Dreams Deferred

New Mexico Hispanics Fret Over Lack of Capitol Hill Presence

Posted September 10, 2003 at 6:11pm

When former Rep. Bill Richardson (D) was sworn in as governor of New Mexico earlier this year, he became the first Hispanic chief executive in the Land of Enchantment since 1986.

Equally sweet for New Mexico’s large and proud Hispanic population, the election swept Hispanics into five of the seven statewide offices (one statewide officer, Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, is a white woman who was elected on a ticket with Richardson). Every other Democratic statewide officeholder is Hispanic.

But while Hispanics make historic gains in New Mexico state government — the leaders of both houses of the Legislature are also Hispanic — they have, since Richardson left Washington in 1997 to become U.N. ambassador, been shut out of the state’s Congressional delegation. And in a state that has produced the only Hispanic Senators in American history and influential House Members like Richardson and former Rep. Manuel Lujan (R), this deficiency is disturbing to Hispanic leaders.

“Certainly we have lost ground,” argued Maurilio Vigil, author of “New Mexico Government and Politics” and “Hispanics in American Politics,” two books that examine political developments in the state and nation. “It was an unwritten axiom in New Mexico that one of our two Senators or one of the two Congress Members [before the state had three House seats] would be Hispanic. Now we have zero.”

Nowhere is that sense of loss more apparent than in tradition-bound northern New Mexico, where Hispanics have lived for four centuries and where they controlled Democratic politics for most of the 20th century. After Richardson left Congress for the Clinton administration, his old 3rd district seat was held first by Bill Redmond (R) and, since 1999, by Rep. Tom Udall (D). Both are Anglos.

“There’s that discussion that lingers in the back of the Hispanic community in New Mexico,” said Eluid Martinez, a former state engineer. “We have nobody in Congress and we don’t like it — especially in the north.”

Ironically, despite the Hispanic legacy, the sprawling 3rd district, which covers the northern tier of New Mexico, is now the least Hispanic of the state’s three Congressional districts, with a Hispanic population of roughly 36 percent of the total (statewide, Hispanics make up 42 percent of the population). But combined with a 20 percent American Indian population, the 3rd is a majority-minority district, and it also has the most dependable Hispanic voter turnout.

Consequently, there is an unusual political dynamic now at work in New Mexico.

Rep. Heather Wilson (R) has never won more than 55 percent of the vote in the Albuquerque-based 1st district. Freshman Rep. Steve Pearce (R) took 56 percent in a tough, down-to-the-wire battle in 2002 in the 2nd district, which covers the southern part of the state.

But the most vulnerable member of the Roadrunner State’s Congressional delegation just may be Udall, who ran unopposed in both the Democratic primary and general election last year and represents a safe Democratic area. Early in every cycle, rumors begin circulating that some well-known Hispanic Democrat is poised to take him on.

It hasn’t happened yet: No Hispanic leader in the 3rd publicly expresses any particular beef with Udall, and former opponents even say nice things about him. But a New Mexico Democrat with close ties to Udall said recently, “I expect that one day he will have a serious challenge in the primary, and that it will come from a Hispanic.”

Martinez, who headed the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation during the Clinton administration, is one name that emerged recently as a possible Udall challenger.

“Any credible Hispanic running in the north district could make a race of it, though it would be tough to beat an incumbent,” he told Roll Call.

But while Martinez said that he gave a 2004 run for Congress serious consideration, he has decided to focus on establishing a water-rights consulting business instead. He did not rule out running for the seat in the future, however.

Other names of potential Democratic primary challengers that have surfaced in recent months include former Santa Fe County Commissioner Javier Gonzales, New Mexico Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron and state Insurance Superintendent Eric Serna, who was the Democratic nominee in the 1997 special election to replace Richardson and then was defeated by Udall in the 1998 Democratic primary.

But Gonzales and Vigil-Giron, who are both considered Udall allies, said they had no plans to challenge him.

Gonzales, one of New Mexico’s brightest young political stars at age 33, said that before he runs for office again he wants to devote time to his family and his work for Accenture, a nationwide management consulting firm. Vigil-Giron, who is term-limited in 2006, said she would consider running for Senate if Sen. Pete Domenici (R) retires in 2008 or sooner but does not have her sights set on Udall.

“Why would I challenge one of my fellow Democrats?” she said.

Even Serna, who lost in bitter back-to-back 3rd district races, calls himself a fan of Udall’s.

“He’s done a good job, and I would help Tom [if someone challenged him],” Serna said.

He conceded, however, that if the seat became open soon, “it still would be an appealing district for me.”

Udall is frequently mentioned as a possible candidate for Senate if Domenici or Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) retires, but he has never publicly expressed an interest in doing anything but remaining in the House.

Any longing of Democratic “norteños” to recapture the 3rd district seat is not based on race alone. Even when Richardson first held the seat in the early 1980s, some New Mexico Hispanic leaders quietly grumbled because he did not grow up there. Although Richardson, who is half-Mexican and who spent part of his childhood in Mexico City, speaks fluent Spanish, some of his rivals went so far as to complain that he spoke “Mexican Spanish.” But he eventually won them over and is now seen as a unifying figure in the racially fractured state.

Still, race is bound to play a role in future New Mexico House elections and could be a factor if Richardson and the Legislature take up Congressional redistricting during a special legislative session scheduled to begin Oct. 27. If redistricting is on the agenda, the Democrats who will control the process will not only have to weigh the partisan considerations — they’d like to knock off either Pearce or Wilson — but may also be under pressure to draw the lines to increase the chances of electing a Hispanic candidate.

Vigil, the author who is a professor emeritus at New Mexico Highlands University, said that after the 1990 Census, Democratic legislative leaders made it tougher to elect Hispanics in the 3rd district by placing solidly Hispanic communities in the 1st and 2nd districts in an effort to elect Democrats — a move that backfired. Vigil said he was surprised that the Congressional map of the early 1990s was never challenged in court.

“That violated the notion of community of interest,” he said.

Pearce’s district is now the most Hispanic in the state, but there are no obvious Hispanic challengers lining up there yet. Former Las Cruces Mayor Ruben Smith, who is Hispanic and lost the 2002 Democratic nomination to former state Sen. John Arthur Smith, who is not, is mentioned as a possible candidate. But Ruben Smith recently took a job as secretary of cultural affairs in Richardson’s cabinet, and may not be eager for another Congressional run. John Arthur Smith is weighing whether to run again.

In the 1st district, state Senate President Richard Romero (D), who took 45 percent of the vote against Wilson last year, said he is planning to run again in 2004. While the Hispanic vote did not materialize for Romero the way Democratic Party leaders had hoped, he is convinced he’ll do better next time.

“With one election under your belt, you learn a lot,” he said.

Meanwhile, a familiar name in New Mexico politics, former state Rep. Gary King (D), is thinking about running for Congress in the 1st district, where he lives, and in the 2nd, where he spent some time as a youth and where his family owns ranch land. King is the son of former Gov. Bruce King, the dominant Democrat in the state for the past 40 years.

Gary King acknowledged that race could play a factor in either district election, but predicted that cultural ties will be as important as racial ties to Hispanic voters. He noted that his father was a protégé of the late legendary Sen. Dennis Chavez (D) and that as a ranching family the Kings have always worked closely with their Hispanic neighbors.

“The Kings are about as entrenched in Hispanic culture as anyone in New Mexico,” he said.

Vigil said that while Hispanic voters appreciate many Anglo politicians, it doesn’t stop them from wishing one of their own was going to Congress.

“Is there a sentiment, a feeling, a let-down?” he said. “That has occurred.”