South Valley Dems’ turnout could mean life or death for Gabe Vasquez’s congressional bid

By: - November 7, 2022 5:05 am

Debbie Sanchez is a lifelong South Valley resident and Democrat who, along with her neighbors, lives in Congressional District 2. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source NM)

Lifelong South Valley Democrat Debbie Sanchez joined hundreds of her neighbors at the Muertos y Marigolds procession, a cherished tradition there, and reminded anyone who would listen how important it is to vote on Tuesday. 

“We believe in voting,” she said, her face painted in calavera makeup. “And so I reach out to all my family and friends, anybody I can talk to and say: please vote. I don’t care who you vote for. But please vote.”

Democrats in New Mexico — and across the country — are hoping Sanchez can convince as many of her family and friends as possible to vote for Gabe Vasquez, a Las Cruces Democrat trying to take Republican Rep. Yvette Herrell’s seat in Congress. 

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For the first time ever, South Valley residents are part of the Congressional District 2, reshaped this year to include the heavily Democratic region near Albuquerque. The South Valley was cleaved off from the rest of Albuquerque and now will be represented by a member of Congress based more than 200 miles away. Their choices are either a former Las Cruces city councilor (Vasquez) or a former Alamogordo real estate broker who went into politics (Herrell). 

South Valley Democrats who spoke to Source New Mexico this weekend said they were wary about the change in representation, concerned that problems they face in their neighborhood like poverty, crime, water and other issues won’t get the attention they deserve. Though they also said they would stomach the change if it helps their party keep the U.S. House of Representatives. 

“That’s a whole different life down there. Like, it’s different — basically Texas,” said voter Angella Lyon after casting her ballot at a South Valley senior center. 

“But it’s nice for the South Valley to be able to say (no) to Yvette Herrell,” she said with a laugh.

State lawmakers in the Democrat-controlled Legislature completed their once-a-decade redistricting process late last year. The lines they drew are radically different than the map that shaped New Mexico politics for decades, one that typically sent two Democrats and one Republican to Congress. 

Democrats in charge of the Legislature claimed at the time that the map was an acknowledgement that all New Mexicans’ issues — like water, climate change, immigration and education — are interconnected. 

“Re-imagine New Mexico,” Sen. Joseph Cervantes (D-Las Cruces) said from the Senate floor in December. “Re-imagine a state where Albuquerque is not an island unto itself.”

But that re-imagining also had the effect of giving Democrats a 4-point advantage in CD2. Before redistricting, Republicans had a 14-point advantage, according to FiveThirtyEight.com. 

Republicans have challenged the new maps in court. The Supreme Court will hear the case in January. But even if the court overturns the maps, whoever is elected on Tuesday will keep his or her seat. 

Redistricting added 155 Bernalillo County precincts to CD2. Those precincts contain nearly 52,000 registered Democrats and about 25,000 Republicans, according to a Source New Mexico review of September data from the Secretary of State’s Office. 

The new CD2 precincts include one with 735 voters, 65% of whom are Democrats. That’s the highest percentage of any of the new Bernalillo County precincts. It’s in Albuquerque’s Barelas neighborhood, across the Rio Grande from the rest of the South Valley, and contains Barelas Coffee House and the Albuquerque Railyards.

The stakes are high for Democrats nationally. CD2 is being closely watched across the country as one of the seats Democrats could flip to maintain its majority. President Joe Biden spent one of the last days before the election at a South Valley community center, where he and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham stumped for Vasquez and urged voters to the polls.

Out-of-state donors have dumped millions on the race, which means longtime South Valley resident Clare Lynch has been inundated with television ads that she’s sick of. 

Longtime South Valley resident Clare Lynch at the Muertos y Marigolds procession. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann/ Source NM)

“I just hate this mudslinging politics,” Lynch, a Democrat, told Source New Mexico at the Día de los Muertos event on Sunday. “Let’s just be a little more adult.”

Key to winning CD2 is the South Valley, said Manny Crespin, the vice-chair of the New Mexico Democratic Party. He said he campaigned heavily for Vasquez in this new part of his would-be district.

“It is 100% crucial,” he said. “...We went through our data, and we are hitting every single door until they answer. So we're going to make sure that we get the voters to the polls and make sure everybody has access to the polls.”

The latest poll from the Albuquerque Journal gives Vasquez a 2-point edge over Herrell, though the advantage is within the margin of error. As of mid-October, Herrell raised a little more than $4 million, and Vasquez raised $3.2 million, according to federal elections data.

Some prominent Democrats, including Gov. Lujan Grisham, showed up at the procession to make a last-minute push. She took selfies with attendees who lined up to meet her, and she could be heard asking if they’d voted yet.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham poses for a photo with attendees at the Muertos y Marigolds procession on Sunday. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source NM)

The event has been held in the South Valley for nearly 30 years. Attendees dress themselves as the dead in many walks of life, a way to commemorate those who have passed and celebrate life. In election years, it’s also common for campaigns to show up in force to make a final push for votes.

Sanchez, the lifelong South Valley resident, said she is looking forward to the end of the campaign and the “vicious” ads she says are not helping voters. She pointed out that her neighbors in Pajarito Mesa still have limited access to water, and poverty has continued to worsen in her own neighborhood. 

“If we could just get to the truth, what people believe in… How are you going to help me? That would be great,” she said. “But I'm not sure how they're gonna integrate the South Valley into what their district used to be. It's a little more complicated.”

But she has faith in her neighbors that they’ll advocate for themselves, regardless of what district they’re in. It’s a strong neighborhood, she said, with deep roots and culture and residents like her who are not worried about picking up the phone. 

“We’re also pretty vocal. We can find a way to communicate with them,” she said. “So that’s important, not to be afraid.”

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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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