Report finds at least 12 NM legislators joined extremist Facebook groups

Lawmakers may not believe everything that’s posted, but “they have to recognize that they lend some of their legitimacy to those groups,” institute’s research director says

By: - June 3, 2022 4:30 am
LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 25: In this photo illustration the Social networking site Facebook is displayed on a laptop screen on March 25, 2009 in London, England. The British government has made proposals which would force Social networking websites such as Facebook to pass on details of users, friends and contacts to help fight terrorism. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

(Photo by Dan Kitwood / Getty Images)

A report from the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights found 875 sitting state lawmakers are current or former members of extremist or conspiracy-minded Facebook groups, including 12 New Mexico legislators. 

All of the NM legislators identified in the report are Republicans. The report notes that there may be more legislators across the country who are members of these groups that were not identified in the progressive think tank’s research. 

Among the New Mexico legislators identified in the report are all four members of the state’s elected GOP leadership in the Roundhouse, as well as gubernatorial candidate Rebecca Dow, who is also a state representative serving Grant, Hidalgo & Sierra counties. 

According to the report, Dow was a member of the “New Mexico Patriots” Facebook group before it was removed by Facebook. This could not be confirmed independently by Source New Mexico, as the group no longer exists. 

New Mexico legislators named in the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights report

NOTE: Source New Mexico could not confirm membership in the Facebook group “New Mexico Patriots,” because it was removed by the company. We also could not confirm membership in “Open Schools USA – a We Are United group” because it is private.

All lawmakers were contacted for comment.

  • Craig W. Brandt, minority whip, N.M. Senate, District 40: New Mexico Patriots
  • David M. Gallegos, N.M. Senate, District 41: New Mexico Patriots
  • Gail Armstrong, N.M. House of Representatives, District 49: New Mexico Patriots; Constitution Party – Open Forum
  • Gregg Schmedes, N.M. Senate, District 19: We Can End Abortion in the USA & Worldwide!
  • Kelly K. Fajardo, N.M. House of Representatives, District 7: New Mexico Patriots
  • Randall Pettigrew, N.M. House of Representatives, District 61: New Mexico Patriots
  • Rebecca Dow, N.M. House of Representatives, District 38: New Mexicans Against Abortion; New Mexico Patriots; NM Parents Against Covid Mandates
  • Rodney Montoya, minority whip, N.M. House of Representatives, District 1: All Americans Are Essential
  • Stefani Lord, N.M. House of Representatives, District 22: New Mexicans Against Abortion; New Mexico Patriots; Constitutional Grassroots Movement; Get America Back to Work!
  • Gregory Baca, minority floor leader, N.M. Senate, District 29: New Mexicans Against Abortion
  • James Townsend, minority floor leader, N.M. House of Representatives, District 54: New Mexico Patriots; Open Schools USA – a We Are United group; UNmaskNMkids; All Americans Are Essential
  • Zachary Cook, N.M. House of Representatives, District 56: New Mexico Liberty Defenders

This Facebook group was linked to the real-world New Mexico Patriots, which was among the militia-style crews showing up at anti-police brutality protests in Albuquerque in 2020, drawing a rebuke from the Albuquerque Police Department. At the time, APD said it opposed “vigilante actions and attempts by civilians to intervene in planned, peaceful protests.”  The Patriots also attended a 2019 anti-immigrant rally in Sunland Park in support of the privately funded “We Build the Wall” campaign. 

“We Build the Wall” founder Brian Kolfage pleaded guilty this year to defrauding donors.

The institute found Dow was a member of at least two other Facebook groups researchers identified as extremist, including “New Mexicans Against Abortion” and “NM Parents Against Covid Mandates.” Source New Mexico was able to independently confirm Dow’s membership in both groups.

The “New Mexicans Against Abortion” — a public group —frequently features conspiracy content, including explicitly pro-QAnon posts. The “NM Parents Against Covid Mandates” group is similarly full of conspiracy theories, including a post promoting the idea that COVID-19 is not a virus but a synthetic form of snake venom purposely injected into the population. Dow’s account posted a link to one of her campaign ads in that group on April 15.

Dow did not respond to questions from Source New Mexico about her membership in extremist Facebook groups. She sent a short statement via email that read “I follow a lot of political pages to stay engaged. I’ve never heard of membership requirements to follow any of these pages.” Source did not ask about membership requirements.

Chuck Tanner, research director at the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, said one of the problems with state legislators joining far-right or conspiracy-minded Facebook groups is that the presence of elected officials lends them credibility. “It doesn’t always mean (the legislators) completely believe it,” he said, “but they have to recognize that they lend some of their legitimacy to those groups.”

