November 10, 2020

2020 elections usher in a wave of ‘firsts’ for NM

Kendra Chamberlain

New Mexico voters embraced candidates in the 2020 elections that have historically been underrepresented, including women, in elected office. The state saw a slew of “firsts” this year. 

For the first time in the state’s history, New Mexico’s three seats in the U.S. House of Representatives will be held by women of color. And both Yvette Herrell, who will represent the state’s 2nd Congressional District, and Deb Haaland, who won reelection to the state’s 1st Congressional District, are enrolled members of Indigenous nations. Haaland is a member of Laguna Pueblo, and Herrell is a member of the Cherokee Nation, making New Mexico the first state in the U.S. to have two Indigenous Representatives. 

Teresa Leger Fernandez, who won New Mexico’s 3rd Congressional District, is Latina. 

Terrelene Massey, Diné (Navajo) and the executive director of Southwest Women’s Law Center, said she’s really excited to see more representation from women, especially women of color and Native American women.

“I think they’ll provide different perspectives on the different issues they’ll be working on,” Massey said. “I think it’ll be really helpful with the missing and murdered Indigenous women (issue). That impacts New Mexico a lot because of the high population of Native Americans here. Similarly, with other issues, such as paid family medical leave. I think women generally pay attention to the important issues, defence, healthcare and the economy, but they also pay particular attention to issues affecting families and children and economic security.” 

U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, who won his election to the U.S. Senate this week, will be the first Hispanic Senator from New Mexico since Sen. Joseph Montoya left the Senate more than forty years ago. 

Voters in New Mexico also embraced traditionally underrepresented candidates in statewide elections at record numbers. For the first time in the state’s history, 53 percent of state House members in 2021 will be women. When the state House reconvenes in January 2021, 37 women will take their seats in the 70-member chamber. 

Sarah Taylor-Nanista, executive director of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountain Action Fund, noted the historical moment for New Mexico’s diversity and gender gains, calling it “a beautiful story.”

“It’s a beautiful story around diversity and progressive values as the rest of the country sits in this anxious place around the presidential race. We have this really beautiful story in New Mexico,” she said last week.

Although men will continue to dominate numerically in the state Senate, that chamber saw gains for women representation as well. The 2020 Legislature had nine women serving as state Senators, but in 2021, the state Senate will seat 12 women. Democrat Brenda McKenna will replace retiring Democrat state Sen. John Sapien in SD 9, Democrat Siah Correa Hemphill will take the seat of outgoing Democrat state Sen. Gabriel Ramos in SD 28, and Republican Crystal Diamond will replace outgoing Democrat state Sen. John Arthur Smith in SD 35.

Related: State Senate shifts left with progressive wins

According to population estimates by the U.S. Census, just slightly more than half of the state’s population identify as women, at 50.5 percent. According to Emerge New Mexico, a nonprofit dedicated to recruiting and training Democratic women on how to run for office, representation in elected officials matters.

“It’s important we see ourselves reflected in our leaders who we know are making decisions and have our community in mind. Representation is a symbol but it’s also about values. It means focusing on children and families and keeping families safe in a pandemic,” Becky Corran, an Emerge New Mexico board member, told NM Political Report.

New Mexico voters voted for diversity in elected officials in other ways.

McKenna, who is from Nambé Owingeh (Pueblo of Nambé), and state Sen. Shannon Pinto, also a Democrat and Diné (Navajo), are the first Indigenous women to win state Senate seats since former state Sen. Lynda Lovejoy, who was the first and Navajo (Diné), left office in 2013. They join state Sen. Benny Shendo Jr., who is from the Jemez Pueblo, as enrolled Indigenous members in the state Senate.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham appointed Pinto to replace her grandfather, John Pinto, who passed away while in office in 2019. Pinto said she hopes that with two Indigenous women in the state Senate, the chamber will be more proactive about addressing missing and murdered Indigenous women and domestic violence.

“I think there has been a big turn with this election,” Pinto said.

McKenna said she believes Native voices in public office will bring a cultural sensitivity to the public conversation.

“We’ve always been taught to think very deliberately before making decisions and we’re also consensus seekers. We’re taught to think long-term and I think we’ve all heard before how Indigenous people think about the seven generations coming ahead of us and that’s how we make decisions. I won’t make decisions based on what’s good for the next quarter; consensus is important to me,” McKenna said.  

Judge Shammara Henderson, elected to the Court of Appeals, is the first Black appellate judge in the state and the first Black woman to be elected to statewide office.

Lujan Grisham appointed Henderson in February to replace Judge M. Monica Zamora, who retired. The state’s Judicial Nominating Committee, which vets potential judges and justices, recommended Henderson prior to the governor’s appointment.

