In a race against a crowded field that includes a famous former spy outed by the Bush administration, it can be tough to stand out. Teresa Leger Fernandez hopes her policies and her connection to the region, along with some experience in theater, will do it for her in the Democratic primary race for New Mexico's 3rd Congressional District next year against Valerie Plame, among others. A Latina lawyer who represents tribal governments at the Santa Fe-based Leger Law & Strategy, Leger says that she knows the people of this community and understands their concerns, and has experience finding solutions. She also played a pivotal role in getting Santa Fe to hold its first ranked-choice election, and was vice-chair of President Obama's Advisory Council for Historic Preservation. She agreed to sit down with SFR to chat about her campaign. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What's your Santa Fe story?
I moved here when I was 17. I graduated from West Las Vegas High School and moved to Santa Fe so I could work and earn money to pay for college. So literally I moved here the Saturday after I graduated and worked here with Jerry Ortiz y Pino, who is now a [state] senator. I did a little internship there, and then basically after that I worked as a secretary or as a waitress for the Pink Adobe, in the Dragon Room. I then got into Yale. And I would always go to Yale, and come back and work at the Pink Adobe.
And you got your law degree from Yale too?
No, I got my undergraduate degree from Yale, and then I came back to New Mexico and did teatro, theater, which was really great. … In those days, there really were not Latinos on stage, and our stories were not being put on stage. So it was a theater company that was putting on original Spanish, New Mexico playwrights. I always had this big interest in culture, art, and the important role that culture plays in maintaining community and sense of place. So I came back and did theater for a year and went to graduate school. But somebody who knew me better than I did said that I would be a better lawyer than a graduate student. He was right. I was great at law, it just clicked. I was meant to be an advocate, so I went to Stanford Law School.
What were you doing in grad school before?
I was at UT Austin doing economic development and planning. Then I came home and was looking for a job, and was lucky enough to get hired at the Nordhaus Law Firm. They represent tribes, and a lot of their work that I have done with tribes and pueblos over the years was in economic development. So I had this graduate work in economic development planning. I kind of put it together as an advocate as well as the economic development background. And that's a lot of the work I've done, not just for tribes but in other areas for New Mexico as well.
You've pushed for a ranked-choice voting system in the past. How did that issue get on your radar and why do you think it's important?
I do voting rights act litigation as well as advocacy. I've had several pieces of legislation to increase access to the polls, including getting early voting places where they were not providing early voting in the past, and I do the voting rights act issues for redistricting. And I win those cases every 10 years. … So Fair Vote and some other organizations that care about good governance came to me and said, 'You know the city of Santa Fe, the voters of Santa Fe, passed this charter amendment.' Not a law, a charter amendment. That's the constitution of the city. And they passed it 10 years ago, and the city refused to implement it, always coming up with a reason not to. And they said, 'Can we do something about this?' and I said: 'You bet we can. We can sue 'em.' … And we won. We took it up to the Supreme Court. … When voters vote for something, and they vote it into law and the constitution, you need to respect that. You need to respect elections. And the second thing is, ranked choice elections make a lot of sense. It is a much better way of doing elections.
What are the signature issues of your platform for Congress?
There's so many: I believe that we have an existential crisis in climate change, and we need to address that. But the way we address climate change, we can actually look to creating opportunities in terms of economic development, environmental justice, economic justice and other things so we are building solutions to other things. I'm in favor of the Green New Deal, but what I'm going to talk about is, how does that impact New Mexico? Some of the solutions to climate change will create jobs for New Mexico; will create jobs for this district.
It's all-encompassing. If were going to fix something, let's fix it so it creates opportunity. That's a very large part of my platform. We need to bring 21st-century infrastructure to Northern New Mexico. Our broadband is pretty darn skinny. We can't do the things we need to do in today's economy if we don't have fast, affordable access to broadband. [And] women's issues. I could go on, but those are just two. Given what's happened this week, I think we all deserve to be angry.
Regarding the abortion bills?
Yeah. But I also believe, in addition to saying, 'We need to respect a woman's right to decide what to do with regards to these very sensitive issues around her own reproductive decisions,' we also need to fully fund those facilities like Planned Parenthood, we have to support La Familia [Medical Center] because they're providing access for low-income women for reproductive counseling, to medical care. … And it's not just abortion; it's those other aspects of reproductive healthcare that we need to have access to—cervical cancer screenings, preventive care—all of those things women need to have access to, and it needs to be funded.