Democrats dream of expanded majority in State Senate

In the wake of a “progressive wave” in June’s Democratic primaries that swept out of office a group of powerful incumbent Democrats, the state Senate will look very different come January. The wins could help progressive Democrats advance key initiatives, like tapping the Land Grant permanent fund for early childhood programs or getting rid of a criminal abortion law on the books since the 1960s. 

But first, the victorious challengers must win on Tuesday or other closely contested seats largely within the Albuquerque metro area must flip if Democrats want to strengthen their 26-16 advantage in the chamber. 

This story was written for New Mexico In Depth and is republished here with permission through a Creative Commons license. New Mexico In Depth identified 10 Senate districts in which the difference between registered Democratic and Republican voters is below 4,000. We then charted out candidate spending for each race, as well as the level of in-kind contributions for each candidate. The in-kind contributions reflect spending by party leaders on behalf of the candidates, who then included the value of that spending in their own campaign reports.

Spending in New Mexico’s 2nd district congressional busts into stratosphere

This year’s rematch between Democrat Xochitl Torres Small and Republican Yvette Herrell in New Mexico’s second congressional district is one of the most closely-watched in the nation, generating tensions within the state’s oil and gas industry and tens of millions in outside spending. Roll Call has identified Torres Small as one of the 10 most vulnerable House incumbents up for re-election this year. The respected Cook Political Report rates the race as a tossup. 

This story was written by New Mexico In Depth and is republished with permission through a Creative Commons license. At this point, candidates and outside groups have spent a combined sum exceeding $30 million. Spending in 2018 approached $14 million, in a year when across the country record spending was recorded.

Oil and gas support for Torres Small exposes internal divisions

Dressed in denim on a windy day in front of an oil and gas rig, Xochitl Torres Small looks into the camera and says, “Washington doesn’t get us,” then tells viewers she fought to get workers the coronavirus relief they deserve. 

The ad is just one of many in which Democrat Torres Small is positioning herself as an ally of oil and gas this election year as she strives to win a second term in New Mexico’s southern congressional district, one of just 26 of 435 House races across the nation declared a tossup by the respectedCook Political Report. It’s New Mexico’s most competitive high-profile contest. 

Two years after Torres Small beat former Republican state lawmaker Yvette Herrell by fewer than 4,000 votes out of nearly 200,000 cast, the two women are facing off again in 2020, and Torres Small is making sure to stress her oil and gas bona fidesOil and gas money powers the economy in the 2nd Congressional District and generations of families have come up through the oil patch in a solidly Republican swath of counties in southeast New Mexico. 

Xochitl Torres Small 2020 social media ad claiming her support for oil and gas workers. The first-term Democrat insists she would not vote to ban fracking, a drilling method that has greatly expanded U.S. fossil fuel production and flooded New Mexico with revenue before the pandemic crippled the state economy. Advocates who want to ban the procedure, which injects chemical laden water at high pressure into underground rock formations, say fracking threatens human health in addition to increasing greenhouse gas emitting fossil fuels. But industry professionals and their supporters insist it can be done safely and responsibly. 

Torres Small also took to Twitter last week to call out her party’s presidential nominee, tweeting it was wrong to “demonize” one industry in the fight against climate change after Joe Biden said he’d work to transition to an economy based on renewable energy and away from the current oil economy. 

Her efforts to trumpet her support of oil and gas come at a time when the industry itself is in turmoil and internal tensions between larger companies and their smaller New Mexico-based counterparts are bursting into the open, particularly over how to talk about Torres Small and her record. 

Ryan Flynn, executive director of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, whose board of directors is dominated by out-of-state oil producers, told the Associated Press in August that Torres Small has been a “strong advocate for our state’s energy interests.”  

Flynn’s comment ignited a mini-firestorm among Republican loyalists. 

New Mexico Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce, a former congressman in the southern district who made a fortune selling his oil field services company, condemned Flynn’s statement.

COVID complicates college prep for Native students

It’s a crisp late afternoon in Northern New Mexico, the kind of day that invites you to drive with your windows down or chop firewood in preparation for winter.If this were a normal year, Marisa Gutierrez might not register the seasonal change. The 18 year old is usually beyond busy. But this is 2020, and the high school student body president, cheerleader, community organizer, and aspiring valedictorian is feeling cooped up.And pondering lost opportunities. This story was written by New Mexico In Depth and is republished with permission under a Creative Commons license.Earlier this year the pandemic killed a conference she had hoped to attend at Emory University in Atlanta for Native American students across the country.The teenager, who is a member of the Santa Clara Pueblo, one of New Mexico’s 23 Native American tribes, yearned to visit an out-of-state college campus.“I have been on college campuses before but nothing outside of New Mexico,” she said.  She felt for her peers, too, knowing the missed opportunity it likely represented for many.“I’ve had the advantage and opportunities to see a bunch of places, but a lot of people, specifically Natives, aren’t usually accustomed to looking outside of their Pueblo or outside of their tribe,” she said.

NM jails report 900 new virus cases since June as population numbers tick back up

It’s not clear whether more crowded jails, along with their decreased chances for social distancing, has spiked the case numbers. Virus cases have dramatically increased in a handful of jails in counties where cases have remained stubbornly high outside the walls — and officials say inmates are entering the jails already infected, identified by testing as they are booked. 

But the increases in cases and populations have renewed discussions about how to ensure the virus doesn’t spread further inside jails and the communities they serve. New Mexico In Depth first published this story and it appears at NM Political Report with permission. Officials hope to repeat the success of the low infection numbers through the pandemic’s first few months, when law enforcement, judges, jail administrators, prosecutors and defense lawyers cooperated to keep jail populations down. Jails have transient populations, housing people awaiting trial or serving sentences of less than a year for relatively minor crimes.

