Lawmakers protected themselves when redistricting, report finds

New Mexico lawmakers protected themselves and their colleagues when they redrew political district maps crafted by a 2021 nonpartisan advisory commission, shielding incumbents of both parties from competition and making legislative elections less competitive, according to a new 59-page report co-authored by University of New Mexico political science professor Gabriel Sanchez. The study, released Sept. 28, found no evidence that New Mexico Democrats, who have strong majorities in the House and Senate, politically gerrymandered their districts, a conclusion based on statistical analysis conducted by Sanchez’s co-author and University of Georgia professor David Cottrell. “The protection of incumbents was the greatest source of gerrymandering this session,” the authors concluded, based on the analysis and interviews with experts. 

That outcome resulted from inherent weaknesses in how lawmakers set up the state’s new Citizens Redistricting Committee – the committee doesn’t have final say on what redistricting maps are adopted, the report found. This story was written by New Mexico In Depth and is republished with permission.

Every door is the right door

By 2013, Steve Harbin’s alcohol problem was plain to nearly everyone. Once a prosperous salesman in the construction industry, he’d lost his job and health insurance. Gone were the dream house he’d designed in Albuquerque’s foothills and many of the motorcycles he’d owned. The last one, a Kawasaki W650 with a peashooter exhaust, sat in his garage in disrepair. 

His marriage had been disintegrating for years and now the stepdaughters he’d helped raise despised him, the way Steve hated his own dad who he’d sworn to never become. He was draining two bottles of Irish whiskey a day.

A missing ingredient

New Mexico is a violent state. It ranks among the worst for women murdered by men, child abuse and neglect are almost twice as common as they are nationwide, and its rate of suicide is one of the highest of any state. Last year, Albuquerque’s homicide rate shattered previous records, a 46% jump from 2020, and the state’s reached heights not experienced since 1986. That makes violence a potent political issue. In recent annual addresses, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller bridled at “spiking gun violence, fentanyl trafficking and treatment, domestic violence, and that persistent revolving door” and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham called for more police and stiffer penalties to “keep violent criminals behind bars.”

A crucial factor they didn’t mention was alcohol.

Poisonous myths

The forecasted low in Gallup is 17 degrees, cold even for February, but the man’s jacket is unzipped when the headlights find him slumped against a darkened storefront, a Broncos cap pulled over his eyes. “I’m going to get you some place warm,” Public Safety Officer Gabriel Lee Jr. says as he helps the man into the back of the police van. 

In a downtown hospital emergency room, where most clinicians attend to urgent injuries or illness rather than their underlying  causes, licensed professional clinical counselor Sheryl Livingston asks a Navajo patient what she enjoys most about alcohol. The patient laughs in surprise, then begins to open up. Outside a new drug and alcohol treatment facility in a sandy lot, a circle of men sit sweating beneath the domed canvas of a hogan, a pile of volcanic rocks fresh from the fire glowing faintly between them, their folded knees close enough to touch. Medicine man Robinson Tom asks for a prayer and a dozen voices mingle Diné and Spanish and English in the stifling heat.

An emergency in plain sight

Alcohol kills New Mexicans at a higher rate than anywhere else in the country — and no one can fully explain why. New Mexicans die of alcohol-related causes at nearly three times the national average, higher by far than any other state. Alcohol is involved in more deaths than fentanyl, heroin, and methamphetamines combined. In 2020, it killed more New Mexicans under 65 than Covid-19 did in the first year of the pandemic — all told, 1,878 people. This outsized harm defies easy explanation.

ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO: State Police Sgt. Toby LaFave speaks to a driver he pulled over on Interstate 40, under suspicion for driving while intoxicated.

Eyes on the road

“I want to see bad driving.” 

New Mexico State Police Lieutenant Kurtis Ward scanned traffic, weaving his Ford Expedition through northbound traffic on Interstate 25. It was 8:37pm on a wintry Friday night. A full moon was cresting the Sandias. 

The workday of the DWI Unit had just begun. 

“I watch for that car that’s doing something that’s different,” he said. “The one that stands out: I want to watch that car.”

For a generation, the state has spent tens of millions of dollars a year to curb intoxicated driving and its toll on New Mexicans. In-school programs and public information campaigns advertise the legal and physical consequences intoxicated drivers risk.

