First Native American Woman In Congress?

This week, Democratic Perspective welcomed Wenona Benally Baldenegro to the program. Wenona is a Democratic candidate for Congressional District 1 which includes Sedona, Flagstaff, Page and 11 Indian Reservations in eastern Arizona. She has been endorsed by Progressive Democrats of America and the Sierra Club, as well as other organizations and individuals.

Wenona Benally Baldenegro is a member of the Navajo nation having grown up in the town of Kayenta. “Growing up in a small town like Kayenta, you learn a lot about the work ethic it takes to survive in those small towns,” she said. “You become humble. You learn what it takes to become successful.”

She obviously learned that lesson well. Wenona graduated Summa Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Arizona State University. She went on to earn a law degree from Harvard Law School and a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard’s John F. Kenedy School of Government.

When reminded that a law degree from Harvard is almost like a ticket to print money and go wherever you want, Wenona replied, “I think it’s important to tell people how I got there. Coming from a small town like Kayenta, I grew up in a poor house. My mother only made $25,000 a year. She only had a high school education. But my mother perservered, she went on and earned her bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in education. I was very inspired by that.”

“I never thought of not coming back to Arizona,” she said. “After graduating, I took a job with the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona. They represent the 20 tribes here in Arizona and assist them with everything – housing, healthcare, education, economic development – everything. I started out as a healthcare policy anayst at ITCA and stayed two years. During that time I was able to work on education, housing, transportation, and renewable energy.”

In response to questions about tribal politics, Wenona responded, “What a lot of folks don’t know about Indian tribes is that Indian tribes are governments. They work government to government with the federal government. They’re treated like states.”
To make the point that Washington politics have direct consequences on the tribes, she said, “When Congress delayed the budget last year, it caused the health clinic to close in Kayenta. The tribes rely heavily on appropriations.”

Turning to other issues, we asked about the dispute over water rights for the Little Colorado River. She responded, “There are two parts to the bill. One is to settle claims to the river. It allocates $250 million for groundwater projects. Two, it renews land leases for the Navajo generating station. A large percentage of the area’s water comes from the Big Colorado. It takes electricity to pump the water to Phoenix and Tucson. There are over 110 communities on the reservation. Only 3 are covered in the bill.”

“There is a limited amount of water available. Water will be the next big political fight in Arizona,” she continued.

When asked what she wants to accomplish in Congress, Wenona said, “A lot of people have been hurt by the economy more than others. People need more than a job. They need a good job with benefits.” As to the differences between her and her Democratic primary opponent, Ann Kirkpatrick, Wenona stated, “We have different values. I’m concerned about the lower economic class. We have to roll back tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy. There is no trickle down effect.” She concluded, “We have to bring jobs, support small business, stand up for Social Security and Medicare, and hold corporations accountable.”

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