Religion Still Has Power in American Politics

(This column originally appeared in the Rio Grande Sun and Artesia Daily Press.)In 1996 I took a year off from journalism to attend seminary in Atlanta. The plan was to cram as much theology, sociology of religion and church history into two semesters to return to a newspaper to cover the intersection of religion and politics. 

It was obvious even then that understanding the white evangelical Christian constituency that would propel George W. Bush and Donald Trump into the White House would come in handy for a political reporter.  

Trip Jennings, executive director of New Mexico In Depth

After a year, however, I decided I liked reading philosophy, theology, ethics and history and the conversations they had prompted, so I tacked on another two years and earned a Master’s of Divinity degree. 

After graduating, I got a newspaper job in Connecticut an hour from New York City just in time to cover the 9/11 terror attacks, anthrax, and several political scandals. I never got to report on the mix of religion and politics like I’d hoped. 

However, the topic is an abiding interest. For example, this week the use of the word “biblical” in American politics is of keen interest. 

At its annual meeting in Indianapolis earlier this week, the Southern Baptist Convention entertained a question of whether to ban women from serving in any pastoral roles at a church. Supporters defend the proposal as “biblical,” meaning they trace its authority to the Bible itself. 

“If we won’t stand on this issue and be unapologetically biblical, then we won’t stand on anything,” the Associated Press quoted amendment proponent Mike Law, pastor of Arlington Baptist Church in Virginia, as saying.

Ivey-Soto campaign mail featured photo that includes one of his accusers

Three-term Democratic state senator Daniel Ivey-Soto already faces a stiff headwind in his bid to win re-election.His campaign might have made his quest harder when one of its fliers hit mailboxes Saturday and Monday. 

At the top-left corner of one of the photos in the campaign literature stands a smiling woman at a bill-signing ceremony with Ivey-Soto and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. The woman, Miranda Viscoli, is one of several women who in 2022 alleged unwanted or abusive behavior by Ivey-Soto to a special counsel hired by state lawmakers looking into a complaint that the Albuquerque Democrat had violated the Legislature’s Anti-Harassment policy. The special counsel later produced a 27-page report.“After what I went through with him, that’s not OK,” Viscoli said of her appearance in Ivey-Soto’s campaign flier during an interview Wednesday afternoon. “He could have cropped me out of that picture.”

Viscoli and her husband, Steve Lipscomb, are supporting Ivey-Soto’s primary election opponent, Heather Berghmans. Lipscomb was quoted in a New Mexico In Depth story published Tuesday as saying “I hope everyone will do everything they possibly can … to say,  ‘It’s not ok, it’s not ok to abuse women in the Roundhouse where government conducts business in our state.’”Berghmans’ campaign sent out a press release early Wednesday afternoon criticizing Ivey-Soto’s inclusion of Viscoli and one other woman in his flier.

Politicos who remove journalists from public events disrespect democracy

Over the weekend our former colleague, Sandra Fish, was kicked out of the Colorado statewide GOP assembly for doing her job. Sandra works for the Colorado nonprofit news organization, the Colorado Sun, which has gotten crosswise with the chairman of Colorado’s Republican party for fair but hard-hitting journalism. Her ejection has generated national headlines. 

But before Sandra worked for the Colorado Sun, she worked for New Mexico In Depth from 2014 through 2017, using her formidable data analyzing skills to report on hard-to-get-at issues such as New Mexico’s less-than-ideal process for funding brick and mortar projects around the state, the flow of money in politics and the role of lobbyists in lawmaking. 

Sandra Fish

To our knowledge, she is the only reporter to have spent months rifling through contracts to determine how much lobbyists working for public institutions in New Mexico collected from their employers over a period of time: $7.2 million in 2014-15. Because of lax New Mexico’s transparency laws, Sandra couldn’t do the same rifling to see how much private-sector corporations spent on lobbyists, a lack of disclosure that obscures how much is really spent on lobbying in New Mexico. 

