Recently I time-traveled 100 years in the past. I didn’t go to a historical house to find out what life was like on the frontier, I didn’t churn my own butter or read the Farmers’ Almanac by candlelight, but I did witness an internal party primary for New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District. This arcane process was the norm prior to the early 20th century, with party insiders — or in this case, members of the State Central Committee — choosing their preferred candidate instead of the huddled masses.
Climate scientist and state Rep. Melanie Stansbury, D-Albuquerque, triumphed in the State Central Committee runoff over state Sen. Antoinette Sedillo López, D-Albuquerque, who was also the first Latina law professor at the University of New Mexico. Sedillo López placed third in the 2018 primary for this district; Stansbury did not run. Stansbury, being one of the only white candidates, was an underwhelming choice for some to succeed Deb Haaland, one of the first (alongside Rep. Sharice Davids, D-Kan.) Native American women in Congress. Stansbury would arguably have a slim chance of winning the Democratic primary without the current rush to select a representative.
The congressional seat needs a replacement because the incumbent, Haaland, was recently confirmed by the Senate to her new position, Secretary of the Interior. The election was a scramble that eventually went to a runoff. Throughout the race there were multiple calls to replace Haaland with another woman of color, claiming this would honor Haaland. I’d like to unravel what it means when someone says they want to honor their predecessor.
The presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson was overshadowed by the tenure of his predecessor, the assassinated former President John F. Kennedy. Likewise, the tenure of Melanie Stansbury will likely be overshadowed by her historic predecessor. But what will Stansbury owe to Secretary Haaland and her legacy if — most likely, when — she takes office?
Some people’s first response will be “nothing.” If you asked a bundle of Joe Biden voters what they think the current president owes to former President Donald Trump, they would probably laugh in your face. Many would say that Biden’s only responsibility is to the people, not to his predecessor. In a winner-take-all system, the losing politicians don’t govern at all and former politicians govern even less. In terms of political differences between the two women, there is not much to discuss. Both are progressives with an emphasis on the environment and Native American issues. Stansbury has made solving the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women a notable part of her platform, which is something Haaland has prioritized both in her new job and her old one.
Many responses to the question of what is owed will have nuance because most politicians have nuanced responsibilities. There is a responsibility to execute policy, and more broadly to represent your community. I would love it if Stansbury could be a carbon copy of Haaland, but unfortunately, she is not. As I noted before, Secretary Haaland was the first Native American woman in Congress. Neither Stansbury nor her unlikely-to-win Republican rival — Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque — can succeed her in this way.
In one of her first releases after receiving the nomination, Stansbury tweeted, “The fight to defend Deb Haaland’s seat starts now.” This is an understandable political maneuver, invoking the name of an extremely popular politician. It does complicate how we think of politicians as distinct figures, with distinct experiences and policy positions.
Stansbury wanting to honor Haaland is admirable but concerning. On the issue of representation, Haaland brought an irreplaceable perspective to Congress. Stansbury can honor that, and continue the work Haaland did in uplifting Native communities nationwide, without passing herself off to be some sort of anointed heir. This problem of branding would not be so bothersome if Stansbury were not a remarkable and compelling candidate in her own right. Running explicitly as a replacement to a person, as opposed to a proponent of an idea, does not allow a politician to flourish as an honest legislator. Stansbury should run as Stansbury because to run as Haaland 2.0 is dishonest.
This may be a niche observation about one congressional race in one of the most sparsely populated states in the nation. But this sort of thing happens often, most recently with a vice president, one politician running as the spiritual successor to another. I don’t care for it, and neither should you.
In an age of political compass tests, vote analyses and other desperate attempts to differentiate non-differentiable candidates based on ideology, marketing yourself as “I’m like this person!” may seem to be a silver bullet for lackluster candidates, but it is never accurate. Politicians, especially those wanting to have a real effect on the national dialogue or public policy, should not strive to be indifferent from their predecessors.
Back to our fundamental question of what a candidate owes to their predecessor — they owe what they owe to any constituent: honesty. Stansbury can carry forth Haaland’s bold climate initiatives, kind spirit and fierce advocacy without using her shadow as cover from potential attacks. The primary debt, I will remind you, is to the voters. Voters deserve an honest candidate who is not beholden to politicians of the past, no matter how popular they are.
Julian Barnard is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.