June 4: This story has been updated.
It’s a historic year for Native Americans in politics — and not just for the candidates.
A one-of-its-kind bipartisan super PAC, bankrolled by tribes and a prominent abortion rights group, is attempting to boost Native American candidates at a time when a record-breaking number of indigenous hopefuls are campaigning for office. At the congressional level, four candidates — including the two Native Americans currently serving in Congress — have a fighting chance of winning their party's nomination.
The super PAC’s name, 7Gen Leaders, is a nod to a Native American belief that effective leaders make decisions today that will positively affect people and the planet seven generations into the future.
“There’s a lot of folks who have been making traditional contributions to campaigns, but have never had a PAC in Indian country that has been able to leverage those dollars,” said Mellor Willie, 7Gen Leaders’ co-founder and the former executive director of the nonprofit Native American Indian Housing Council. “It’s been done in other communities, like the black community, so why not the Native American community?”
7Gen Leaders, which as a super PAC may raise and spend unlimited amounts of money, has so far supported only one federal candidate with cash.
The Washington, D.C.-based group’s first beneficiary is Deb Haaland, a Democrat and Laguna Pueblo tribe member who’s running to represent New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District. Haaland served as chairwoman for the Democratic Party of New Mexico from 2015 to 2017 — the first female Native American to lead a state party — and ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2014.
The rub? Haaland is an outspoken critic of the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which helped give rise to super PACs such as 7Gen Leaders.
Haaland, for example, has stated that “Democrats should lead by example when it comes to taking big money out of politics” and that she “will fight to overturn Citizens United and bring democracy back to the people.”
Scott Forrester, Haaland’s campaign manager, said Haaland’s campaign and the 7Gen Leaders super PAC have in no way coordinated efforts with one another, which would be illegal.
“We didn’t invite 7Gen to come in and fight for us,” Forrester said. “But when we’re being outspent by $1 million against conservative donors, there has to be a super PAC” that levels the playing field.
Forrester went on to say, “The only way we’ll overturn Citizens United is to elect someone like Deb Haaland.”
Said Willie, 7Gen Leaders’ co-founder: “Right now, as the law stands, this is the way in which we can have some impact. For us not to be involved, then we aren’t getting our voice in this election, and we’re losing.”
The race for New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District — which includes Albuquerque — is competitive on the Democratic side because it’s an open race: Current Democratic Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham is running for governor, leaving five viable Democrats and one Republican to fight it out.
The candidates with the most fundraising prowess include Haaland, and Democrats Antoinette Sedillo Lopez and Damon Martinez.
Sedillo Lopez, a former law professor, leads the pack in fundraising, bringing in $1 million through mid-May, though $200,000 of that is a loan from her funds. Haaland comes a close second with $830,000, and former U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez raised nearly $700,000, including a $173,000 loan from himself, as of campaign finance filings through May 16.