In one of the largest Congressional districts in the nation, stretching across the rural heartland of eastern Arizona from the Four Corners region to the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson, the historic candidacy of Wenona Benally Baldenegro for the Democratic nomination for Congress is marking a new era in Western politics.
For Arizonans exhausted by the extremist Tea Party machinations of freshman Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ), who many view more dedicated to the Tea Party's beltway defiance of the Obama administration than the creation of jobs or protecting health care and investments in education, the hands-on rural American experience and Main Street platform ideas of public interest attorney Benally Baldenegro have galvanized a bipartisan campaign across the district's diverse constituency.
"We're extremely disappointed in Rep. Gosar," said Vera Skorupski, a long-time registered Republican from Sedona, Arizona and a campaign supporter of Benally Baldenegro. Citing Gosar's lack of support for Medicare and health care reform, Skorupski praised Benally Baldenegro for not ignoring the "compassionate conservative" tradition abandoned by "radical" Tea Party activists like Gosar and bringing together Democrats, Republicans and Independents.
Raised in the mining town of Kayenta on the Navajo Nation, the Harvard-educated attorney Benally Baldenegro will also become the first female American Indian member of Congress, if elected.
Hailed as one of the state's rising political stars, the Flagstaff-based Benally Baldenegro has been on a fast track to success in Arizona. As the first Native American to graduate from Arizona State University's prestigious Barrett Honor's College, she attended Harvard's Law School and then earned a Masters in Public Policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government. Over the past decade, she has worked in Washington, DC, Portland and Tucson, Arizona, serving as a project specialist at the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona (ITCA), developing tribal self-reliance initiatives and dealing with federal health care legislation and regulations, and as a public interest attorney and expert on business, lending and rural development issues.
Photo courtesy of Wenona for Arizona campaign
With Arizona's unemployment rate rising to 9.3 percent this month, Benally Baldenegro's campaign is emphasizing the need to revamp the state's commitment for a new era of sustainable job creation and training in the district's unique rural communities and small towns, along with small business investment and development, and greater educational opportunities for advancement. Responding to the largely overlooked needs of the rural district, she also calls for the protection of Arizona's public health and safety, and environment, with a particular focus on defending Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and veterans benefits, and a more aggressive effort to expand and reduce the costs of health care services.
"We need a representative who will promote green jobs on and off the reservations, protect our environment, help our struggling students and fight for ordinary people suffering during this economic downturn," said Cheryl Bader, a Retired Clinical Professor at Northern Arizona University and Co-Chair of the Progressive Democrats of Northern Arizona. "Wenona is that person."
Benally Baldenegro will first have to face one-term former Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick in the Democratic Party primary. However, despite Kirkpatrick's dogged fundraising efforts this summer, few observers believe she can revive her listless and disastrous 2010 campaign, which turned away record numbers of Democrats and Independent voters with her support for the Bush era tax cuts and a poor environmental protection record.
The key to success for either Democratic candidate in Arizona, according to many party leaders, such as Ken Smith, the former Senior Vice Chair of the Arizona Democratic Party, is for the "DCCC (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in Washington, DC) to quit trying to dictate to us who our candidate should be."
Among the many boneheaded and unpopular moves in his recent term, Gosar quickly endorsed Rep. Paul Ryan's budget plan over the objections of veterans, joined the radical right's war on the Environmental Protection Agency, and has called for more uranium mining near the Grand Canyon, jeopardizing the district's hallowed tourist destination.
Kirkpatrick and Gosar are both key supporters in the long-brewing controversial Resolution Copper mine and land swap near Superior, Arizona, which many residents see as a betrayal of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's mandate in 1955 to set aside federal land for environmental and tribal protection. Even though the mine is still without a veritable water management plan and environmental impact statement in a state facing a looming crisis over water, Gosar stunned local residents last month by rejecting an amendment to require the foreign copper company to use vehicles registered in the state and hire Arizonan workers, and promote job training programs to develop a local workforce. Despite dubious claims of hundreds of jobs that wouldn't take place for another decade, Gosar has yet to explain the mitigation of long-term environmental costs incurred by the state or nearby communities or answer critics concerns about the outsourcing of Arizona's copper to Chinese corporate interests.
The bottom line: The Tea Party-beholden Gosar is out of touch with his own district.
"I am working to build a campaign that will bring people from all walks of life together to support a candidate who will stand up for the working people and middle-class families of America," Benally Baldenegro told a recent gathering in Flagstaff. "I will build a campaign that does not rely on PAC contributions from corporations, federal lobbyists, or special interest groups that seek to usurp the people's voice. My campaign will be built on donations from grassroots and individual donors who share and support the values that I will stand up for as Representative for Arizona's First Congressional District."