As a young man growing up at Sandia Pueblo, Derrick Lente recalls sitting in tribal meetings and hearing white, older gentlemen speak about the important issues affecting his pueblo people and most of those in attendance took the non-Natives’ information and their words as gospel. Lente asked himself many times, “Why can’t a Native person serve in that role?”
This inspired him to pursue his law degree and recently he announced that he is tossing his hat in the ring as a Democratic candidate for the New Mexico House of Representatives for District 65. The district is geographically large and begins in central New Mexico, starting just north of Albuquerque, and goes all the way up the state to the Colorado border. It includes Sandoval, San Juan and Rio Arriba counties.
Lente was born in Sandia Pueblo, located just north of Albuquerque, and was educated in the Bernalillo Public School System. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Intercultural Communication from the University of New Mexico and went on to receive his Juris Doctorate degree from UNM’s School of law, specializing in Federal Indian Law.
“The district is primarily rural, there’s a lot of Indian land involved,” said Lente, who pointed out the district encompasses seven pueblos, chapters of the Navajo Nation and the Jicarilla Apache reservation. “Land lines and cellphones aren’t necessarily the best way to communicate. TV and radio coverage can be very sparse, so I intend to go out and pound the pavement, pound the dirt and walk those dusty roads. I want to hear the issues the people have and not assume that I need to solve a lot of problems that might not even be on their radar.”
The incumbent for District 65 is Roger Madalena from Jemez Pueblo. He has been serving in this seat for the past three decades. Earlier this year he announced that he will not seek re-election. Madalena’s son, Darryl Madalena (also a citizen of Jemez Pueblo), who currently chairs the Sandoval County Commission is seeking to replace his father in the House.
“After a very successful and lengthy career Representative Madalena decided to retire. That’s why I thought it was timely to put my name into the hat and start actively pursuing this position,” said Lente, who is 36 years old and whose father is from Isleta Pueblo. “After hearing the encouragement and support of my family, friends and others; I started thinking about what is truly important to the people who live in this district.
“I started going out talking to them finding out and reaffirming to myself the issues that people are concerned about – good schools for their children, clean water and good roads,” said Lente, who owns several companies. “I am going to treat it as a very grassroots-level campaign. Since the district is very much Native American and very much minority, I’ll be able to relate to the folks very well. I intend to take my value system with me to Santa Fe and treat people with the type of respect that I was taught to give to people.”
This is not Lente’s first political campaign. He currently holds a seat with the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District Board of Directors. The board regulates the irrigation, flood control and drainage of the district’s valley. He was elected in 2008 and is currently serving his second term.
“We’re one of the poorest districts in the state of New Mexico. It’s unfortunate that our district has not really progressed in the past 20 years. One of the issues that will be a big part of my platform is education. I want to make sure that children coming up have the encouragement that I had,” remarked Lente, whose duties include being a farmer, rancher, and father.
Sandia Pueblo has a very successful casino and resort. Much of the local public perception of the pueblo is that they should not necessarily need any government assistance – from the state or from the federal government. New Mexico State and U.S. lawmakers are also sometimes guilty of believing this false perception.
“Tribes have the inherent right to pursue economic development, in whichever fashion they see fit,” said Lente. “Fortunately, (tribal) casinos have been very prosperous in the state of New Mexico. We are taxpayers. Revenues from Indian casinos go directly to fund state operations. They support our communities as a whole, so that should never excuse the fact that we should receive federal and state funding as well.”
The New Mexico primary elections will be held June 7.