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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

Redistricting between censuses is not without precedent, but it does bring to mind the seminal redistricting battle of this century: the scandal surrounding former US House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who pioneered the tactic of interim redistricting.

In 2002, DeLay created two political action committees that poured $3.2 million into seven Texas House races. After all seven Republicans won, DeLay pushed for a redistricting plan that would deliver more seats to the Texas congressional delegation in Washington, DC.

“[H]e saw an opportunity to help the Republicans stay in power in Washington,” US Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told The New Yorker in March 2006. DeLay’s justification for the plan, according to The New Yorker, was as follows: “with 57 percent of Texas voters backing Republicans for Congress, it was only fair that the GOP control more than 15 of the 32 seats in the US House.”

State Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, says he hopes for collaboration between Democrats and Republicans on redistricting.

The plan worked—Texas Republicans gained four congress-ional seats—but, on Nov. 24, 2010, DeLay was convicted of laundering money in the 2002 Texas House race, and sentenced this week to three years in prison. And though the US Supreme Court upheld most aspects of the Texas redistricting plan in a 2006 decision, DeLay’s name has become synonymous with political gerrymandering.

“The horror show of what Tom DeLay did in Texas—nobody wants that,” New Mexico state Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, tells SFR. “In the ideal world, we should be able to get this done—Republicans and Democrats. That said, it’s a highly partisan process.”

Nor is that partisanship limited to in-state advocacy.

According to Democratic Party of New Mexico Executive Director Scott Forrester, New Mexico’s historical swing-state status is likely to attract attention from both Republican and Democratic national organizations.

Deep-pocketed national Democrat groups, Forrester says, “will be very interested in the redistricting process here in New Mexico.”

But so will organizations like the Republican Governors Association, a major Martinez campaign donor.

“I absolutely expect them to come in and spend millions and millions of dollars to redraw the lines so that their party has the advantage come 2012,” Forrester predicts.

(Monty Newman, the chairman of the Republican Party of New Mexico, was unable to comment for this story before press time.)

Though subcommittees and potential alliances will form during the upcoming legislative session, the real movement on redistricting won’t happen until this summer, when Sanderoff will begin turning the Census Bureau’s population data into new district maps. The state Legislature is expected to hold a special session to debate and vote on the redistricting proposals this fall, after which they’ll go to Martinez for approval.

Nationally and locally, the attack ads and partisan rancor of the 2010 elections are still fresh in voters’ minds. And in New Mexico, the potential conflict between a Democratic Legislature and Republican governor—the same makeup that led to the contentious redistricting process of 2001—simmers just beneath the surface.

“Some very strong conservative, really business-oriented, anti-regulation, anti-immigration-type people really backed [Martinez’ campaign for governor],” former House Speaker Raymond Sanchez says. 

How she chooses to wield the veto pen on redistricting, Sanchez says, will be a bellwether—but where it actually lands is anyone’s guess.

“It’ll show her independence from those sort of influences—or her recognition that this is the philosophy that they have, and so [she’s] going to help them,” Sanchez says. “The fact of the matter is, Democrats lost the election. Diane [Denish] lost. That old saying: ‘The queen is dead; long live the queen!’”

And all around her, political armies sharpen their knives.

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