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Democratic Party chair visits Roswell, talks politics

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Marg Elliston, chair of the Democratic Party of New Mexico, speaks to an audience March 23 at the Holiday Inn in Roswell during the biennial convention of the Democratic Party of Chaves County about the party’s strong showing in the 2018 elections. (Alex Ross Photo)

Marg Elliston, chair of the Democratic Party of New Mexico, lauded the party’s recent electoral wins and sought to prepare local party activists for 2020 during a visit to Roswell recently.

The party faithful were at the Holiday Inn for the Democratic Party of Chaves County’s biennial convention. Registered Democrats elected a new county chair and picked Stephanie Thomas.

The party had much to celebrate after its romp to victory in races across the state in 2018 and by enlarging their majority in the New Mexico House of Representatives. Democrats now hold the governorship for the first time in eight years.

And in congressional races, the party won the much-watched contest for the U.S. House seat in the 2nd Congressional District. The district, which encompasses all of southern New Mexico, including Roswell, is usually staunchly Republican territory.

“We turned New Mexico blue,” Elliston told the audience during the March 23 meeting.

Elliston, a retired state employee, cut her political teeth as New Mexico chair of President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, and for five years, was chair of the Democratic Party of Sandoval County. Last year, she was elected chair of the state party.

Like many Democrats, she said she has gone through emotional ups and downs since what was largely seen as a surprise win by President Donald Trump against Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 race for the White House.

“We set goals, we organized and we smashed those goals to smithereens,” Elliston said.

The party in 2018 sent out 1.5 million campaign mailers, made more than a million phone calls, sent out 564,000 text messages, knocked on 378,000 doors and made 281 volunteer recruitment calls, Elliston said.

The fruits of the party’s labor were seen not only on election night, but in the rush of legislation that passed during this past legislative session, she added.

In all, 310 bills passed legislative chambers and were sent to the desk of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham — many are long-sought legislative goals by progressives.

“I think we will see the results of what we elected in 2018 and what our Legislature accomplished in 2019 for many years to come,” Elliston said.

New Mexico has demonstrated its Democratic leanings in recent presidential elections, with the party’s nominee carrying the state’s five electoral votes in five of the last six presidential elections.

New Mexico until recently was considered a swing state. Democrat Al Gore carried New Mexico by 367 votes over President George W. Bush in 2000. Four years later, the state flipped to G.W. Bush, who won it by 339,888 votes.

It was 2008 that marked a turning point in how the state was seen politically, Elliston said. She credits a big infusion by the Obama campaign of money and excitement into the state party as part of the party’s recent advantage.

“I think it excited a lot of people like me, and people started getting involved in politics and we just started building from there,” Elliston said.

The state, however, is not solidly Democratic.

Elliston said she talked recently in Taos with a political scientist who described the state as not blue or red, but “violet.” Even within the party ranks, there is not unanimity.

During the legislative session, items that animate the party’s progressive base, such as marijuana legalization, were not heard in the Senate. A tiered $15 an hour minimum wage that passed the  House got reduced to a tiered $12 an hour minimum wage in the Senate. And eight Senate Democrats split with their party to vote down a repeal of the state’s dormant law banning abortions.

“We have many agreements on many things, but disagreements on lifestyles and lifestyle issues,” she said.

Unlike members of the House, the state Senate is only up for re-election every four years.

Elliston said the electorate that showed up in 2018 is much different than the one Senators faced in 2016. Come 2020, both legislative chambers will be up for re-election.

Elliston predicted that in 2020 there will be “spirited discussions” about the direction of the party among Democrats in some of those districts represented by more conservative or moderate members. The debate is one Elliston said she believes will ultimately benefit the party.

Part of the diversity of opinion within the party and state politically, is between urban and rural areas.

Chelsey Evans, a political strategist for the state party, said Democrats perform strongest in the cities of Albuquerque, Las Cruces and Santa Fe, as well as most of the northern part of the state, with the exception of San Juan County, which is more conservative.

Republicans, by contrast, tend to thrive in much of the state’s southeast, such as Eddy, Lea, Roosevelt, Otero and Chaves counties.

Evans, though, said the state’s political divisions aren’t just rural Republicans vs. urban Democrats. Rio Rancho, one of the largest cities in New Mexico, for example, typically votes Republican, while Democrats do perform strongly in some rural locations such as Grant and Mckinley counties.

“So this reality of Chaves County is red and Bernalillo is blue is a very simple way to put it, when in reality, we have a diversity in both of those areas that provide good conversation,” she said.

Some of that disconnect and frustration with Santa Fe can be attributed to the deep budget cuts in essential services by that state.

Elliston said that during recent visits to Clayton and Fort Sumner, she heard from people irritated at the long waits to get buildings inspected by the state. State government under Democratic rule is working to address the needs of those communities, she said, and Democrats are also reaching out to those areas by visiting them and listening to people.

Cultural issues have also contributed to some of the Democrats’ trouble in rural New Mexico.

In New Mexico, 27 out of 33 counties have declared themselves Second Amendment Sanctuary counties after the Legislature took up a series of gun safety bills, including one signed by Lujan Grisham that requires background checks to be conducted on all firearm sales, including private sales.

Critics of the law — especially in rural areas — claim the law infringes on the rights of law-abiding citizens to keep and bear arms. Elliston admits the topic has been an effective wedge issue and fanned by what she calls an “NRA funded gun misinformation campaign.”

The law signed by Lujan Grisham simply closes a loophole and makes requirements for a firearm purchase the same regardless of where a person buys a gun, she said.

“That’s what it does, it doesn’t say that the sheriff is going to come and take your gun away,” Elliston said. People need to look at the actual text of the law and watch how it is implemented, she said.

The state party is also devoting resources to the county parties. State Democrats in 2018 helped the Chaves County party invest in a campaign headquarters and sent volunteers to help energize voters.

“It’s one of the first times where the party has invested actually in a brick and mortar building, but also (in) actually bringing organizers into the community,” Evans said.

Despite Democrats’ strong showing in state and congressional contests, Republicans in statewide and congressional races still won Chaves County by wide margins. Evans said in many of the rural counties thought to be safe Republican areas, are such because Democrats don’t put up a candidate.

Democrats did not field a candidate in any of the state legislative or judicial races in Chaves County. Michael Trujillo was the only Democrat to run for countywide office in Chaves County last year. He went on to lose the race by 32 votes against former Republican state Rep. Dara Dana.

The state party will be working with the county parties to try to encourage people to run in those areas that have been neglected by Democrats.

“We are really interested in making sure that if there are people out there that want to run and want to engage in those conversations, that we give them the opportunity to do so,” she said.

Breaking news reporter Alex Ross can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 301, or at breakingnews@rdrnews.com.