Tribal leaders object to 11th-hour NM Senate redistricting map

Senate committee votes to change the plan a coalition spent months working to create

By: - December 12, 2021 4:28 pm

The state Senate on Monday, Dec. 6, 2021 at the Roundhouse in Santa Fe. Rules during this special session say everyone has to be masked and show proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test to enter the building. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

Lawmakers on Sunday replaced a map that a tribal coalition spent months working on to find consensus. A Senate committee voted instead to approve an amended plan re-drawing the New Mexico Senate’s voting districts that was introduced just before the meeting.

Sen. Mimi Stewart (D-Albuquerque), the Senate’s president pro tem, introduced an amended map that would alter the layout of districts in Northwestern New Mexico, where the Navajo Nation and other tribal nations are located.

Members of the coalition and elected tribal leaders showed up in force at the meeting Sunday. About 20 people spoke in opposition to Stewart’s amended map, saying the changes disrespected tribal autonomy and their hard work. Just one person, a lobbyist for the city of Gallup, spoke in favor of Stewart’s map. 

Co-chairs of the All Pueblo Council of Governors Redistricting Committee said that they were able to see Stewart’s proposed map just one hour before the Senate Judiciary Committee meeting began at 11 a.m. on Sunday in Santa Fe. 

The 11th-hour pass that we see today — without consultation of our Native American tribes — is not only a travesty, but it's a direct violation of months of work that has been done.

– Isaac Dakota Casados, chair of the state's Native American Democratic Caucus

Despite the opposition, senators voted 7-2 in favor of Stewart’s map and against the map that the tribes preferred. The senators stressed that the map they endorsed still needs to be approved by the full Senate, and much debate and alterations could occur before then. 

Tribal coalition members spent eight months meeting among the state’s 23 pueblos and tribes, each of which is autonomous, to achieve what they called a “historic” agreement on the maps. They sought to preserve Native American majorities of at least 65% in the legislative districts where they are already the majority, while honoring tribal boundaries and distinct communities within each district. 

It’s crucial to have state Senate districts that reflect the size and sovereignty of the Native American population, members said, and allow them to select their own representatives in the Legislature. Today, Native Americans have large majorities in Senate districts 3, 4 and 22. 

Stewart’s map would mean that Native Americans would comprise 72% of district 3, 62% of district 4 and 62.2% of district 22, all in Northwestern New Mexico. The map the tribes prefer would keep at least 63% in each of those three districts. 

Nineteen of the 23 tribes and pueblos in the state are in Northwestern New Mexico. 

Nearly 12% of the state’s population identifies as Native American, according to the latest census figures, up from 9.4% in 2011. That increase happened despite widely acknowledged undercounting on pueblos and the Navajo Nation, where pandemic lockdowns contributed to what was already a difficult environment for counting residents. 

Stewart, in introducing the map, said it maintained Native American majorities and that most of the tribal coalition’s district boundaries stayed intact. Three Native American majority districts are 100% the same as the tribal coalition’s districts, she said, and three others are between 79% and 87.7%. 

“If we had more time, we could take another few months, I think we would come up with the same amended suggestions today, and we would all be happier about it,” she said. “But because of COVID, because of the delay of the Census Bureau, we don’t have any.”

She did not elaborate on why certain changes were made, except to note that her proposed map would prevent two sitting senators – Republican Sens. Joshua Sanchez and Greg Baca – from being drawn into the same district. 

Keegan King, a co-chair of the tribal redistricting committee, said after the hearing that his group hadn’t had enough time to fully analyze the ways in which Stewart’s map affected tribal communities and their political representation. But he did note that the map puts nearly half of Catron County into Senate District 30, including a small section of Acoma Pueblo, against the Acoma leadership’s wishes.

Tribal coalition left in the dark as redistricting nears, member says

“Acoma knows what they’re doing when they build this map. They did that with intention,” King said in an interview. “Tribes are able to determine what is best for them. What they don’t want to see is others speaking or recommending on their behalf. They’ve already done the legwork.”

One coalition member, Austin Weahkee, criticized Senate leadership before the special legislative session on redistricting began, telling Source New Mexico that tribal members were left in the dark about when the session would start and how much weight the tribal maps would carry. He feared that a last-minute map would be introduced that undermined all the tribes’ hard work. 

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Patrick Lohmann
Patrick Lohmann

Patrick Lohmann has been a reporter since 2007, when he wrote stories for $15 apiece at a now-defunct tabloid in Gallup, his hometown. Since then, he's worked at UNM's Daily Lobo, the Albuquerque Journal and the Syracuse Post-Standard. Along the way, he's won several state and national awards for his reporting, including for an exposé on a cult-like Alcoholics Anonymous group and a feature on an Upstate New York militia member who died of COVID-19. He's thrilled to be back home in New Mexico, where he works to tell stories that resonate and make an impact.

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