We couldn’t say ‘climate change’: Rep. Melanie Stansbury on her staffer days

‘We were actually told we would need to remove the words,’ Democrat recalls

Rep. Melanie Stansbury, D-N.M., became the newest member of Congress on June 14. As a staffer, she learned that climate change was still a “third rail” for the GOP — but she predicts a sea change ahead. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Melanie Stansbury, D-N.M., became the newest member of Congress on June 14. As a staffer, she learned that climate change was still a “third rail” for the GOP — but she predicts a sea change ahead. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted June 30, 2021 at 6:30am

The first things you need to know about Rep. Melanie Stansbury, the newest member of Congress, are one, she’s not all that new to Washington and two, she’s a water person.

A scientist-sociologist turned politician, Stansbury clocked eight years working on climate policy, first in the Obama White House and then on Capitol Hill.

Now that the New Mexico Democrat is back in town — after winning the special election earlier this month to replace current Interior Secretary Deb Haaland in the House — look for her at one of several watering holes around the Hill. Stansbury has plans to revitalize a long-standing tradition among her fellow water people when she was a staffer: a bipartisan, bicameral happy hour.

“We used to go to this whiskey bar on Pennsylvania Ave., because you know there’s the famous saying that ‘whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over,’” she says with a laugh. “We thought that was really clever.”

CQ Roll Call spoke with Stansbury about how she dealt with climate deniers as a staffer — and what’s changed since then. This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Q: What first brought you to Washington in 2010?

A: At the time I was working on my dissertation in sociology — on restorative justice and sustainable development with a particular focus on land and water rights. I went to a conference in Tucson and met somebody who worked at the Council on Environmental Quality. We exchanged cards, and long story short, I had the opportunity to come intern in the Obama White House. I jumped at the opportunity and never looked back.

Q: And then you moved over to the legislative branch. 

A: Ironically, since I’m now serving as a congressperson, I never thought I’d work on the Hill. [Laughs.] I got a phone call one day from the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that they were looking for a water person. 

That committee of course had been chaired and had ranking members from New Mexico for many years — Sens. Pete Domenici and Jeff Bingaman had been there. So there was a long line of New Mexicans.

This was 2015. We were in the midst of an epic historic drought, like we are right now. 

Q: That was the same year Sen. Jim Inhofe brought a snowball onto the Senate floor to deny climate change. What went through your mind when you saw that?

A: I was still at the Office of Management and Budget at the time, and I thought it was theatrics. I actually worked on the climate science portfolio and I was also covering Arctic issues, and I had recently taken a trip on behalf of OMB to northern Alaska, to the Bering Sea, to meet with a community whose village is literally disappearing into the ocean because of climate change. 

There is a theatrics to politics that undermines the seriousness and existential nature of climate change. I find it unfortunate because we need to get to work to solve these problems.

Q: What was your experience like with climate science deniers on the Hill?

A: When I was hired, Sen. Maria Cantwell was the ranking member at the time, and Lisa Murkowski was the chair of Senate ENR. I was hired in part to work on a water bill that was based on a climate study that had been done in a tributary of the Columbia Basin, to help build that water conservation program for the next half-century for Washington state. 

As we were negotiating the bill with our Republican counterparts in the committee, we were actually told that we would need to remove the words “climate change” from the bill in order to get support from the GOP. 

At the end of the day the bill is still a bill about climate change, but it passed with bipartisan support. What that indicated to me, and what I learned from that experience, is that the tide has really turned in terms of people’s understanding that climate change is real, climate change is here, climate change is impacting our communities. But it is still a third rail for the GOP because of this sustained campaign against taking climate action for decades. 

We’re at a real inflection point in our country as a result. The year before last, I went up to Alaska as part of a delegation from the New Mexico legislature to an energy conference. What was fascinating to me is that the GOP leadership in Alaska talks about climate change a lot, because the permafrost is literally melting and creating commercial opportunities at the same time that it’s causing havoc for communities and infrastructure. I think we’re going to see a real sea change in the next few years as the narrative and dynamic shifts.

Q: As a sociologist-scientist yourself, what do you think about recruiting more people with science backgrounds to be staffers, let alone members of Congress?

A: Oh yeah. It’s one of the things I’m most passionate about. In fact, even when I was a staffer, I spent a lot of my time talking to researchers and students and interns and trying to encourage people to follow their passions. People don’t know that public policy is an option for them if they didn’t become a lawyer or go to public policy school. 

We need more scientists and STEM professionals working in politics and public policy because there’s a misunderstanding oftentimes about the role that science can play in our decision-making and how you do that translational work.

Q: You’ve been back on the Hill for less than a month now as a member. Have you run into anyone you knew from your staffer days?

A: Oh yeah, definitely. So my boss was Sen. Maria Cantwell, and when I first launched my campaign for Congress, she was one of the first people who endorsed me. One of the most awesome moments over the last two weeks was when I got sworn in here in the House and the entire delegation for New Mexico was on the floor with me and Sen. Cantwell came and stood with us. The women of the House also came and stood on the floor with me, and so that was really a powerful moment.

Q: What was the “lightbulb” moment you had as a staffer that made you realize you could do the job of a lawmaker?

A: I was working on the Hill in the fall of 2016. The Energy Committee had been working on this giant bipartisan energy deal — which ended up passing fairly recently, but at the time, after the 2016 election, sort of everything fell apart. 

Being here in D.C. and being on the front lines of watching our political fabric as a country fall apart made me realize that we need more smart, kind people to run for office who care deeply about our communities. So I moved home in 2017, and shortly after I moved home, I got asked if I would run for the state House. At the time, I had no idea what I was doing. [Laughs.] But I did. And we not only won, we won a seat that no one in the entire state thought could be won. 

It was such a powerful, life-changing experience, especially in the aftermath of the 2016 election. So then this seat opened up in Congress, and here I am. 

Q: What’s one of your former staffer habits that you’re going to have to shed?

A: What’s really hard is knowing that you have to let other people handle the details. Because your job as a staffer is to be in charge of the who-what-where-when — making sure that all the talking points are put together and that everything flows the way it needs to. And as the principal, your job is to be the spokesperson for the work you’re trying to do. So I’m learning. I’m trying. [Laughs.]