Democrats and Republicans urge early voting to avoid the pitfalls of the primary

After the coronavirus pandemic and record turnout led to shuttered polling places and mountains of absentee ballots slowing the count in June’s primary election, New Mexico county clerks say they’re hiring more election workers and opening more places to vote in person for the general election. Still, there is anxiety about how the system will handle what many across the political spectrum are calling “the most important election of a lifetime.”  Most believe it will take longer in 2020 to know some of the winners, particularly in New Mexico’s hotly contested southern congressional district. And the presidential election, nationally, appears unpredictable as well. Across the country, political strategists who have been encouraging absentee ballots for months have recently shifted to pushing early in-person voting. In New Mexico, public officials and advocates have coalesced around a common mantra: Vote early and be patient while the votes are counted.

Tribes in NM under intense pressure to complete census count by new deadline

With three weeks to go before the US Census is scheduled to end, 19 percent of Navajo people have responded to the U.S. Census, a much lower rate than for New Mexico and the U.S. overall, and lags behind all other tribes located within the state other than Jicarilla Apache.The once-a-decade head count of the U.S. population helps determine federal funding for healthcare, housing, roads, and a range of other important services and robust responses by tribal members ensure that their communities receive an equitable share of federal resources. 

This story was first published by New Mexico In Depth and is republished here with permission. But the census deadline looms ominously following the Trump administration’s decision in early August to abruptly move it from the end of October to September 30. Earlier this month the Navajo Nation and the Gila River Indian Community joined a lawsuit filed last month by several nonprofits, including the National Urban League and the League of Women Voters, as well as cities and counties in a number of states, to keep the census deadline at the end of October. 

There is no guarantee the court fight will end in an extended deadline, however. Over the past month, the Navajo Nation, which is one of the largest tribes in the U.S. and dwarfs other tribes in New Mexico by size, has nudged upward the number of people who have responded to the census, with responses rising from 10 percent in late July to 19 percent  this week. But that’s significantly lower than its 53.6 percent goal, presented on the New Mexico Indian Affairs Department website.

Using tech and circuit riding to beat the pandemic

Kelly Maestas starts each weekday the same way, cranking up a school bus parked at the Cuba Independent School District bus barn.The sun has already risen over the San Pedro mountains in the Santa Fe National Forest. But on Friday morning a smoggy haze lingers over this rural redoubt of New Mexico thanks to the Medio fire just north of Santa Fe, the Pine Gulch Fire in Colorado or any of the 90 large fires in California. 

A few years ago Maestas traded in a big rig for the school bus. Rather than bustling with students, however, it’s empty save for a few dozen bags of meals and school assignments for the kids on his route. This story was originally published by New Mexico In Depth and is republished under a Creative Commons license.Over several hours, Maestas will stop 65 times — each stop a home of a student or students who attend Cuba’s schools — racking up 112 miles.These days Maestas and 10 other bus drivers are an integral component of the Cuba school district’s response to a global pandemic that mingles old-timey itinerant circuit-riding with 21st-century tech.Every day, the 11 bus drivers put close to 900 miles on their vehicles delivering food and education kits to the district’s more than 500 students who have yet to return to the classroom and in many cases, can not access the internet from home. Because so many Cuba students lack sufficient broadband or cellular service, the school district, which is larger than the state of Rhode Island, has distributed to every student special bracelets armed with a built-in USB-drive.

Federal investigation finds hospital violated patients’ rights by profiling, separating Native mothers and newborns

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A prominent women’s hospital here violated patients’ rights by singling out pregnant Native American women for COVID-19 testing and separating them from their newborns without adequate consent until test results became available, according to a federal investigation disclosed to New Mexico In Depth and ProPublica.

Lovelace Women’s Hospital did not admit to any wrongdoing but reported that the practice has been halted. Hospital officials submitted a plan to fix problems identified by investigators, including a promise to conduct internal audits to ensure compliance with state and federal regulations and COVID-19 screening guidance.

The founder of New Mexico’s new militia was a neo-Nazi skinhead

Facebook took down hundreds of pages yesterday in a crackdown on “movements and organizations tied to violence.” Among them was a  right-wing militia that rapidly rose to prominence this summer: the New Mexico Civil Guard. Like militias across the country, the group got attention by showing up to protests against police brutality and racism wearing camouflage and carrying rifles to, in their words, protect private property, while claiming to stand against racism as well. 

As journalists and activists documented various members’ white supremacist tattoos and participation in one organization the Southern Poverty Law Center designates as a hate group, the militia’s founder Bryce Provance sought to distance them from racism and violence in statements to the media. 

But court records and interviews with Provance and others show his record in this regard is more extensive than has been previously reported: He spent most of his adult life as a violent and committed neo-Nazi skinhead. Provance said he left the group a few weeks ago, after a lawsuit was filed against the group by Bernalillo County District Attorney Raúl Torrez, alleging they were illegally usurping law enforcement duties and fostering violence. But he appears to continue to control the group’s email list and a PayPal account that collects donations on a New Mexico Civil Guard website that remains online. 

That website says they do not tolerate “Racism of any kind,” but the policy its current leadership describes is more like “don’t ask, don’t tell.” 

“I can’t for sure say someone would be exorcised from the unit for past beliefs or current beliefs as long as they keep them to themselves” said one of the NMCG’s current leaders, John Burks. “Nobody needs to know about it; Keep it to yourself.” 

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The New Mexico Civil Guard launched a Facebook page in March the day after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham declared a state of emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic.