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Gov’s campaign remarks generate virtual firestorm

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Counter-protesters at a recent “We Can’t Breathe” protest against New Mexico’s face mask mandate form a buffer between Albuquerque police officers and other counter-protesters. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said this week that some groups are using protests as cover to conduct voter registration drives and other political activities. (Anthony Jackson/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE – With New Mexico’s general election just over three months away, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has sparked criticism – and praise – by urging New Mexico political parties to forbid their candidates from door-to-door campaigning.

During a Thursday news conference, Lujan Grisham said door-knocking, long a staple of political campaigns, was “hugely problematic” given the close proximity between voters and candidates amid a recent surge of coronavirus cases.

“That is just a terrible idea in a COVID world,” she said.

The governor also said political organizing – including voter registration efforts – should not be happening at peaceful protests.

While the Democratic Party said this week it has already been focused on running largely virtual campaigns, state GOP Chairman Steve Pearce accused the governor of seeking to outlaw campaigning.

He said the Republican Party was considering filing a lawsuit over the issue that would hinge on alleged constitutional free speech violations.

“We’re letting our campaigns do what they want,” Pearce told the Journal. “They should be responsible enough to do things safely.”

He also described the governor’s attempt to stifle door-to-door campaigning as an “incumbent protection program,” referring to Democratic majorities in the Legislature and an all-Democratic state congressional delegation.

Chris Luchini, chairman of the New Mexico Libertarian Party, the state’s third major political party, said the Libertarian Party is not encouraging its candidates to do door-to-door campaigning amid the pandemic.

But he also accused Lujan Grisham of micro-managing, saying, “She’s from the party that doesn’t need to do door to door.”

Under New Mexico’s revised public health order, campaign activities are not explicitly mentioned.

But some campaign activities, including political fundraisers, could be covered under the state’s ban on public gatherings of five people or more.

The state Department of Health’s general counsel warned Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, earlier this month that a planned campaign fundraising event that involved a river float and a reception could violate that part of the order.

But Dow said Friday the letter was sent after she had already announced the event had been canceled.

She also said she has been knocking on voters’ doors while wearing a face mask and abiding by social distancing guidelines.

“I don’t know where I violate any health orders doing that,” said Dow, who questioned why the governor had not also addressed mail carriers and U.S. Census workers who go door to door as part of their jobs.

Political organizing

During Thursday’s news conference, Lujan Grisham said she respects New Mexicans’ right to peacefully protest, even if those protests target her.

But the Democratic governor said a protest should not be cover for political organizing, citing voter registration efforts at some recent public protests.

“We are not going to use COVID-19 or anything else to prevent a peaceful protest,” Lujan Grisham said. “But we are not going to let them be excuses for political organizing for the sake of a political party or individual getting ready for the election.”

However, she did not say specifically how her administration planned to prevent such political activity from occurring at protests in the future.

Multiple protests have taken place around New Mexico in recent months, including several organized by Black Lives Matter to protest systemic racism and police use-of-force issues.

Lujan Grisham said Thursday she has seen no evidence nationally or locally that such protests increase the spread of COVID-19, but said participating is still a risk and urged those who take part to wear masks and maintain a safe distance from one another.

Remote campaigning

A Democratic Party of New Mexico spokeswoman said Friday the party fully supports the governor’s efforts to keep state residents safe amid the pandemic that has already killed 642 people statewide.

“The (party) is encouraging our candidates to find creative ways to reach out to voters safely and in compliance with all public health orders,” DPNM spokeswoman Miranda van Dijk said.

Such efforts include online organizing, virtual fundraising events and increased use of voter phone drives, campaign mailers and social media.

But some campaigns are taking decidedly different approaches.

For instance, President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign boasted this month of knocking on the doors of more than 100,000 New Mexico voters.

Pearce, who lost to Lujan Grisham in the 2018 gubernatorial race, said door-to-door campaigning is by far the “most effective” way of reaching voters.

But the governor said there are “other ways” for candidates to reach voters, and said all political parties and groups can do a better job campaigning remotely.

In addition, Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett fired back in response to the criticisms of the Republican Party’s chairman.

“The GOP hasn’t done a single substantive thing to help or protect a single New Mexican’s life or livelihood during the public health and economic crises we’re dealing with so I can’t say I’m surprised,” Sackett said in a Friday email.

New Mexico’s general election is set for Nov. 3, with absentee voting beginning Oct. 6.

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