New Mexico Republicans Jim Townsend and Steve Pearce arrive in the courtroom of Judge Fred Van Soelen on Sept. 27, 2023. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)
LOVINGTON — Text messages by a powerful state lawmaker took center stage on Wednesday in the initial arguments heard by a judge considering whether New Mexico’s congressional map signed into law in 2021 is a partisan gerrymander.
The Republican Party of New Mexico intends to prove to Ninth Judicial District Court Judge Fred Van Soelen that the new map “cracked” a Republican voting bloc in the southeastern part of the state, making it harder for a Republican candidate to win the Congressional District 2 seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
In his opening statement on behalf of the party, attorney Misha Tseytlin said the evidence that frames everything else is a series of text messages on Dec. 6, 2021 between Senate President Pro Tempore Mimi Stewart (D-Albuquerque) and an unnamed advocate from the nonprofit Center for Civic Policy.
The texts were about the differences between a proposed map created by the Citizens Redistricting Commission called “The People’s Map” or “Concept H,” and the one the Legislature ultimately passed as Senate Bill 1.
Tseytlin said Stewart’s texts “frame the DNA of the gerrymander that occurred here.”
“What’s remarkable about these texts is that Senator Stewart not only admits that gerrymandering was happening, but explains how and why,” Tseytlin said.
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According to a screenshot of the text messages entered into evidence and distributed to reporters by the GOP on Wednesday, Stewart told the advocate that the map lawmakers drew up had a higher “dpi,” or Democratic Performance Index, a measurement of how well Democrats do in a given congressional district, than in “The People’s Map”.
“We improved the peoples (sic) map and now have CD 2 at 53% dpi!” Stewart wrote.
The advocate asked Stewart about the Democratic performance in the other two congressional districts and wrote, “There’s only so much dpi to go around, you know.”
In a small, competitive state with only a few districts like New Mexico, Tseytlin said, when you make one district more favorable for Democrats, you’re going to make the other districts more favorable to Republicans.
Stewart wrote that the DPI in CD2 in “The People’s Map” was 51.8%, and added, “That’s not enough for a mid term (sic) election so we adjusted some edges, scooped up more of abq and are now at 53%.”
Legislature says new map is more competitive
In his opening statement on behalf of the New Mexico Legislature, attorney Richard Olson said the state Supreme Court has acknowledged in an opinion on Sept. 22 it’s appropriate for politics to play a role in redistricting, and that some partisan effect is permitted.
However, what the New Mexico Republican Party must prove is that lawmakers took “egregious” action that affected a partisan shift in the congressional districts.
Olson said there is no evidence that the new map “entrenched” Democrats in Congressional District 2. In other words, the new map does not pre-determine future elections. He said state Republicans must also prove that the new map did this “entrenchment” through “substantial dilution of votes.”
“The Second Congressional District was drawn with political performance levels that fall well within the range that experts who you’ll hear from over the next couple of days — and have prepared reports that have been submitted into evidence with your honor — determine and consider competitive,” Olson said.
Even if the GOP can prove this entrenchment, Olson said, there are legitimate nonpartisan reasons for the policy expressed by the new congressional map:
- The Citizens Redistricting Committee and the Legislature discussed the common interests of the Southern Rio Grande Valley from just south of Albuquerque down to the U.S.-Mexico border.
- Native nations including the Mescalero Apache and Zuni Pueblo talked about wanting to be split between two congressional districts.
- There have always been districts centered around the major urban areas of the state in Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Las Cruces.
- Lawmakers talked about wanting to meld urban constituencies with rural ones.
“The evidence is almost uncontroverted: There’s no entrenchment,” Olson said. “In fact, the likelihood is that we’ll be looking at a competitive race in CD2 every two years. The only logical conclusion at the end of the day is that there has been no egregious partisan gerrymander.”
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