When campaigning means delivering food behind the fire lines

How an ongoing disaster changed a closely watched legislative election

By: - June 8, 2022 4:30 am

Roger Montoya and his campaign manager Isaac Casados look over part of the burn scar left by the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire on Primary Election Day. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

MORA, N.M. — For both of the men who vied to represent the area hit by the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire in the New Mexico House of Representatives, the race became less about traditional campaigning and more about responding to the needs of local residents.

There has been disregard for the victims of the fire started by the government’s prescribed burn, said Roger Montoya, an artist, nonprofit founder and incumbent in the District 40 seat in the Legislature.

There’s excessive red tape for under-resourced rural areas, he said, with people having to go through a dozen steps just to access aid that is simpler in neighboring states like Texas, Arizona or Colorado.

His opponent, Joseph Sanchez, an electrical engineer at Los Alamos National Laboratory who held the District 40 seat from 2019 to 2021, has relatives in Peñasco in Taos County who live very close to the fire, he said.

Luckily the fire never reached them, he said, but they were prepared to evacuate if it did.

“My family even found donations for clothing and stuff like that (evacuees) were asking for,” Sanchez said. “Instead of campaigning trips, it turned into trips trying to do whatever we could to help them.”

In an interview outside a polling place on Tuesday, Sanchez said he took clothing and supplies to evacuees staying in hotel rooms at Cities of Gold in Pojoaque Pueblo and Ohkay Casino in Ohkay Owingeh.

“I tried not to publicize it,” Sanchez said with a smile, an apparent dig at Montoya’s use of social media and national media to bring more attention to the disaster.

Joseph Sanchez stands outside the polling place in Chimayó on Tuesday, June 7, 2022. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

Montoya was very active on the ground in Mora, which helped him draw local and statewide recognition, said Greg Elbring, a retired Sandia National Laboratory manager who lives with his husband Tobias Lovato on his family’s ranch in Mora.

“He was one of the major information sources that was getting out to the national news for a while,” Elbring said.

The wildfire likely caused voter turnout to be depressed in Mora County.

“Because everybody was evacuated, absentee ballots didn’t get out, and so I think we’re not gonna see as much turnout as we would like to see here in Mora, and probably in San Miguel too,” Elbring said.

It disappointed him, but he said he understands it because there’s so much for evacuees to take care of even once they return home.

“And you gotta fight with FEMA, and all this kinda stuff, that voting is kind of way down there on the (list of) necessary things to do, when you have a crisis like this, where you’re just trying to get through the day, and do all the things that have to be done,” Elbing said.

It’s unfortunate, but it’s the reality they are stuck with, he said.

Outside of Mora and Colfax Counties, campaigning didn’t change much, Sanchez said.

Indeed, in many ways District 40 saw the usual northern New Mexico election: in lead-up, candidates appeared in the local newspaper and on the local radio station. On Primary Election Day, their supporters crowded entrances to polling places with signs, campaign T-shirts, canopies and camping chairs.


Joseph Sanchez beat incumbent Rep. Roger Montoya, winning the Democratic nomination by about 14% — 686 votes, according to unofficial election results.

Both candidates spent time in Chimayo on Tuesday. It’s an important voter base and an area with incredible history, Montoya said as he greeted voters and other candidates outside the local polling place at a Rio Arriba County building.

“The acequias — the land-based values — are really critically important,” Montoya said.

When Montoya was the coordinator for the Española School District’s Elementary Arts Program, he would go to every single elementary school, he said, including the one in Chimayo.

“I know a lot of people from those years, and it’s important to have a presence,” Montoya said. As he finished his sentence, a couple in a large pickup truck pulled up to him to say hi and asked him where he had been.

“Those fires put my campaign on hold for a month,” he told the couple.

Montoya suspended fundraising for his campaign in late April “while I focused solely on the wildfires.” He delivered food to people who stayed behind despite evacuation orders, coordinated housing for evacuees, and turned his nonprofit Moving Arts Española into a space for people looking for help or drop donations.

It just had to be done, said Montoya’s Campaign Manager Isaac Casados.

“We had to focus in on the needs and the concerns, and we had hoped his fellow competitor would have done the same thing,” said Casados (Navajo). “He didn’t. He was still hosting fundraisers and a whole bunch of other things.”

Casados and Montoya restarted fundraising, mailers and campaign events in May.

“In the middle of a fire, we felt that the work was the most important part of this process, because if we didn’t focus on that, it would have been selfish of us,” Casados said. “ The representative wasn’t elected to run campaigns. He was elected to do the work in community. And when one of the largest wildfires in the nation is burning in his district, you have to act, whether or not there’s a campaign.”

Fires highlight inequities

In New Mexico and throughout the western U.S., climate change has accelerated and intensified wildfires. Both Sanchez and Montoya acknowledge that global warming is contributing to wildfires getting worse, and say it’s a reason to transition away from fossil fuels.

Sanchez said the government needs to do a better job of maintaining the forests to keep them healthy and minimize future wildfires.

“There used to be a thriving lumber industry,” Sanchez said. “I don’t know how that would affect it. I think if we had controlled that properly, and just designated where they could do that, that could have helped.”

Sanchez pointed to recent limits on cattle permits, and suggested that easing those restrictions could allow cattle to eat the dry grasses that help fuel wildfires.

“I think those are small steps that we gotta look at,” Sanchez said. “We do need to make a transition — reasonably — off of oil and gas.”

Montoya said the fires have made more clear for him the connection between climate change and his role as a lawmaker. It highlighted the impact on people but also a broader lack of infrastructure in the area around Mora, he said.

Looking out over part of the burn scar from Hermits Peak on Tuesday, Montoya said he felt a palpable grief shared by those who live here.

“The process of healing will take time, but my mind and heart are already looking at the renaissance of Mora,” Montoya said, “what we can deploy to bring hope and action and mobilization to the very people that treasure this landscape — and need jobs. They need to know that their land will return for future generations.”

Roger Montoya and his campaign manager Isaac Casados look over part of the burn scar left by the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire on Tuesday, June 7, 2022. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.