Back in 2017, I wrote “it doesn’t get much darker” than ominous television ads attacking mayoral candidate Tim Keller, who is now Albuquerque mayor. Well, it’s gotten darker, and again Keller is the target.
Four years ago the television ads, followed by billboards, showed an image of Keller and quickly cut to a dark figure wearing a hoodie, a classic racist trope. “Sex offender” flashed in bold red letters on the screen before cutting to a backlit child riding a bike. Essentially, the ad sought to tap unconscious racist fears and smear Keller as a sex offender at the same time. Media outlets, including New Mexico In Depth, found no basis in the charge.
In popular mythology, New Mexico is a “tricultural” state–– one where Hispanic, Anglo, and Native American communities live in relative harmony, an exemplar for the rest of the nation. But the persistent myth leaves out other groups with long histories in the state, appearing in state-produced documents as recently as 2019. Then, there were contentious remarks at a very public forum this February that led Black leaders to call for a formal statement from the Legislature denouncing the remarks. At a legislative hearing to confirm Veteran’s Service Secretary-designate Sonya Smith, a Black woman, Sen. Greg Baca, R-Belen, noted that 2.6% of New Mexico’s population is African American. He then asked Smith if she felt “comfortable adequately representing… cultures of white, Native, Hispanics.”
Black community leaders issued a statement characterizing Baca’s words as racist and calling on legislative leaders to issue a formal denouncement.
Following the confirmation of New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland as Secretary of the Interior, New Mexico will hold a special election on June 1st to fill her seat representing the Albuquerque-centered first congressional district. But the public doesn’t get a say in who the nominees will be.
Rather than a primary election, state law allows the political parties themselves to select their own candidates. These choices are being made even while there’s been a gap in public disclosure of who’s contributed money to the various candidates.
Yesterday, the Republican state central committee, with less than 140 members, convened over Zoom to choose State Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, while about 25 members of the Libertarian Party chose Chris Manning.
The Democratic state central committee will select their candidate on Tuesday, a highly anticipated choice given the Democratic tilt in the district for more than a decade. Just over 200 people–– a smattering of local party members, elected officials and other party insiders–– will be eligible to vote for one of eight different candidates seeking the nomination. On March 23rd, the Democratic Party of Bernalillo County held a virtual candidate forum exclusively for their members.
When New Mexicans head to the polls during a general election, they usually have just two viable options: a Democrat or a Republican. There may be a Libertarian or unaffiliated candidate on the ballot, as well. Sometimes there may even be just one candidate on the ballot, as was the case in more than a quarter of the 112 state legislative races in the 2020 general election, all of whom represented a major political party.
Meanwhile, in the last 30 years, the number of independent voters has more than quadrupled, registering at just under 5% in 1990 and almost 22% in 2021. In three of the state’s counties–– Santa Fe, Taos, and McKinley–– independent voters actually outnumber Republican voters. “I think the tipping point is that we’re seeing especially newly registered voters– and even some voters who are longtime active voters– have become jaded by the two party system,” said Heather Ferguson, executive director of Common Cause NM.
New Mexico Public Regulation Commissioner (PRC) Joseph Maestas on Wednesday demanded that Public Service Company of New Mexico disclose whether it contributed to a dark money group that supported a November ballot measure seeking to overhaul the agency charged with regulating the utility. “I’m just simply calling on PNM to come clean, you know, disclose whether or not you donated to this dark money PAC [sic],” Maestas said during a PRC hearing, referencing the nonprofit group Committee to Protect New Mexico Consumers. PNM may not be under legal obligation to disclose its involvement, Maestas said, but it had a “moral obligation” to do so. “I agree, we’d love to hear,” Stephen Fischmann, the PRC commission chairman, said. “I think there’s a strong possibility that it’s the case that they did donate to it.”
New Mexico In Depth received no response Wednesday from PNM spokesman Ray Sandoval despite multiple requests for comment, continuing weeks of silence on whether or not the utility contributed to the nonprofit.
Exxon Mobil Corporation contributed to a dark-money group that supported a successful November referendum reforming the state’s Public Regulation Commission (PRC), according to a campaign finance report filed by one of its lobbyists. One of the largest oil and gas producers in New Mexico, the multinational conglomerate gave at least $10,000 to the “Committee to Protect New Mexico Consumers,” a nonprofit that spent a quarter of a million dollars touting the merits of a constitutional amendment, which eventually passed handily. The contribution can be found in an Oct. 7 report filed by Exxon Mobil lobbyist Deanna Archuleta. The Committee to Protect New Mexico Consumers refused to disclose its donors when the State Ethics Commission (SEC) demanded it do so despite new campaign disclosure laws requiring groups like it to say where the money they spend on political campaigns comes from.
