Diné candidate: Time is right for Native in Congress

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

CHINLE, Nov. 28, 2011

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Wenona Baldenegro

With Arizona redrawing its congressional districts, Wenona Benally Baldenegro figures it's a good time to be throwing her hat in the ring.

The 34-year-old Harvard law grad, originally from Kayenta, thinks she stands a pretty good chance of winning the Democratic nomination and defeating Republican incumbent Paul Gosar - especially if the Navajo Nation and 10 other Arizona tribes can convince the state of Arizona to redraw District 1 their way.

If she is elected, it will be the first time Arizona has elected a Native American to Congress, and she will be the first Native woman to represent any state.

She thinks she stands a chance.

"If you look at the proposed district," Baldenegro said in a phone interview between appointments Monday, "about 20 percent of the voters are Native American and another 20 percent are Hispanic."

Thus, it will not hurt Baldenegro that she married a Mexican-American (Salomon F. Baldenegro) and has a Spanish last name - nor that she has expressed vehement opposition to Arizona's ethnic studies bill and SB1070, which requires police to question individuals they suspect might be illegal immigrants (like her grandmother, who was rounded up in an Immigration Service raid on Northern Arizona University's food service).

But Baldenegro, whose clans are Tsi'najinii (Black Streaked Wood), Honaghaahnii (One Wanders Around), Ta'neeszahnii (Tangle) and Tabaaha (Edge Water), is not running because she thinks she can get elected.

She's running because, like many Americans, she's tired of the polarized politics that have gridlocked Congress and she wants to do more than gripe about it.

"It's time for the next generation of leaders to step up," she said. "It's time for a voice of reason at the federal level."

In announcing her campaign last month, Baldenegro portrayed herself as a friend of working families and the middle class, whom she believes are being edged out of the flagging economy as the rich get richer.

But what does a Harvard-educated lawyer know about life at the bottom?

Well, plenty, as it turns out. Baldenegro's parents, Raymond and Winnona Ann Benally, divorced when Baldenegro was in junior high, leaving her mother a single parent with only a high school diploma.

Not one to waste time whining, Winnona Benally immediately started working on a degree, ending up with not just a bachelor's but a master's in education.

"If I'm elected, one of my main priorities will be education," Baldenegro said. "For people like me and my mom, it's a way out and a way up."

Her first priority, though, would be job creation - and she wants to specifically target the Navajo Nation.

"A lot of people in my generation want to come back to the reservation and be gainfully employed," said Baldenegro, who currently lives in Flagstaff. "There are just no jobs for us."

She's also committed to "protecting those vital services that our people rely on to remain healthy and secure," like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

Baldenegro regards herself as a moderate environmentalist who believes in balancing the economy and the planet - but she's definitely opposed to bringing uranium mining back to the Grand Canyon, and thinks the Navajo Nation even ought to look at phasing out its coal mines.

"To extract coal, it takes another vital resource - water," she said. "We're going to run out of water before we run out of coal."

She's a proponent of wind and solar power and other "sustainable" employment opportunities.

She'd also like to rebalance the tax code so that the wealthiest Americans pay more.

"You can see in the Occupy Wall Street movement that people are frustrated," she said. "They're tired of bailing out Wall Street. They're tired of the budget being balanced on their backs while the rich don't pay their fair share. They want someone in Congress who truly represents them, who will be their voice."

Baldenegro graduated from Monument Valley High School in 1996 and went on to receive a bachelor's in English literature at Arizona State University. After graduating, she worked for the Arizona Inter-Tribal Council, tracking the Indian Health Service budget and legislation that affected Native Americans.

"That's what inspired me to go to law school," she said.

It was her mother who inspired her to aim for the top and apply to Harvard.

"I figured if she could get a master's while raising kids as a single parent, I could get into Harvard," she said.

Baldenegro hopes her candidacy will inspire other young people coming up.

"I want them to know that you can be from the rez and still be anything you want to be," she said. "Anything."

Even, perhaps, the first Native American congresswoman.

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