Former Democratic challenger Wenona Benally Baldenegro, Navajo, is transitioning to the private sector following last month’s loss in the primary for Arizona Congressional District 1 (CD1). But she’s also keeping her eye on the November 6 election – and she says she’s not closing the door on another run for office in the future.
Benally Baldenegro says she learned a lot during her months of campaigning across the huge, rural district. CD1 encompasses the entire northeast portion of the state, reaching nearly to the western border in one area and two-thirds of the way to the southern border in another. It includes representation from 12 of Arizona’s 22 tribes, and 21 percent of the voting-age population comes from Indian country – the highest percentage of any Congressional district in the United States.
“Indian country has been impacted by the downturn in the economy,” says Benally Baldenegro. “We certainly are feeling the effects of it back home. What a lot of people have shared with me is that jobs are a huge priority. There’s a need for businesses to get access to the capital they need to help them get started.”
Education is the third main priority she observed, she said: “True economic development goes hand in hand with education. We need to invest in our children, our youth.”
Education As A Path
In her own youth, Benally Baldenegro grew up in Kayenta on the Navajo Nation. Her mother is from a small Navajo community called Manuelito, 11 miles west of Gallup, New Mexico. Her father is from Pine Springs, a very remote Navajo community north of Interstate 40 between Gallup and Flagstaff. When Benally Baldenegro was growing up, her father was one of the only Navajo men she knew with a master’s degree, in civil engineering. He worked for Peabody Coal until losing his job in a sweep of layoffs when she was about 12 years old. Her mother was a college graduate and a school teacher who eventually went back for her own master’s degree.
“I grew up learning that I could be anything I wanted to be, and education was one of the paths I could take to reach my goals in life,” Benally Baldenegro remembers, adding that her three brothers have all completed advanced degrees.
Benally Baldenegro initially completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in English at Arizona State University in Phoenix, because she dreamed of becoming a writer.
“I also took a lot of history classes, courses offered by the American Indian Studies program, different Chicano literature and history classes, African American literature and history. I think that’s sort of what changed my course. I started getting very interested in social justice issues, issues that affected minorities of color.”
The university also afforded her the chance to view her own tribe’s history in a bigger context. “What was great about going to ASU was that my professors were great about putting my tribal history into the context of Indian law,” she said. “My own experience wasn’t just my experience, or the Navajo experience. It was the tribal experience.”
Lessons Hit Home
After completing her degree, Benally Baldenegro knew she wanted to go on to law school. But her professors urged her to get some real-world experience, which she did. She worked for the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona as a health specialist, following the Phoenix Indian Health Services budget, and branched out into cultural resource issues, including defending a sacred site of the Quechan people in Southern California that was threatened by plans for a gold mine, and helping fend off a coal mining proposal that could have harmed the Zuni Salt Lake.
Soon enough, she was ready to pursue law – and in 2006, she completed a law degree from Harvard alongside a Master of Public Policy degree from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
“I’ve spent the last five years working with Indian tribes and I’ve also worked with many elected officials on the municipal, county and state levels,” Benally Baldenegro said. “I have come to find that so much of what takes place on our Indian reservations get decided at the Congressional level.”
This lesson hit home for Benally Baldenegro in a very personal way. She took note of the Congressional stalemate following President Barack Obama’s election in 2008, when Congress was still fighting over the 2009 appropriations bill.
“What was wrapped up in that appropriations bill was funding for Indian Health Service,” she said. “Two months after that had happened, the IHS clinic at my home town of Kayenta closed down their emergency room, weekends and evenings. My grandmother became ill and one of my aunts had to rush her in. When they got there, there was a sign taped to the door, ‘ER closed. Go to next nearest facility.’” The next facility was about 45 minutes away, and her grandmother passed on the way.
“For my family, the idea that an emergency room would be closed – they could not understand how that would happen. I knew that because they did not pass that appropriations bill, there was not enough money to keep that facility open. It had a direct impact on our lives. This is what really drove me to pursue a career in politics.”
Benally Baldenegro said when she began campaigning for the CD1 seat, no other Democratic candidates had yet stood for it; Ann Kirkpatrick, who had served one term between 2009 and 2011, joined the race later.
Kirkpatrick also keeps jobs and education at the top of her campaign priorities, along with the protection of natural resources. In a statement following her primary win, Kirkpatrick immediately slammed her Republican opponent, Jonathan Paton, as being “especially out of touch with the 12 tribal communities across our district. He has pledged to repeal the permanent reauthorization of Indian Health Service funding, which provides critical health-care services to Native Americans. He has pledged to support amending the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act to create further restrictions on Indian gaming efforts.”
Kirkpatrick also says that CD1 needs a representative “who will stand with the tribes to fight the Republican push for more uranium mining at the Grand Canyon.”
Kirkpatrick’s campaign website lists no phone number for inquiries; the campaign did not respond to an e-mail asking for further comment.
For her part, Benally Baldenegro is resuming her private life, by exploring work options primarily in the legal field and refocusing on issues facing her own community. For example, “I’m heavily involved in the [Navajo Generating Station] issue, and I’ve been working with the Black Mesa Water Coalition and the Sierra Club,” she said. The activist groups have been pushing for a transition away from coal and toward renewable energy, as the Navajo Generating Station lease will be up for renewal soon. In addition, she’s helping her husband, a Mexican-American filmmaker named Sal Baldenegro, complete a documentary about a little-known Mexican-American protest in Tucson in the 1970s.
Benally Baldenegro says she would like to see her district go to the Democratic candidate: “The Democratic Party values align very much with the values of the people in this district,” she said. “We need somebody in that seat, making those decisions with our people in mind.