Senate ‘buddymandering’ meltdown

The New Mexico state senate approved a map last night for how its own districts will look for the next 10 years.

The vote came after days of hurry up and wait, as lawmakers negotiated behind closed doors in an untransparent process. I’d give senators an “F” on two counts: they didn’t do their work in public, and they focused way too much on preserving seats for incumbent lawmakers. More on this in a moment.

Many are calling what happened last night on the Senate floor a debate. I’d call it a meltdown. A debate is when two parties have a real exchange. A meltdown is when a handful of senators yell at a group of people for hours, something that happened last night in a completely disingenuous way.

The main issue for disgruntled Republican lawmakers was that Democrats produced a map that had fewer Hispanic majority seats and forced two Hispanic Republican senators to run against each other in three years.

Hours were spent listening to them rail against the injustice to people of color. All the while, their neighbors in Texas, our neighboring state, who they hobnob with in national networks, wrote Hispanics out of power. It was really something to behold. But as one Republican senator said in so many words when this was brought up, just because someone else does it, doesn’t make it right. We should be better.

I agree they should be better, but their comments were discordant with the national context: Republicans are doing their best to gerrymander their way into permanent power in part by diminishing the power of communities of color.

They were also discordant because the Hispanic Republicans claiming they had the interests of people of color at heart didn’t acknowledge publicly it was people of color who refused to support their requests for a new map that unpaired the GOP senators.

They went on about the white liberal elites who control the Senate, while addressing Sen. Linda Lopez, a Hispanic Democrat and majority whip who co-sponsored the map and carried it on the chamber floor. Lopez is known for championing culturally relevant, bilingual education.

They lambasted Democrats for kowtowing to advocates, never acknowledging that those advocates represented sovereign, tribal nations. Some were senators elected to the Senate by their constituents the same as the Hispanic Republicans lecturing the chambers. Others were elected and former elected tribal governors.

They claimed lawmakers didn’t own their districts, saying they would have voted for any of the maps put forward by the Citizens Redistricting Committee. They argued this but didn’t disclose that tribal representatives refused to be swayed by their offers of a new map earlier that day, as reported by the Santa Fe New Mexican and the Albuquerque Journal. We don’t know what their proposed map looked like, but if their statements last night are any indication, it likely unpaired the two Republican lawmakers.

And they at length denounced a map that didn’t give Hispanics more seats but not once dwelled on why Democrats deferred to a Senate redistricting plan drawn by a coalition of the state’s tribes.

The consensus tribal plan has three majority Native districts and another district would contain more Native voters than it does today.

There would need to be five districts with majority Native voters — not three — if the goal as Republican lawmakers seemed to suggest was to ensure parity along racial and ethnic lines. Native Americans compose 11% of the state’s population, nearly equal to the population of five of the senate’s 42 seats. The Republican lawmakers failed to mention this.

Democrats largely stayed silent, as though they’d decided to let Republicans make their case unchallenged. Joining the Republican criticism was Sen. Jacob Candelaria, formerly a Democrat and now an independent representing an Albuquerque west side district.

He railed at length against “white liberal elites” in the Senate who pushed a map redrawing his district. I agree that the New Mexico Legislature should not be led mostly by white lawmakers from the Albuquerque/Santa Fe area. Representation based on race, ethnicity, and gender, in particular, matters. Especially in New Mexico where a majority of residents are non-white.

But Candelaria’s statements struck me as odd. He brought in west side Albuquerque development issues, saying white liberal elites want to control development on the west side. The elephant in the room was the Santolina development, a massive project that in decades would produce a city nearly the size of Rio Rancho on Albuquerque’s west side. The issue of where the water for a project that size will come from, in an arid, drought-ridden state, has stymied the development for years. And the people who have led opposition to the Santolina project are grassroots people of color.

Now, the state senate has a newly drawn map which may or may not shape the senate for the next 10 years. Ultimately, the courts may determine the outcome. Candelaria threatened to sue.

Much of the discord on the floor last night could have been avoided, I believe, had Senate Democrats held public hearings over the last week, rather than negotiating behind closed doors. We were all in the dark about what map they’d finally produce, given they were not adopting a map offered by the CRC.

The League of Women Voters called the process of the Senate this week “…an example of ‘buddymandering’ in which incumbents have been protected  at the cost of fairness and equity.  The process has been conducted with little to no transparency.”

A robust public debate would have allowed the public to weigh in on the value of honoring tribal districts that were drawn to keep Navajo chapters together and to increase the influence of the Native vote.

And it would have provided space for a wide range of perspectives from across the state about whether redistricting should prioritize protecting the seats of incumbent lawmakers. Such public scrutiny would have made last night’s floor “debate” very different, I’d wager. And a public process is what we deserved.