Politic365 had an opportunity to chat with Wenona Benally Baldenegro, a Democratic candidate running in Arizona’s newly redrawn 1st Congressional District. Arizona is becoming increasingly competitive for Democrats this year in large part due to redistricting and the backlash against SB 1070, the immigration law that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found on some grounds to be unconstitutional. Additionally, Benally Baldenegro, who is a member of the Navajo Indian Tribe and is married to a Mexican American, has a unique opportunity to bridge the common interests of the two communities that have long felt underrepresented in the Grand Canyon State.
Benally Baldenegro, a young attorney raised by a single mom, explained her motivation to run this year. “I’m running for Congress now because this past year has been unusual for us in Arizona — so much of what we have fought for in the past in under attack,” says Benally Baldenegro. “Our communities have always stood up and fought back, and we expect our elected officials to do the same. With the GOP controlling most of the state legislature and our seats in Congress, we have had Republican elected officials attacking our students, our seniors and our unions.”
Last March, the Arizona house passed some anti-union bills; one even eliminated the collection of union dues. A federal district court overturned the union dues bill. School funding has been the subject of criticism in Arizona as well, with a widening gap between poorer and more affluent districts. And there has been the ongoing controversy over the Mexican American studies program in Southern Arizona in the Tucson Unified School District; last week the social studies program was cancelled. Also, recent Republican budget proposals in the House of Representatives would have impacted some 90,700 Arizona seniors who rely on Medicaid to fill in the cost gaps of Medicare.
Citing her passion for public policy, Benally Baldenegro shared how her sharpened advocacy skills would help her if she is elected to Congress.
“I have spent my entire career working in the public sector,” she points out. “I have always been driven by the principle and passion of giving back to our communities. I have been behind the scenes in advocating for policies and laws that benefit everyday people in our communities. I am not a career politician.”
In addition to the hands-on experience of working in policy behind the scenes, Benally Baldenegro also has the formal training in law and public policy to help guide her. She holds a JD and a Master’s degree in Public Policy from Harvard in addition to an LLM from the University of Arizona and an undergraduate degree from Arizona State.
Since many Native American and Latino youth experience high dropout rates from high school (and among those who do make it to college, reaching graduation is an uphill battle), Benally Beldenegro has made education a huge part of her platform since it goes hand in hand with job creation. She is reminded of the work that her father and her husband’s grandfather did in the Arizona mines and is keenly aware that her elders took those jobs in the hopes that their children and grandchildren wouldn’t have to work in those conditions.
If Benally Baldenegro wins the primary and then goes on to win the general election in November, she would be the first Native American woman to serve in the House of Representatives. She’s hoping that she can build on the excitement of making history along with building a coalition of American Indian and Latino voters in her district. Because the boundaries have been redrawn in her district, she explained that up to 21% of the voting population is Native American and about 19% of voters in CD1 are Latino. This brings the minority voting population a bit above 40% in her district and provides some built in advantage assuming both groups unite behind her.
Worth noting is that there are 11 Native American tribes in Arizona’s CD1. Benally Baldenegro indicated that she has the endorsement of both the Navajo and Hopi tribes, which are prominent. These endorsements are also significant because both tribes have had a historic rivalry.
“One thing I have promised to do is to increase the dialogue on American Indian tribal issues,” Benally Baldenegro said. “Indian tribes are part of government. They can exercise their own authority over their land base. They have sovereign rights that they can exercise. There is a government-to-government relationship that goes back to the time of when the treaties were signed. This is something that I will promote. This isn’t about race or ethnicity, but this is about a government relationship that we need to continue to honor.”
Right now this race is all about the primary since the current GOP incumbent Congressman for CD1, Representative Gosar, is switching to run in another district. The other Democrat in the race, Ann Kirkpatrick, represented CD1 in Congress for one term until she was defeated by Gosar. Kirkpatrick has the financial advantage over Benally Baldenegro. In a campaign press release from this week, the Benally Baldenegro campaign announced that it had received campaign contributions from over 2,000 individual donors in the fourth quarter of federal reporting. She’s counting on that grassroots support to help propel her candidacy forward.