Commentary

Drawing N.M. district lines in the shadow of 9/11

Former senator reflects on another attempt at redistricting during an emergency

September 8, 2021 5:45 am

The Roundhouse in Santa Fe. (Getty Images)

As the state’s Citizens Redistricting Commission prepares to issue its draft district maps on Sept. 16, I can’t help but think back to the tumultuous redistricting process in 2001 when I was a state senator. The census figures came in on time that year, but that was the only thing that was easy.

The population had shifted dramatically from the rural areas of  New Mexico to the cities. This decade’s trend shows the loss of rural population too, but nothing like 2001. Then, Rio Rancho had exploded, and the mostly Republican eastern side of the state had lost ground.

In the Senate, the Democrats were deeply divided. A civil war raged between the followers of deposed Sen. Manny Aragon and the coalition backing Sen. Richard Romero. People were divided along racial and ethnic lines. It was also city dwellers vs. ranchers, or incumbents vs. those who were not running again.

Taking sides was mandatory. 'Traitor' was a word that was often heard on the floor and in the lounge.

The special redistricting session followed a summer parade of a joint redistricting committee throughout the state. Much like the Citizens Redistricting Commission of today, it took public comment in 12 communities, with an emphasis on Native American communities.

Going into the September 2001 special session, maps were drawn and redrawn to satisfy both Republican and Democratic stakeholders. Residents from various regions throughout the state pled with the Senate Rules Committee to keep their towns intact. People warned of lawsuits if their voting strength of their demographic was diminished — if they were packed into a few districts, or, conversely, if they were dispersed into many.

In the end, it was up to the senators to draw the lines for their own districts. But there was no consensus. Far from it.

The congressional map was particularly contentious. Meanwhile, Republicans denied that there had been population loss in eastern New Mexico, and they held an important card—then-Gov. Gary Johnson’s veto pen.

Ultimately, a plan supported by the majority of Democratic senators — which pitted Republican Sen. Mark Boitano against Republican Sen. Diane Snyder and collapsed two eastern Senate districts — was sent up to the governor.  It was a vindictive plan, and everyone knew it would be vetoed, as would the congressional plan championed by Sen. Aragon, which created a Democratic, Hispanic-dominated district running up the Rio Grande from Las Cruces to the North Valley of Albuquerque.

Johnson promptly vetoed the Senate map, calling it an “obvious partisan gerrymander.”  He said the merged Albuquerque seat “resembled a science fiction movie ray gun stretching across the Heights area of the city.” He too maintained that there really had been no population decline of the East side of the state and challenged the Legislature to send him back a plan with more competitive seats — a constant cry of the party, then in the minority.

As senators debated precinct boundaries and pursued personal and partisan advantage in September 2011, the world changed. The twin towers, the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol came under attack from the air, and chaos and violence raged.

Shortly after the first reports came in on the morning of 9/11, a bomb threat forced the evacuation of the Roundhouse. Senators, representatives, staff, folks from the Governor’s Office all gathered outside, listening to car radios, wondering, like all Americans, what was next.  The New Mexico sky remained heartbreakingly blue, a reminder of just how far we were from the scene of death and destruction.

Within the space of a few hours, the governor and the leaders of the House and the Senate decided that while safety might dictate adjournment or recess, duty and honor demanded that we conduct business as usual, without bowing to intimidation.  We met in a joint session in the Senate chambers at 3 p.m.

The governor gave a short address, praising us for showing great courage in convening to let the public know we were open for business. A rabbi read the 23rd psalm, and a pastor from Santa Fe, a woman, prayed for us all, urging restraint and love amid anger and violence. Sen. Stuart Ingle sang the Lord’s Prayer. Sen. Tim Jennings urged us to give comfort to those who may have lost loved ones. Manny Aragon urged us to be more involved in foreign affairs and domestic violence in our communities.

The outpouring of food, financial aid and blood donations from New Mexicans in the days that followed is now well-known. As most of us sat glued to the television sets in the Senate Lounge, or at home, in hotel rooms, we were united at last, united in horror and disbelief.

In short order, the clergy from Santa Fe, and our own chaplains organized a ceremony in the Roundhouse on Friday Sept. 14, which drew Santa Feans of all stripes. Secretaries and state office workers, many of them waving small flags, packed the balconies overlooking the rotunda. The tremendous display of unity amid all of our differences reaffirmed my belief that our diversity is one of our greatest strengths.

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But the glow of unity did not carry over into redistricting. The wrangling continued. After 17 days and $700,000 in costs, the special session adjourned Sept. 17. Only one plan that had been sent up to the governor was signed, and it was a map for the PRC districts that the legislative conference committee had sent up to the third floor by mistake.

The national crisis, the anxious gatherings in front of the TV in the Senate lounge were not enough to bring the partisan legislators together. A few months and $4 million in legal fees later, State District Judge Frank Allen determined the lines of both the N.M. House and U.S. congressional districts. In a last-ditch effort in the Senate, Romero and Minority Leader Ingle set up another committee , which came up with a compromise plan that was passed in the 2002 session and signed by the governor. It was a piece of good news in a contentious process.

Or was it? The plan that survived created 22 safe Democratic seats and 17 solid Republican districts, leaving only three competitive ones based on average voting trends. It seemed to defy population trends, with no seat eliminated on the East side of the state where the population had declined drastically. There was also no new seat on the Westside of Albuquerque where the population had increased dramatically. Communities of interest in Los Alamos and Albuquerque were split and the status quo enshrined for the next decade — or so everyone thought at the time.

I ended up with one of the strangest and largest districts in Albuquerque, stretching from the Westside to the southwest corner of Arroyo del Oso golf course near Louisiana and Osuna. On paper, Senate District 13 looked like a machine gun pointing at the Albuquerque Heights, a classic gerrymander if there ever was one. The core of Senate District 13 remained in the near North Valley, but its new, largely Anglo, Republican inhabitants had little in common with the residents of Duranes or Old Town.

The jury is still out on whether a more independent Citizens Redistricting Commission can create a map that is better—one that reflects population trends, respects geographic communities and demographic minorities while at the same time honoring the elected representatives who have walked the block, attended the neighborhood meetings, listened to the local folks, and oh yeah, are looking to save their own skins in chaotic situations like the ones brought on by COVID and 9/11.

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Dede Feldman
Dede Feldman

Dede Feldman is a former state senator and author of the forthcoming Ten More Doors: Politics and the Path to Change.

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