In New Mexico, Change is in the Air

Progressive Women Prevail in Historic State Senate Primary

As the results of the New Mexico state Senate primary rolled in early in June, I waited anxiously with the rest of the Sierra Club’s political team. We were not at all certain what the outcome would be, but we knew the primary would have far-reaching consequences.

We had poured time and money into six key primary races, knowing that the results could fundamentally shift the future for clean air, water, and social justice in New Mexico--a state where poverty rates are among the highest in the nation, and the oil and gas industry is deeply entrenched. The Trump presidential campaign has had its eye on New Mexico, which was long considered a swing state, and only recently (2012) flipped to become more solidly Democratic. 

Though New Mexico saw an exciting progressive green wave in the 2018 election, progress has been stifled by a handful of conservative-leaning incumbent Democrats in the state senate. They’ve blocked legislation meant to protect air, water, and communities. They’ve partnered with Republicans to kill bills that would expand the benefits of solar power, electric vehicles, and energy efficiency to low-income New Mexicans. They’ve consistently voted to expand development of dirty fuels, placing the health and economic burdens squarely on the shoulders of low-income communities and Indigenous people. Together, they’ve received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the oil and gas industry--and it shows. 

The seats at stake in this year’s election overwhelmingly represent rural communities of color. They sit in regions rich in water and mineral resources--which means oil and gas companies are paying attention. Big Oil spent over one million dollars on the primary this past Spring, hoping to maintain its foothold. 

We fought back with phone banks, mail pieces, and radio ads targeting key voters. The Rio Grande Sierra Club Healthy Communities PAC (led by our local chapter) worked tirelessly--first to identify and nominate outstanding progressive candidates, then to help them beat the incumbents. We joined a formidable coalition of progressive and social justice organizations, including OLÉ, Working Families Party New Mexico, No Corporate Democrats, and Planned Parenthood, all of whom teamed up to recruit volunteers, make phone calls, write letters, and--once COVID struck--to help make sure voters were able to get mail-in ballots. 

When the results came in on election night, we were blown away. Five of the six women we supported had won:

  • Carrie Hamblen. In a stunning upset, environmental and LGBTQ activist Carrie Hamblen defeated 20-year incumbent Mary Kay Papen (SD 38). As Senate President Pro Tempore, Papen has helped Republicans take key committee seats and block countless progressive bills and clean energy initiatives. Of all of the primary victories, this was the most unexpected and consequential. 

  • Neomi Martinez-Parra. Special education teacher Neomi Martinez-Parra defeated John Arthur Smith (SD 35), who has spent most of his time in the capital killing progressive bills (including for early childhood education) and failing to advocate for the most vulnerable people in his district. If elected, Martinez-Parra will be the first Latinx woman to represent her district in the state senate.

  • Pam Cordova. Retired teacher Pam Cordova beat banking executive Clemente Sanchez (SD 30), who accepted more than $100,000 from oil and gas lobbyists during his time in the Senate. 

  • Siah Correa-Hemphill. A special education teacher and advocate for reproductive freedom, Siah Correa-Hemphill won a decisive victory in her campaign against Gabriel Ramos (SD 28), who was backed by more than $300,000 from Chevron. 

  • Brenda McKenna. Sierra Club chapter volunteer Brenda McKenna of Nambé Pueblo won her bid for an open seat in SD 9, becoming the first Indigenous woman to represent the district. 

Unfortunately, as COVID-19 ravaged SD 4, a predominantly Native American community, Navajo elder Noreen Kelly lost her race against incumbent George Munoz, who has spent his career beholden to oil and gas lobbyists. Perhaps more than any other part of the state, this community needs grassroots leadership. But with more than a quarter of New Mexico’s COVID cases, the district was in crisis and turning out voters proved to be difficult.  In order to address this ongoing issue, our Rio Grande chapter helped pass a state bill that will get mail-in ballots to voters earlier and allow for better management of poll sites on tribal lands. 

While they still have work to do to make sure they each prevail in the general election in November, the significance of their primary success can’t be overstated. It offers a number of important lessons for our work moving forward: 

There is hunger for a new kind of leadership. The New Mexico primary proved that there is growing demand for progressive leaders who will represent the needs of frontline communities—and a spike in support for women, Indigenous leaders, and people of color. We also saw historic levels of voter turnout for a primary, and decisive victories in several of the races. 

We can win even when we’re significantly outspent. Big Oil poured money into the primary. Chevron alone spent more than $700,000 on a Texas-based Super PAC backing the incumbents, and a Republican-aligned PAC pumped thousands of dollars into deceptive last-minute robocalls and mailers. In order to outmaneuver them, we used our $170k to carefully target different segments of voters with direct mail, phone calls, and radio ads.

We can adapt and win even in the face of COVID-19. When the pandemic spiked in March, we had to abandon our plans for a large in-person canvassing operation and pivot to a strategy based on texting, phone calls, and handwritten letters. We shifted quickly to focus on helping voters secure mail-in ballots. However, the loss in SD 4 is a sobering reminder that the pandemic is hitting low-income areas, Indigenous communities, and people of color hardest, and we will have to fight to protect their ability to vote in the general election. 

We need creative tactics to reach low-income voters. Due to extreme poverty and lack of access to utilities, internet, and cell service in parts of New Mexico, our team modified initial plans for a digital outreach strategy, leaning more heavily on mail pieces and radio ads, and expanding the type of voters we contacted in order to increase our reach. 

We’re stronger together. By forming a broad coalition that crossed progressive issue areas, we were able to defeat the oil and gas industry’s well-established candidates. Our ability to work together with diverse organizations and interests has never been more important. 

In the middle of all of the upheaval and suffering in America right now, New Mexico gives me hope. A year ago, it seemed awfully ambitious to think that a group of relatively unknown progressive candidates could beat five entrenched incumbents with decades of experience. To do it without the ability to knock on doors or host in-person fundraising events would have been unimaginable. And to win with the margins we did is nothing short of a massive blow to the oil and gas industry. We took on the most obstructionist, reactionary forces in the Democratic Party--and we defeated them. 

The victory of these five incredible women signals a shift in political momentum--one we’re seeing across the country. Voters are tired of politicians who put corporate interests above communities. They’re putting their faith in teachers, grassroots activists, and environmental advocates. We’re witnessing a surge of exciting new progressive leaders--people who have deep experience and connection to the communities on the frontlines of pollution, poverty, and injustice. 

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