The pandemic legislative session (as it will go down in history) lived up to its name just a week in, with at least one House Republican lawmaker and four Roundhouse staff testing positive for COVID-19. Given that lawmakers aren’t required to be tested, there may be more. Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf said he was “dismayed” Republicans had a catered lunch, a characterization Republican House Minority Leader Townsend disputed to the Santa Fe New Mexican. Townsend urged delay of the session before it began, and is now calling for a temporary halt.It’s not surprising there’s been a COVID outbreak at the Roundhouse. We are in the midst of a deadly pandemic that has killed more than 3,200 New Mexicans in under a year, closed schools and businesses, and created untold anxiety and stress. Should the Legislature be meeting? It’s questionable.
Lobbying at the Roundhouse is a little bit different from other states. Put a crop of unpaid “citizen legislators” and well-paid professional lobbyists in a building together, and a certain culture develops in which lobbyists become key sources of information for lawmakers. “When I have colleagues that come in here from other states, or from the national level, they’re amazed at the degree of access that folks have here, and it’s more of an informal kind of a situation than it is at a lot of other venues,” said Dan Weaks, a professional lobbyist. In contrast to unpaid, understaffed legislators, lobbyists—many of whom have significant monetary resources at their disposal—can play an outsized role in the policymaking process, said Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, who has witnessed employers hire as many as 10 lobbyists for a single issue.
“They had a lobbyist posted at every elevator.”
Another senator didn’t mince words. The system we have “empowers lobbyists over the people’s elected representatives, and that’s a pretty dysfunctional system, in my view,” said Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque.
After a decade-long effort, New Mexico lawmakers passed new campaign reporting requirements in 2019 to force nonprofit groups, which can spend money on political campaigns without registering as political committees, to disclose their spending as well as the names, addresses, and contribution amounts of their donors who fund such “independent expenditures.”
Outside campaign spending by groups or individuals not affiliated with a particular campaign have long been a target of reformers seeking to rein in the influence of money on politics. Without disclosure, nonprofits can spend unlimited amounts of “dark money” without the public knowing where the money comes from. In 2020, two nonprofit groups immediately put the new law to the test by refusing to disclose donors despite enforcement efforts by both the Secretary of State and the New Mexico State Ethics Commission. “I’m not at all surprised,” said Sen. Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, who championed the transparency measure for a decade. “Anytime you’re trying to rein [dark money] in, you know, there’s going to be groups that are going to push the limits.”
The challenges by the nonprofit groups represent a key test for both the law itself and for the enforcing power of the state’s newly created ethics commission, also established in 2019 after several decades of ongoing debate and setbacks.Approved by voters and given powers by the Legislature, the commission can subpoena records and enforce state statutes that cover campaign spending, lobbying, and government conduct.
At first glance, the 2020 elections produced a series of largely predictable results. Democrat Joe Biden garnered New Mexico’s five electoral votes, winning by almost 11 percentage points, slightly improving on Hillary Clinton’s eight-point margin in the state four years ago while winning the same 14 counties. Democrats in the state Legislature retained their sizable majorities, even as a number of moderate and conservative Democratic senators were replaced by progressives. And while Republican Yvette Herrell carried the state’s more conservative 2nd congressional district, ousting Democratic incumbent Xochitl Torres Small, her win wasn’t surprising given that since 1981 Democrats have held the seat for a total of four years.
But look closely, and the 2020 election results plus long-standing population and voter registration shifts over the last decade tell a story of a state in the throes of political trends sweeping across the country. There’s a growing divide between rural and urban New Mexico, with a population shift to urban centers that comes with an increasingly stark political flavor.
New Mexicans woke up on Wednesday not knowing who their next president would be. We’ll stay tuned to that nailbiter of a race, which appears will be decided in a few key states. New Mexico isn’t one of them. It handily voted for Biden, but that was never in serious doubt. While Americans don’t know who will be president, one thing closer to home became clear after Tuesday night: New Mexico’s state senate will shift to the left, potentially opening a path in the Legislature for long stymied Democratic initiatives. Democrats increased their majority in that chamber by one seat in an election that saw New Mexicans turn out in record numbers — 915,376 cast ballots, shattering the previous total of 833,000 set in 2008. More significant, though, is a shift within the makeup of the parties, with a slate of more progressive Democrats replacing longtime incumbents in both parties. As uncertainty looms over womens’ right to make their own choices regarding abortion, joining the Senate will be Democrats who have pledged to repeal a long-dormant ban on abortion in state law.