Speaking to the New Mexico Patriots Facebook group in particular, Tanner said it’s alarming that elected lawmakers would let themselves be seen as allies. 

“They’re a group that has paramilitary politics. That right away should throw up a flag to a state legislator. They also have allied their cause to anti-immigrant politics,” he said. “A state legislator with any integrity would have no part of that.”

The institute found several other legislators that had joined the New Mexico Patriots group before it was removed from Facebook: Senate Minority Whip Craig Brandt (R-Rio Rancho), House Minority Leader James G. Townsend (R-Artesia), Sen. David M. Gallegos (R-Eunice), Rep. Gail Armstrong (R-Magdalena), Rep. Kelly K. Fajardo (R-Los Lunas), Rep. Randall Pettigrew (R-Lovington) and Rep. Stefani Lord (R-Sandia Park). 

Aside from Brandt and Townsend, the other two members of elected GOP leadership were also members of additional extremist Facebook groups listed in the report. Their membership in those groups was also independently confirmed by Source New Mexico. 

Senate Minority Leader Gregory A. Baca is a member of the same “New Mexicans Against Abortion” Facebook group as Dow, which features posts promoting QAnon and accusing an abortion provider of being possessed by demons. 

And House Minority Whip Rod Montoya (R-Farmington) is a member of “All Americans Are Essential.” A review by Source New Mexico found posts there promoting false claims that the 2020 election was stolen and advocating the conspiracy theory that the World Health Organization is exploiting the pandemic to create a one-world government. 

Source New Mexico contacted every legislator named in the report for comment. In a phone interview, Armstrong said she does not remember joining the “New Mexico Patriots” group or another group listed in the report as extremist, “Constitution Party – Open Forum.” She said she’s a member of numerous Facebook groups on the left and right, including the Valencia County Democrats and Socorro County Democrats, and that she joins Facebook groups to keep up with political conversations happening across the spectrum in her district. 

Fajardo said she’s not sure if she was ever a member of the “New Mexico Patriots” Facebook group but that she doesn’t support real-life actions like bringing guns to racial justice demonstrations and intimidating protesters. “I don’t support any group that attacks any other group,” she said. 

Sen. Gregg Schmedes (R-Tijeras) was named in the report as a member of an anti-abortion extremist group called “We Can End Abortion In The USA & Worldwide!” The group is private, and Source New Mexico was unable to view its membership or content. But Schmedes confirmed in a phone interview that he is a member, though he said he doesn’t remember joining it. 

“I like the name of course, but who is administrating that group, I really have no idea,” Schmedes said. He added that he supports banning abortion for all viable pregnancies, including in cases of rape and incest.

Pettigrew and Townsend declined to be interviewed, referring questions to Matt Garcia-Sierra, a spokesperson for the House GOP. 

In an email, Garcia-Sierra refused an interview request, citing the “clear bias of this story,” and accusing Source New Mexico of using research “blasted” by ProgressNow, apparently referring to a blog post the organization wrote about the report. Source NM’s reporting for this story was not based on the blog. 

The rest of the legislators named in the report failed to respond to requests for comment.

Researchers defined “far right” as a loose collection of ideologies that seek to “undermine political, social and/or economic equality along such lines as class, race, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, immigration status, and religion.”

Report says hundreds of state legislators have joined far-right Facebook groups

Researchers also examined legislation advancing far-right policies sponsored by elected officials who had joined extremist Facebook groups. The think tank found two pieces of far-right legislation in New Mexico sponsored by legislators who had joined at least one. 

One was a measure, HB 91, introduced this year by Dow, Townsend and Pettigrew along with their House Republican colleagues, Reps. Luis M. Terrazas and Candy Spence Ezzell, that would have banned the teaching of what they call critical race theory in schools. 

Tanner said the institute defines such bills as far right because critical race theory is an advanced legal framework not taught in K-12 schools anywhere, and proposed legislation instead aims to ban teachers from promoting diversity or accurately describing the often racist history of the United States. “You really got this reactionary and racist attack against even diversity programs in public schools and other institutions,” he said. “I think that attacking those kinds of programs undermines equality in this country, and that’s a human-rights issue.”

The other bill highlighted by the institute was 2021’s House Joint Resolution 2, which called for amending the New Mexico Constitution to ban any kind of vaccine mandate. The proposed amendment would have banned mandating all vaccines, not only those that prevent coronavirus. It was sponsored by Cook. 

HB 91 and HJR 2 both failed to pass the Legislature. 


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Andrew Beale
Andrew Beale

Andrew Beale has 15 years of reporting experience, starting with the UNM Daily Lobo. He's reported for national and international publications including the New York Times, Vice and al-Jazeera from locations as far-flung as Portland and Palestine. He has a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and he resides in Southern California.