can be spent on campaigns by independent expenditure committees. But she said she is an effective fundraiser and “knows how to get volunteers together, and they’re better than money.”
She also said she wants to train party workers to ready them for a local role in the campaign that will be run by the party’s presidential nominee.
Haaland said she’s unaware of any previous concerted efforts by the party to involve Native Americans.
“We want Native ideas, input and energy,” she told the crowd.
Democrats on Saturday also elected Juan Sanchez of Valencia County as vice-chairman, Neomi Martinez-Parra of Hidalgo County as secretary and Robert Lara of Doña Ana County as treasurer.
Republicans chose their party chairwoman in December, electing Albuquerque businesswoman Debbie Maestas.