Death threats. Harassment. Intimidation. For New Mexico women, a life in politics can bring all three.

by Susanna Space, Searchlight New Mexico One Wednesday morning in April, Las Cruces City Councilor Johana Bencomo sat in a federal courtroom, watching with concern as a man was arraigned for making a death threat against her. “Stupid little bitch, get suicidal,” he had growled into her voicemail. “’Cause I will kill you.” Bencomo had […]

Death threats. Harassment. Intimidation. For New Mexico women, a life in politics can bring all three.

by Susanna Space, Searchlight New Mexico

One Wednesday morning in April, Las Cruces City Councilor Johana Bencomo sat in a federal courtroom, watching with concern as a man was arraigned for making a death threat against her. “Stupid little bitch, get suicidal,” he had growled into her voicemail. “’Cause I will kill you.”

Bencomo had initially shrugged off the threat. A community organizer known for her outspokenness on immigration reform and homelessness, she was so inured to the noise of harassment and insults that she didn’t think much of the message when she first listened to it earlier this year.

Her colleagues on the city council were not so sanguine. At their urging, Las Cruces Police were called in, then the FBI. It turned out that the caller, who was arrested in El Paso in March and extradited to New Mexico, had a history of violent behavior. Guns were found in his house.

The incident stood out for Bencomo as a new low. Since being elected to the council in 2019, she’s been the target of a relentless stream of abuse and mistreatment, including racist emails, hostile Facebook posts, messages questioning her citizenship and demeaning images of her posted online. And hers is hardly an isolated case. She and her five women colleagues, a group that made history in 2022 as the city’s first all-women council, have been denounced as a “lesbian cabal” and crudely attacked in emails and on social media. The women — including three Latinas and one who identifies as LGBTQ — have been belittled in meetings and demeaned online by people from both inside and outside their districts.

“People’s criticism is no longer in good faith,” Bencomo said of the barrage. “There isn’t this back and forth of democracy. It’s incredibly polarized.”

Of the six women, Bencomo, a Mexican immigrant, has by most accounts borne the brunt of the attacks. “I am this brown woman who’s been very outspoken about her immigrant story and now is this progressive beacon in southern New Mexico. I think folks are trying to knock me down.”

‘It feels like poison’

The vitriol in Las Cruces has grown so extreme that the city recently installed a bulletproof dais to protect its councilors at public meetings.

Bencomo is not the only one who’s been menaced. Councilor Becki Graham said she has been stalked by a man who regularly drives down her street, slows as he approaches her house and sometimes parks nearby to watch her, a pen and notebook in hand. Another councilor, Becky Corran, said she has similarly been stalked and threatened. “I’ve got a big surprise for you,” a former political opponent wrote in an email, adding, ominously, that he planned to come to a city council meeting and show her exactly what he meant.

Corran and Graham have had their lives so disrupted by harassment that they’re now seriously considering leaving politics.

“It’s a very obvious strategy to exhaust people out of public service,” said Graham, who is looking for someone to run in her stead in next year’s race. Though she initially planned to serve multiple terms, the constant attacks have just become too trying for her husband and friends.

“The really sad thing is that I love this work,” she said. “When all of these people are hating you, it feels like poison.”

Former councilwoman Kasandra Gandara, who served two terms and narrowly lost the mayor’s race in 2023, says she’d like to run for office again but isn’t sure it’s worth the sacrifice. During her campaign for mayor last summer, a hostile constituent confronted her in a restaurant, shouting in her face and refusing to back away. The encounter was so ugly that he had to be escorted out, and Gandara filed a police report. The undercurrent of violence was disturbing, she said: “It’s really about a threat to our democracy.”

Kasandra Gandara   Nadav Soroker/Searchlight New Mexico

A city of political divisions

Less than an hour from El Paso and 50 miles from Ciudad Juarez, Las Cruces is the state’s second-largest city. At its cafes, New Mexico State University students work on laptops while sipping CBD-infused drinks; in May, 13 antiwar protesters were arrested after a campus sit-in. Local politics tend toward liberalism, allowing progressive projects to take root. Camp Hope, where unhoused people can access temporary shelter, water and food, mental health care and addiction treatment, has been lauded nationwide for its role in bringing the city’s homeless veteran population to near-zero.