Nearly a decade later, that secrecy is still intact.New Mexicans also can thank Sandra, in part, for the Legislature’s decision a few years ago to finally disclose how much each state lawmaker spends on brick-and-mortar projects. She broke the news in 2015 that state law prohibited disclosure of that information unless a state lawmaker consented to allowing the public to see how they individually spent public dollars. 

During her three years with us, Sandra’s reporting sometimes ruffled elected and public officials, some of whom complained.

Couy Griffin is history. Disinformation is not. 

With all the hand wringing focused on the twin threats of misinformation and disinformation this election year, the country got welcome news Monday: Couy Griffin can’t ever hold public office in New Mexico again. That’s thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court rejecting Griffin’s request to lift a lifetime ban on holding office placed on him by a New Mexico state district judge.You remember Couy Griffin? The former Otero County commissioner and Cowboys for Trump founder who participated in the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol. The purveyor of wacky conspiracy theories and articulator of provocative statements such as “the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat.” The man who encouraged Otero County to part with tens of thousands of dollars to pay for what supporters called an audit of the county’s election 2020 results — even though Donald Trump won the county by more than 25 percentage points.That Couy Griffin.Griffin rose to national political fame for his theatrics, leading horseback caravans in support of the former president.Now he is famous for different reasons: He’s the only elected official thus far to be banned from office in connection with the Capitol attack, the Associated Press reported Monday.

NM State Sen. Benny Shendo takes job in Colorado

Sen. Benny Shendo, D-Jemez, has accepted  a job with the University of Colorado and according to a Colorado newspaper will relinquish his legislative seat in the spring of 2024. One of the most powerful Indigenous lawmakers in the New Mexico Legislature, Shendo has served as a state lawmaker in Santa Fe since winning election in 2012 and chairs the important Senate Tax, Business & Transportation Committee. The Daily Camera newspaper in Boulder, Colo., quoted Shendo as saying:
“I cannot wait to get started in this new role at CU Boulder to strengthen our relationships with the tribes of Colorado and those historically connected to Colorado and to build a strong, supportive Native American community on campus for our students, faculty and staff,” Shendo said in a news release. He will join the campus full time on March 1, after relinquishing his state legislature seat. In a short interview with New Mexico In Depth this afternoon, Shendo said he was not prepared to say he would not run for re-election in the New Mexico Legislature.

New Mexico AG says he’s going after school discipline and Yazzie-Martinez to protect children

New Mexico Attorney General Raúl Torrez said he is ready to “test the limits” of whether the state constitution gives him the authority to assume control of the state’s defense in the 2018 Yazzie-Martinez court case, but hopes it doesn’t come to that. “That is something we will do if we have to, but again my hope in this is  that we start having conversations,” Torrez said during an on-camera interview with New Mexico In Depth and New Mexico In Focus (NMiF) on Thursday. 

Last month, Torrez announced his intention to take over the landmark case due to the “slow progress” by the administration of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in presenting a plan to reform the state’s public schools. Then-state District Court Judge Sarah Singleton ruled in 2018 — before her death the following year — that the state of New Mexico had violated the educational rights of Native American, English language-learning, disabled and low-income children. In response to Torrez on Friday afternoon, Caroline Sweeney, a spokesperson for the governor, said: “We have never challenged the AG’s authority to represent the state. It is our understanding that the Attorney General has not had any conversations with leadership at the Public Education Department, and we would be happy to brief him on the exhaustive work the Department has undertaken to improve education in New Mexico.”

If the governor does decide to dispute Torrez’s bid to take over the case, it remains unclear who would settle the question, although the courts are a likely venue.

Lujan Grisham axes tax increase on booze

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Friday struck down the first alcohol tax increase in 30 years meant to address a public health crisis that claims thousands of New Mexican lives a year.Lujan Grisham’s veto came as a surprise to state lawmakers. During weeks of negotiations with the governor’s office and each other during the legislative session, lawmakers had shaped a $1.1 billion tax package only to learn that she had liberally crossed through line after line in the 119-page bill.The decision to eliminate the alcohol tax, in particular, contradicted the rhetoric coming out of the governor’s office this week leading up to the vetoes. 