Take uranium contamination off our land, Navajos urge federal nuclear officials

The gale-force winds that swept across New Mexico on Friday, driving fires and evacuations, gave Diné residents in a small western New Mexico community an opportunity to demonstrate first hand the danger they live with every day.Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) members were in the Red Water Pond Road community, about 20 minutes northeast of Gallup, to hear local input on a controversial plan to clean up a nearby abandoned uranium mine. It was the first visit anyone could recall by NRC commissioners to the Navajo Nation, where the agency regulates four uranium mills. Chairman Christopher Hanson called the visit historic, and the significance was visible with Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and other Navajo officials in attendance. This story originally appeared at New Mexico In Depth and is republished with permission through a Creative Commons license. As commissioners listened to 20 or so people give testimony over several hours Friday afternoon, high winds battered the plastic sheeting hung on the sides of the Cha’a’oh, or shade house, making it hard for some in the audience of many dozens to hear all that was said.  “This is like this everyday,” community member Annie Benally told commissioners, mentioning the dust being whipped around outside by the wind.

Money for abandoned uranium mine cleanup spurs questions about design, jobs

Uranium mines are personal for Dariel Yazzie. Now head of the Navajo Nation’s Superfund program, Yazzie grew up near Monument Valley, Arizona, where the Vanadium Corporation of America started uranium operations in the 1940s. His childhood home sat a stone’s throw from piles of waste from uranium milling, known as tailings. His grandfather, Luke Yazzie, helped locate the first uranium deposits mined on the Navajo Nation. His father was a uranium miner, then worked for Peabody Coal mine.

Publicly funded stadiums boost quality of life. But economy? Not so much.

Albuquerque voters will decide in November whether the city should foot the bill for a new soccer stadium. Unlike a proposal to build a downtown multi-use arena that percolated in the mid-2000s, this one could become reality. 

That’s because the city has a new professional soccer team that has proven popular. New Mexico United games in 2019, its first year, drew more than 12,000 fans on average to its Albuquerque matches in the city’s baseball stadium. Now, the team wants the city to build a stadium specifically for soccer, which, according to a feasibility study commissioned by the city, is required under United Soccer League (USL) rules after a team’s third year. 

But the payoff for Albuquerque in economic terms is far from certain, according to multiple economists who said publicly financed sports stadiums rarely justify the expense with new jobs or economic activity. And there are concerns among some residents about the impact of the stadium on surrounding neighborhoods, as well as how millions in public dollars could be better spent. 

Lisa Padilla, the president of the Barelas Neighborhood Association, said she has mixed feelings about the construction of the new soccer stadium.

Newly disclosed prisoner addresses show 30% in Albuquerque. Advocates want to exclude them from political maps.

While nearly a third of New Mexico’s state prisoners who disclosed where they were living prior to incarceration gave Albuquerque addresses, in the country’s once-a-decade census they’re counted as living in smaller towns and rural areas.Roughly a quarter of New Mexico’s population lives in Albuquerque, so it’s no surprise to find a prevalence of residents from New Mexico’s largest city in the corrections system.But corrections data obtained by New Mexico In Depth suggest the city’s voting power is diffused to smaller towns and rural areas where New Mexico’s prisons are, a practice criminal justice reform advocates refer to as “prison gerrymandering.” That’s where prison communities — often rural, and nationally, more white — benefit as prisoners from elsewhere increase their populations without being able to vote.Advocates are pushing New Mexico to end the practice in coming months as the state’s new Citizen Redistricting Committee, and state lawmakers, participate in a once-a-decade redistricting that will shape New Mexico’s political landscape for years to come. 

And at least one says the last addresses inmates give corrections officials as they enter prison could achieve that goal.The ideal solution would be for the Corrections Department to hand over the same records it gave to New Mexico In Depth to the Citizen Redistricting Committee, said Mario Jimenez, campaign director of Common Cause New Mexico. If the committee were to request those records, the Corrections Department “would absolutely share that with them,” spokesman Eric Harrison wrote in an email. 

Samantha Osaki, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer, said ending the practice of counting prisoners in the areas they’re imprisoned would create a more equitable redistricting process.“Bernalillo County residents who are already suffering from the loss of parents, friends and neighbors due to mass incarceration then doubly suffer from the loss of political representation,” Osaki said. New Mexico In Depth obtained the last addresses of 5,082 inmates after filing a records request. The Corrections Department initially refused to disclose the information but turned the records over after the New Mexico Attorney General’s office found the department had denied the request improperly. The department created the list of addresses in mid-July.