Henderson ran as a Democrat and defeated Republican Gertrude Lee and Libertarian Stephen Curtis.

Henderson told NM Political Report that breaking those racial and gender barriers is both “humbling and an honor” but she also said it shouldn’t have taken this long for those barriers to be broken. She referenced Blackdom, a colony founded by African American families in Chavez county in 1901, before New Mexico became a state.

“New Mexico has a long history of Black history. It’s not been for a lack of lawyers who were qualified or a lack of judges but a lack of opportunity and recognition for what the Black community has given to New Mexico and that is a reason why I am a ‘first,’” she said.

Henderson, who said she was very intentional in her campaign that her election would make history, said that having diversity on the bench matters because she can call out implicit bias if she sees it.

“It allows judges on the bench to have those honest conversations with each other,” she said. “I think that is powerful.”

Another first for racial diversity is newly-elected Democrat Harold Pope Jr., who defeated incumbent Sen. Sander Rue, a Republican, for state SD 23. Rue held the seat for three terms. Pope is the first African-American state Senator.

Pope, who said he did not make race a campaign issue, said the fact that he won when the African-American population represents around 3 percent of the state’s population overall, shows that a Black candidate can win districts.

“It showed there weren’t detractors against me saying not to vote for an African-American,” he said.

Another set of diversity gains for statewide office are two openly LGBTQ candidates in the state House, Democrat Roger Montoya and Independent Brittany Barreras. In addition, the LGBTQ community has two additional gains in the state Senate, where Democrats Carrie Hamblen and Leo Jaramillo will join state Senators Liz Stefanics and Jacob Candaleria, also both Democrats. 

Montoya defeated Republican Justin Salazar-Torrezin for Española-centered HD 40. He replaces Democrat Joseph Sanchez, who won a state Senate seat.

Barreras defeated Democrat and write-in candidate Art de la Cruz for the south valley of Albuquerque HD 12. Barreras broke another barrier in that she is the first Independent candidate to win a seat in the state Legislature.

Barreras will replace outgoing state Rep. Patricio Ruiloba, also a Democrat, who failed to collect petition signatures properly to get on the ballot. Barreras has said she will caucus with the Democrats.

Barreras said that because she was an openly LGBTQ candidate, she knew she would face some negativity around her sexual identification in the race. She said she received some “nasty phone calls.”

“It was about fighting that knowing it would be ok and that it would get better,” she said. “This is a really amazing feeling.” 

Jaramillo and Hamblen both handily won their respective seats. Jaramillo defeated Democrat Richard Martinez in the primary for state SD 5 and then beat Republican Diamantina Storment and Libertarian Lee Weinland for the district that includes Española. Hamblen challenged long-time state Senate Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen for SD 38 and then cruised on to victory over Republican Charles Wendler on Tuesday.

Up until Tuesday night’s election, there were only two openly LGBTQ candidates – state Senator Liz Stefanics, a Democrat representing SD 39, and state Senator Jacob Candelaria, also a Democrat representing SD 26.  

Stefanics was the first openly LGBTQ legislator, when she won her state Senate seat in 1993. Candelaria won his state Senate seat 20 years later in 2013.

Marshall Martinez, interim executive director for nonprofit organization Equality New Mexico, also said “representation matters.”

“Especially given so many things that have been going on around LGBTQ folks across the country, and the issues that impact us, having the voices of people who have lived those experiences in our state Legislature is an invaluable way for us to make sure those policies are prioritized,” Martinez said.

Related: U.S. Supreme Court could roll back LGBTQ equality

Despite the gains, Martinez noted that there are still barriers to be broken. There are no openly bisexual or transgender elected officials in the state Legislature.

All of the candidates spoke about how important it is for the next generation to see them in the public spotlight. 

“If you don’t see people who look like you, you don’t see a way to get there,” Pope said. 

Barreras said that when she was growing up, she lacked role models in the public sphere who looked like her.

“I want to be what I never had when I was a kid,” Barreras said. “I didn’t have someone from the LGBTQ+ community who was paving the way to look up to in my community. I want to be that for other kids.”

Corran said that in the Emerge program, despite the rising tide of women running for elected office since President Donald Trump’s presidential win in 2016, the Democratic women who chose to run aren’t always reacting to his racism and sexism. She said that Lujan Grisham, who is widely considered to be doing a good job in her handling of the pandemic, “inspires folks.”

“I don’t know that it’s just reactive. More women are doing the right things and want to be like that. It’s not just a contrast with bad leadership,” she said.

*Reporter Kendra Chamberlain contributed to this story.

Correction: This story originally misspelled Nambé as Nanbe. This has been corrected.