But the city is also home to a substantial conservative faction, including the small but vocal Coalition of Conservatives in Action, whose members have pushed back against critical race theory and cited passages from the Bible in their support for book bans in schools.

Public safety is chief among the conservative causes, and earlier this year the rhetoric hit a fever pitch during a city council meeting discussion about the killing of Jonah Hernandez, a Las Cruces police officer and father of two who was stabbed by a 29-year-old homeless man. Residents blasted the council, holding up the tragedy as a symbol of misguided progressivism. One speaker cast the blame for Hernandez’s death on Bencomo, mocking her efforts to decriminalize homelessness.

Gunfire and statewide hostility

Antagonism toward women legislators in Las Cruces also affects their counterparts across the state. It came to a head last year when gunshots rang out at the homes of Bernalillo County Commissioners Adriann Barboa and Debbie O’Malley and state Sen. Linda Lopez. (A fourth officeholder, Javier Martinez, an immigrant and advocate for reproductive rights, was also targeted.)

Solomon Peña, a failed Republican candidate for the New Mexico House of Representatives, was arrested and indicted for orchestrating the shootings; on his campaign website he had equated feminist politics with “demonic” beliefs.

Political observers speculate that New Mexico’s women legislators are especially vulnerable, given that they’ve been so successful at winning elections. New Mexico ranks sixth in the nation for representation by women, who comprise 32 percent of municipal officeholders, according to the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), based at Rutgers University. In addition to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, women hold more than half of all House seats and a quarter of Senate seats.

“Research has shown that women are three times more likely than men to experience abuse or harassment in local office,” said Jean Sinzdak, CAWP’s associate director. “The number of targets for harassment rises along with women’s representation. And because so much of the abuse is steeped in misogyny and sexism, it’s clear the abuse is intended to push women out of political office or curtail their political power.”

Serious threats against women are not uncommon. In 2020, an Albuquerque man threatened to kill the governor on her official Facebook page. An FBI investigation traced the threats to Daniel Mock, 33, who was found with firearms and a bulletproof vest at his home in Albuquerque. He was tried in federal court and sentenced to 14 months in prison.

Two years later, Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver was threatened repeatedly after she pushed back against Otero County’s refusal to certify the 2022 election results. And last fall when Lujan Grisham issued an emergency health order suspending the right to carry guns in public in Albuquerque and Bernalillo County, she was met with an avalanche of profanity-laced comments, insults and veiled attacks, online and in person.

The impact of intimidation, threats and harassment on state and local politics was the subject of a recent report by the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonprofit public policy institute. The study found that women and people of color — in other words, people like Bencomo, Barboa, Gandara and Lujan Grisham — are increasingly subject to public hostility and personal attacks. As a result, those candidates and officeholders are less likely to appear in public, be interviewed, hold public events or bring their families to those events.

The study echoed a 2022 survey of political candidates by The Pipeline Fund, a network of progressive organizations and leaders across the country. It found significantly higher rates of harassment among underrepresented candidates versus their peers, with 69 percent of women under 40, 67 percent of LGBTQ candidates, and 62 percent of candidates of color experiencing harassment.

Source: The Pipeline Fund

Is it worth the fight?

A longtime liberal, Bencomo was sympathetic to the role that substance abuse and mental health problems might have played in the actions of the man who allegedly threatened her. Back in April, as she watched him enter the courtroom in shackles, she worried that incarceration would only harden his views. The conflict between her ideals and her safety was almost too much to bear. She even wrote a note to the judge expressing her hope that the man would receive treatment.

Sitting in the courtroom that day, however, what she mostly felt was worn down. She had already installed cameras at her house and a home security system; now she was considering what other personal safety devices she might employ.

Las Cruces Councilor Johana Bencomo  Nadav Soroker/Searchlight New Mexico

Like many of the other women on the Las Cruces City Council, she is asking herself whether it makes sense to stay in politics. Is it safe? Is this how she wants to live? Is it worth the fight?

For now, at least, the answer is yes.

“We’re going into an election year that feels like it’s going to be dangerous,” said Bencomo. “There’s a lot at stake and I can’t be quiet about it.”

This article first appeared on Searchlight New Mexico and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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