Native Republican legislator reaches out to Dems

By Colleen Keane
Special to the Times

ALBUQUERQUE, February 28, 2013

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S haron Clahchiscilliage, New Mexico's newly elected District 4 representative, said that voters had been waiting for something different to happen.

New Mexico District 4 includes six Navajo chapters, the Kirtland/Waterflow valley and parts of Farmington.

Clahchiscilliage, 63 originally from Gad'iiahi, N.M., is the first Native American, Republican woman to win the seat.

Last November, Clahchiscilliage unseated seven-term Representative Ray Begaye by a landslide: 61.4 to 38.5 percent in a district that historically voted Democratic, according to a Santa Fe Capitol report, which indicated that re-districting gave the republican party an edge in the election.

But, Raphael Nevins, the vice president of Andele Tutors, Inc., a program that provides tutoring services to Navajo students, said that it was also because of Clahchiscilliage's proven track record.

"She has an extensive academic background and she spent a lot of time in D.C. She is an articulate, hard-working legislator," he said, explaining that she received votes from diverse populations.

San Juan County is 58.6 percent Anglo and 42 percent Native, Hispanic and other population groups, according to the U.S. Census.

Clahchischilliage holds a master's degree in social work and a teaching license. During her public service career, she worked as a special education teacher, a social worker, community organizer, planner, a public information officer for federal, state, tribal and national Indian organizations. She is also a commissioned officer in the U.S. Public Health Service.

She said that one of her most memorable experiences was during her academic studies at the University of Pennsylvania where she studied poverty and worked with drug-addicted women, alcoholics and the homeless.

"I am committed to standing up for the needs of those in my community. We must work to improve the quality of life for our veterans, increase representation, and improve academic systems so that New Mexico students get the education they deserve," she said in a statement released from her office.

During her campaign, her desire and commitment to serve Navajo people living in District 4 gained her support from both Republicans and Democrats.

Her former co-worker in the Navajo Nation Washington Office, Jared King, called her "a patriot, a proud Navajo and a strong leader."

"Sharon fought to ensure the Navajo Nation had a seat at the table when it came to policy and program decision-making at the highest levels of government," wrote King, a Democrat. "Sharon directed her staff to always think of the Navajo people forefront in all of their dealings with both sides of the aisle, without regard to political affiliation."

Creating bridges between Republicans and Democrats for the good of her constituents is what Nevins said makes Clahchiscilliage a great leader.

"On election night she welcomed both Democrats and Republicans to a party in her honor," Nevins said.

Nevins added that as soon as Clahchiscilliage stepped into office, she was readily willing to work with Senator John Pinto (D) to introduce a companion bill to his Senate Bill 162, because it would help Navajo veterans and Navajo youth.

SB 162 proposes to engage Native American veterans in a youth suicide prevention program. Clahchiscilliage's companion bill is HB 174.

Clahchiscilliage is not new to politics. She ran for Navajo Nation President during the last election and prior to that she ran for New Mexico Secretary of State. She said that even though she didn't win, she learned a lot. And, when the race for New Mexico's House District 4 opened up, she was ready for it.

In a sense she's carrying on a family tradition. Relatives James Atsitty, Thomas Atcitty, and, of course, Ray Begaye held the same seat.

"I come from a political family," she said.

Clahchischilliage is the granddaughter of former Navajo Nation Chairmen Sam Ahkeah and Deshna Clahchischilliage.

Growing up in a political family, Clahchischilliage never learned that "politics" is a dirty word.

"I don't understand why there is such a bad connotation about it. We have to do it to get some of our needs met," she said.

Clahchischilliage said that as a New Mexico Representative, she is an advocate for the people.

"I have to be very responsible to be in this position. I grew up with that. I was told it wasn't a position for notoriety or to fulfill any type of emotional needs. You have to be in it understanding the purpose of the position," she said.

And as soon as she stepped into office, she demonstrated her understanding of the purpose. As a freshman legislator, she's been hard at work.

Bills sponsored by Clahchischilliage during New Mexico's 51st legislative session include the Native American Veterans youth suicide prevention project, and bills to improve water quality, improve the finance authority, increase Native American access to the Gaming Control Board and government transparency, and improve retention of and intervention with Native American college students, along with capital projects to improve schools, roads, water systems, safety programs, veterans buildings, multipurpose centers, and chapter houses.