Lujan Grisham sounded the alarm about the potential for the tax package to undermine the state’s long-term financial health. The proposed tax cuts represented future dollars the state would not collect, which some pointed to as a risk given the state’s volatile revenue stream. New Mexico is overly dependent on the boom and bust cycles of the oil and gas industry.However, the nominal increase to the state alcohol excise tax — less than 1 cent on a 12 ounce beer and about one and a half cents per servings of wine and liquor — would have generated roughly $10 million a year. 

The tax bill would have directed those dollars as well as about $25 million in money that currently goes to the state’s general fund to a new Alcohol Harms Alleviation fund for treatment. 

Unclear is why the governor didn’t eliminate the harm alleviation fund in the tax bill, while keeping the tax increase, given her concerns over shoring up the state’s revenues. 

Among those stunned by the governor’s decision Friday was Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, a co-sponsor of the proposal to increase the state alcohol tax.“I would expect an increase in alcohol excise tax would be welcome in light of the harm to the communities and cost to the state due to alcohol,” Sedillo Lopez said Friday afternoon.Maddy Hayden, the governor’s spokeswoman, declined to say why Lujan Grisham had vetoed the alcohol excise tax increase when it would have put dollars into New Mexico’s coffers.She did say, however, “The governor spoke at length to the media (Friday) about the continued need for dedicated resources to address alcohol misuse. As you know, she recommended creating an office at the Department of Health dedicated to alcohol misuse and the budget as signed includes $2 million for that purpose.”Hayden was referring to a Friday afternoon press conference Lujan Grisham held in Santa Fe.In 2021, alcohol killed 2,274 New Mexicans in 2021, at a rate no other state comes close to touching.

Gallup school discipline event generates large turnout, passionate conversations

Dozens of people turned out April 1 to discuss, sometimes passionately, even angrily, the high rates of harsh discipline of Native students meted out by the Gallup-McKinley Public Schools district. Sponsored by news organizations New Mexico In Depth and ProPublica, in collaboration with  the McKinley Community Health Alliance, the turnout of about 70 people, mostly Navajo, at the University of New Mexico’s Gallup campus, showcased community interest generated by a story New Mexico In Depth and ProPublica published in December. The news outlets found that Native American students are expelled from New Mexico’s public schools far more frequently than other student groups, in large part due to practices at the Gallup-McKinley County Schools district. Seventy people turned out for a discussion of school discipline on April 1, 2023 in Gallup, NM. Credit: Tara Armijo-Prewitt

Gallup-McKinley, which enrolls more Native students than any other public school district in the country, has expelled children at least 10 times as often as the rest of the state in recent years.

Lawmakers advance effort to pay lawmakers a salary as end of session nears

Eight days are left for lawmakers to decide whether to ask New Mexicans to vote on what the rest of the country already does: Pay its state legislators.If voters approve, House Joint Resolution 8 would amend the state constitution to establish an independent commission that would set  salaries for New Mexico’s 112 state lawmakers. But, first, the joint resolution, which already has passed the House of Representatives and a Senate committee, must jump through more hoops: one more Senate committee and a vote by the entire Senate after which it would go to the House where lawmakers would decide whether or not to accept changes made in the Senate.  

It’s a lot as the 60-day session enters its final week, when lawmakers will parse an avalanche of competing measures. But the New Mexico Legislature has shown how quickly it can move when it wants. 

New Mexico is the only state without  a daily or annual salary for lawmakers, although it provides each a daily payment when they’re in a committee meeting or in session,  and reimburses lawmakers for mileage. Some states pay nominal salaries, like New Hampshire, at $100. But most pay much more, including New Mexico’s neighbors: Arizona, ($24,000), Colorado ($40,242), Oklahoma ($47,500) and Texas ($7,200).Nearly two-thirds of likely New Mexico voters say it’s time, according to a poll conducted in 2022.While in previous years the idea has languished, this year it has momentum.