Rep. Raúl Grijalva doesn’t tend to recruit members to serve on the House Natural Resources Committee, of which he’s served as top Democrat since 2015. The Arizona lawmaker made an exception in 2018, when he learned Deb Haaland was coming to Capitol Hill.
Then poised to assume the chairmanship in the new Democratic majority, Grijalva immediately went to work courting Haaland, a Democrat from New Mexico who was already gaining notice as one of the first two Native American women elected that year to serve in Congress, ever.
"Sometimes, especially someone who’s coming in with high expectations as Deb was coming in, they can kind of pick and choose where they want to go," Grijalva recalled in an interview with E&E News — an acknowledgement his committee isn’t always the first choice for lawmakers who want to make national headlines or attract big donors.
"But Deb was somebody I knew I had to do whatever I could to get her on the committee and try to convince her personally, and part of [why] I think it worked is that I wasn’t promising anything other than letting her deal with the issues that she cared about. And that’s exactly what happened."
Haaland accepted Grijalva’s offer to take on two leadership slots on Natural Resources: vice chair of the full committee and chair of the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands.
Nearly two years later, Haaland was nominated to serve as President Biden’s secretary of the Interior, the agency over which Natural Resources has direct oversight. In this way, their political futures have become inextricably tied.
Grijalva, who turns 73 next week, gave Haaland the chance to carve out a niche for herself on Natural Resources that was both an extension of the work she’d been doing in New Mexico and a new opportunity to show her ability to shape policy, whether through crafting legislation or asking sharp questions.
Now, Haaland, 60, will give Grijalva — who lobbied heavily for her to be nominated for the Cabinet post — a powerful ally at the highest levels of government.
Assuming she is confirmed in the weeks ahead, Haaland will be overseeing the agency at a consequential moment for Democrats looking to both make gains in confronting the climate crisis and reverse the Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks.
Grijalva will be at the forefront of those efforts when it comes to passing legislation out of his committee to protect and restore national monuments, maintain the moratorium for new oil and gas leases on federal lands, and advance his environmental justice agenda.
"She will raise the profile of this committee," he said of Haaland. "The whole general area around environment, public lands, Native Americans, our oceans, our waters — all of a sudden you have a secretary who is going to raise it, and raise the support for those issues, and that’s important for the work we do."
‘Those feelings of expectation’
In the transactional world of politics, it would be easy to envision a scenario where Haaland is deferential to Grijalva as some token of her thanks, or that Grijalva gets some direct line to Interior as a result of their professional relationship.
After all, Grijalva not only elevated Haaland to a leadership role as a freshman but actively campaigned for her to lead Interior — the first House Democrat to throw his weight behind Haaland even as other congressional colleagues were also in contention.
In a statement to E&E News, Haaland praised Grijalva for leading the Natural Resources panel with "conviction."
"He values the perspectives of people who haven’t been represented in this country and makes it a point to lift their voices up," she said. "I’ve learned so much from him and am grateful for the trust he has in me to advocate on the issues that we both care so much about."
Grijalva was adamant that he does not expect special favors or privileges from Haaland: "I’m trying to be very careful not to be disrespectful, step on her toes, ‘the man behind the curtain’ kind of bullshit, which just isn’t true in this situation."
He did, however, acknowledge there would be an unprecedented opportunity to elevate the standing of the typically more low-profile Natural Resources Committee and its legislative agenda.
"It’s terribly important for the committee," Grijalva explained. "The committee is important, and more so now with Deb there, because she comes from this family. … We’re in a position to help her with her agenda, and the actions that she’s taking that reinforces what we’re doing here, and that helps us."
Perhaps at no other moment as a senior member of the Natural Resources Committee has Grijalva ever had a partner leading the Interior Department with whom there is a certain element of mind meld.
Grijalva has served on the Natural Resources Committee since his election in 2003 and has held leadership positions with the panel since 2007. It wasn’t until 2009, with the election of President Obama, that Grijalva had a chance to legislate under an administration where there was considerably more ideological alignment. And even then, it wasn’t always a perfect fit.
Obama’s first Interior secretary, then-Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), was perceived in many circles as too cozy with oil and mining interests.
Salazar’s successor, REI CEO Sally Jewell, continued in that mold of someone able to appeal to conservationists without alienating key constituencies in the energy sector. Early in her career, she was a petroleum engineer.
But Haaland is a staunch progressive who is unapologetic in her views of what it means to protect the environment — much like Grijalva, who was passed over for Interior gigs with the Obama administration for being too uncompromising in his own environmental politics.
As colleagues and partners on the Natural Resources Committee, Haaland and Grijalva were aligned on environmental justice legislation, the Green New Deal and banning fossil fuel production on federal lands.
They teamed up on probes of Bureau of Land Management activity on sacred grounds, pandemic safety measures at national parks and the U.S. Park Police’s violent confrontation with peaceful protesters after the killing of George Floyd.
They also were both supporters of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) during her 2020 presidential bid and share the experience of, in Grijalva’s words, "being the first."
Haaland, after being one of the first two Native American women ever elected to Congress, is poised to become the first Native American to ever serve in a Cabinet, let alone run the agency that has been historically hostile to tribal interests. Grijalva recalled being the first Latino to be elected to the school board in Tucson, Ariz.
"I was outnumbered, I was 21 years old, and those feelings of expectation, those feelings of people looking at you, it brings a certain amount of pressure," he said. "For [Haaland], you can amplify that 1,000 times."
‘Not going to burn her’
Ultimately, Grijalva thinks the biggest advantage he’ll get out of a Haaland-run Interior Department is a partnership free of "daily combat" — a complaint he had of Haaland’s immediate successors in the Trump administration, Ryan Zinke and David Bernhardt.
"What I hope I have from Secretary Haaland is her trust, that I’m not going to burn her, and I know she knows that I respect her," he said. "If those two factors continue to function as they have in the past, we’ll be able to collaborate and work together."
He said he didn’t anticipate committee Democrats needing to exercise the full extent of their oversight authority over the Interior Department — a shift from the full docket of investigations they launched into the agency’s alleged misconduct during the Trump era.
This posture is bound to strike Republicans as a double standard, though Grijalva isn’t concerned. "They’re gonna hear from us on Grand Canyon, they’re gonna hear from us on the monuments, they’re gonna hear from us on oceans, they’re gonna hear from us on public lands," he said of Haaland’s Interior Department.
"That will continue. The difference is, we’re going to be sitting across the table from Interior staff that is not there to sabotage us or keep us in the dark."
Also, Grijalva pointed out, Haaland knows how the game works. "The committee has opinionated people who are committed to these issues, who she has worked with, and she knows that’s still going to be there, that doesn’t go away."
For the time being, Grijalva is focused on doing what he can to help Haaland succeed in her likely new job. Right now, that work includes laying the groundwork for that success, as she faces a tense confirmation process and partisan fallout for her alignment with Biden’s executive orders targeting oil and gas drilling.
"It’s so important she be successful at her position, and that will translate to the rest of us as well, everybody else around her, and to Biden," Grijalva explained.
"What can I do to make sure she’s successful? And it means a lot, the price of being the first one and, more importantly, the issues that she’s going to take, since I’m sure some of the senators she’s talking to are not too comfortable about where she’s coming from on some issues."
But he added: "She’s going to get confirmed. And we have to grin and bear it and move on so we can get to work."