Huh? A Native American Republican woman heading to the Roundhouse

By Rob Nikolewski on December 13, 2012
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“Now how is it pronounced,” long-time New Mexico House veteran Edward Sandoval (D-Albuquerque) politely asked.

“Claw-chiss-chillage,” the new member of the Roundhouse said.

“Rhymes with village,” a reporter offered.

Like all other new members of the New Mexico House and Senate, Sharon Clahchischilliage won’t be formally sworn in until next month but as she was taking part in orientation meetings on Thursday (Dec. 13), the 63-year-old from the Four Corners area with an Ivy League education stands out from the rest of the freshmen entering the upcoming 60-day legislative session.

Sharon Clahchischilliage, Representative-elect, HD-4

“I definitely feel like I’m under the microscope,” Clahchischilliage, a former special education teacher and member of the Navajo Nation, told Capitol Report New Mexico.

But it’s not just her name that draws attention but also the fact that Clahchischilliage (which means “the one who’s lefthanded with curly hair ” in her native language) will become just the sixth Native American to represent the Republican Party in the history of the New Mexico legislature.

“People are still shocked that I won,” Clahchischilliage said of her defeat of 7-term Democratic incumbent Ray Begaye last month. “I keep running into people who have walked up to me and said, ‘I’m shocked, I can’t believe you did this, how did you do this?’ I’ve gotten more of that than the Republican/woman/minority thing.”

The race in District 4 in the Four Corners figured to be an uphill fight for Clahchischilliage but the district was reconfigured in this past election so that Republicans were much more competitive and Begaye was dogged by stories indicating he had “double-dipped” in filing expense accounts.

The already contentious race was further feuled by a couple other factors: First, a controversial flyer sent out by the Democratic Party of New Mexico questioning Clahchischilliage’s loyalty to the Navajo Nation and second, the fact that Begaye and Clahchischilliage are related through their grandparents.

“I knew I could do the job,” Clahchischilliage said. “Convincing the population that I could do it was the job.”

In the end, Clahchischilliage not only won but she won handily, 61.4 percent to 38.5.

Now she’s entering the Roundhouse with a lot of eyes on her.

“I feel like I’m under the microscope,” she said.

A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania with a master’s degree in social work, Clahchischilliage also worked for eight years as executive director in the Washington DC office of the Navajo Nation before coming back to New Mexico.

With her election to the Roundhouse, there’s speculation whether a successful legislative career by Clahchischilliage could lead to inroads for the GOP among Native Americans, who overwhelmingly vote for Democrats.

“There’s no one that’s really countered the message from the Democrats about the Republicans [in Navajo districts],” Clahchischilliage said. “I suppose that’s part of what I’m going to have to do.”

Begaye was a reliable Democratic Party vote in Santa Fe, although he voted with maverick Democrat and Navajo Nation member Sandra Jeff of Crownpoint in the past two years to try to repeal the law in New Mexico granting driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.

So where will Clahchischilliage fall on the political spectrum?

“Fiscally conservative and because of the issues I’m having to deal with in San Juan I’m probably going to be perceived as a moderate Republican.”

Water, energy and helping promote jobs in a district that was already wracked with high rates of poverty before the economic downturn will be Clahchischilliage’s legislative priorties she said.

“I’m very excited” about her upcoming freshman year at the Roundhouse. “I’m looking forward to all the work.”

***

You can watch excerpts of our interview with Clahschischilliage here:

And for you Roundhouse trivia buffs, here is a list of the five former Republican Native Americans who have served in the New Mexico legislature:

Name Office Years of Service Counties Hometown
Wilbert C. Begay House 1967-70 San Juan Fruitland
Jake C. Chee House 1967-68 McKinley Cuba
Jimmie Garnenez House 1997-98 San Juan Shiprock
Tom Lee Senate 1967-76 San Juan, McKinley Gallup
Teresa A. Zanetti House 2003-08 Bernalillo Albuquerque

Update: Darren White tells us via Twitter that Republican Hal Stratton, who served in the state House of Representatives from 1979-1987, is of Cherokee descent.

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One Comment For This Post So Far

  1. Char Tierney
    7:48 pm on December 13th, 2012

    Great story. Thanks for tweeting it out. I look forward to hearing about her. I hope she does well and furthers the good of her constituents and the whole state.

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