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01.12.11 Voting Dist cover
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Redrawing New Mexico

This year, Democrats and Republicans will change the state’s political boundaries—but who will win?

January 12, 2011, 7:00 am

Brian Sanderoff has been in charge of redrawing New Mexico’s political districts for the past three decades. Seated at a polished wooden table at Research & Polling Inc., the Albuquerque-based company he heads, Sanderoff leans forward, stretching two long arms in either direction, and describes the standoff that occurred in the state Legislature 10 years ago:

“Basically, they appointed three Democratic senators and three Republican senators, and they said, ‘Go to Research & Polling—this table—and don’t come out until you have a plan that everyone can live with.’”

Sanderoff has sandy, thinning hair and an easy smile, and though he spends his days steeped in databases, he’s good at explaining complex issues—like redistricting—in simple terms.

“We sat there for a couple days, in this room—the computers and the legislative leadership and my staff—and they developed a plan,” Sanderoff recalls. “Was it a perfect plan? No. But they needed to come up with a plan that the Democrats, Republicans and the governor could live with.”

In the contentious world of redistricting, such a plan is a small miracle. By the time the six state senators were convening in Research & Polling’s rectangular conference room,several redistricting plans had already been debated and passed by the Democrat-controlled state Legislature—only
to be vetoed by Republican then-Gov. Gary Johnson.

“Whatever party has the majority typically will draw a plan that benefits them,” Sanderoff says. “The Democrats thought it was a reasonable plan and thought they could’ve gone much further in harming Republicans, but the Republicans had a different perspective,” he says. “That’s politics.”
This year, a similar battle will likely unfold. Despite Republican gains in the state House of Representatives during the November 2010 elections, the New Mexico Legislature is still dominated by Democrats. But Republican Gov. Susana Martinez will have the power to veto any redistricting plan that doesn’t give equal consideration to GOP interests.

Veterans of the redistricting process say it’s consistently fraught with political infighting—not just between the two parties, but also among members of the same party. 

“Redistricting is perhaps the most intensely personal dynamic present in the legislative process,” New Mexico state Sen. Rod Adair, R-Chaves, tells SFR. “I have seen, in the majority party, just as much intraparty elbowing as there is interparty.”

And a heated 2010 election season—which vaulted Republicans into power in the US House of Representatives and, in New Mexico, captured eight state House seats and the governorship for the GOP—is widely considered a litmus test for both public sentiment and partisan assertiveness.

“At the [state] Legislature, this will turn into a bitter fight,” Denise Lamb, the chief deputy clerk for Santa Fe County Bureau of Elections, predicts. “There will be two members of the same party that are colleagues pitted against each other, and then you’ll have the Ds and the Rs pitted against each other. It’s very ugly.”

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