Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
“Ahora es cuando!” – loosely translated as “now is when” but more precisely as “now is the time” – is a slogan Democrat Teresa Leger Fernandez adopted for her campaign in New Mexico’s 3rd Congressional District. It’s a catchphrase she borrowed from her father, Ray Leger, a former state senator who was also the longest-serving superintendent in the history of West Las Vegas Schools.
Applied to her campaign, Leger Fernandez told the Journal that the slogan means “it’s time now to take bold and courageous action to protect what we love.”
Such as the environment, health care for all and the American system of democracy under the Trump administration.
“I wanted to be at the table, making laws and addressing the issues that impact New Mexico and impact the rest of the country,” she said when asked why she wanted to run for Congress. “So using my father’s slogan, I recognized that it was time to take those actions that we need, because right now … the things we love are under attack.”
Leger Fernandez, 61, is seeking the seat being vacated by fellow Democrat Ben Ray Luján, who as assistant speaker is abandoning his position as one of the highest-ranking Democrats in the U.S. House to pursue the U.S. Senate seat of Tom Udall, who is retiring.
The 3rd Congressional District seat has served as a launchpad of sorts for Democrats, though only after a decade or more of paying dues.
Luján has held the seat since 2008. He succeeded Udall, who served a 10-year stint.
Bill Richardson was first to be elected to represent the newly created congressional district in 1982. He held the seat until he resigned in 1997 to become U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and later went on to serve two terms as New Mexico’s governor.
Only once has a Republican held the seat, after some unusual events. Following Richardson’s resignation, Bill Redmond edged Democrat Eric Serna in a special election by about 3,000 votes in a race in which Green Party candidate Carol Miller collected more than 17,000 votes.
Based on pasthistory, Leger Fernandez appears to be a shoo-in to keep the Democratic hold on the district that makes up the northern half of the state.
“There was that one outlier when Bill Redmond held the seat, but that was an unusual circumstance,” said Brian Sanderoff, president of Research and Polling Inc. “But this is not an unusual circumstance. So with that in mind, the Democratic candidate is going to have the edge.”
Sanderoff’s firm was contracted by the Journal to conduct a poll of the three congressional races in New Mexico at the end of August and early September. It had 50% of likely voters favoring Leger Fernandez, compared to 35% for her Republican opponent, Alexis M. Johnson, and 15% undecided or didn’t know.
While the television commercials that ran so often before the primary election haven’t aired in quite some time, they played up Leger Fernandez’s native roots and traditional northern New Mexico values – working with neighbors to clean up the acequia and, in one spot along with her three boys, the family getting together to make tamales.
Leger Fernandez’s campaign as yet hasn’t run TV ads for the general election race against Johnson, whose campaign is run on a shoestring by comparison.
The most recent information from the Federal Elections Commission shows that Leger Fernandez had raised more than $2 million since her campaign started and that she still has $558,983 in her campaign fund.
That’s compared to the $46,868 cash on hand for Johnson, who has raised a total of $128,000 – most of it in the last quarter after she secured the Republican Party nomination.
Large Democratic field
Leger Fernandez prevailed in a competitive Democratic Party primary that featured seven candidates, including more familiar names, like former CIA spy Valerie Plame and 1st Judicial District Attorney Marco Serna.
But Leger Fernandez was well known in Democratic Party circles, promoting economic development, advancing legislation on the state and federal levels, advocating for party-supported causes and representing acequia groups and Indian tribes in her work as an attorney.
The connections she made and the relationships she built made her a formidable contender in the primary early on. She went on to raise more money than her opponents, win many of the endorsements most coveted by Democrats and the delegate vote at the party’s pre-primary convention in March. The momentum carried into the June primary election, which she won with more than 44% of the vote. Plame was a distant second with 26%.
Leger Fernandez says she didn’t do it alone. Those connections and the grass -roots support got her to where she is now.
“When I did the ranked choice voting, I didn’t do it myself. You do it with coalitions, you do it with people around you,” said Leger Fernandez, who successfully tried a 2017 court case against Santa Fe, forcing it to implement a method of selecting winners of municipal elections that had been written in the city charter 10 years earlier but not adopted.
She also touts her legal work on behalf of Native American tribes and immigrants, as well as advocacy for environmental causes and education. She says that during her 30-year career as an attorney based in Santa Fe, she helped leverage more than $900 million in financing and federal grants for tribal schools, Head Start programs, health clinics, water and wastewater facilities, infrastructure and businesses.
That experience makes her uniquely qualified to serve in Congress, she says, especially now that the coronavirus outbreak that has upended the economy and the daily lives of Americans shows no signs of subsiding as winter approaches.
She says President Donald Trump’s response to the outbreak has failed, and it’s up to Congress to come up with a financial recovery package similar to those passed during the Great Depression.
“We need a recovery package that will provide jobs and pull us out of this recession,” she said. “If we reinvest in infrastructure – including broadband, clean water, rural health clinics – support small business, instate permanent paid family leave and tackle the climate crisis, we can build a healthier, more just and sustainable future.”
She says she fully supports the principles of the Green New Deal: job creation, support to vulnerable communities and a transition to clean energy.
Johnson has accused Leger Fernandez of being a part of the “far-left progressive” movement in the Democratic Party.They stand in stark contrast on several issues of interest to voters in northern New Mexico. The district spans the oil fields in the Four Corners to the ranchlands in the northeast and the mountainous central section populated largely by Hispanic families, many claiming ancestry dating back 10 generations and more, as well as Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Johnson is against any curtailment of gun rights, while Leger Fernandez favors a federal ban on military style semi-automatic weapons. She says assault weapons should be placed under the jurisdiction of the National Firearms Act and supports background checks on all gun sales and other “common-sense” gun laws.
And while Johnson is anti-abortion, Leger Fernandez says she supports a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions. She supports repealing the Hyde Amendment, which bars Medicaid funding for most abortions.
Leger Fernandez also favors a single-payer health system that would cover preexisting conditions, lower prescription drug costs and increase funding for rural health centers.
“This pandemic shows the dangers of tying health care to employment,” she said.
Leger Fernandez recalls going to the Roundhouse as a teenage girl when her father was a state senator in the 1970s.
“I was so proud of him,” she said of the times her father would speak during legislative hearings.
She also recalls riding with her father in his truck as they took cattle to market in the fall. She remembers him telling one story about how there used to be signs at some businesses that read, “No Mexicans and no dogs allowed.”
“He felt that the way you dealt with racism and bigotry is in your community,” she said. “I often talk about the fact that, in New Mexico, we live in a multicultural state and we’re able to recognize that there’s strength in diversity.
“Whatever our unique backgrounds and history are, it’s something that makes us strong as New Mexicans – that we are aware that there was a multiplicity of traditions and cultures and that they all come together and make us strong, rather than divide us.”
Leger Fernandez says her mother, Mela, also had a great influence on her and, like her father, spent her career in education. She says her mom helped write the state’s Bilingual Education Act and then the curriculum supporting it. In fact, a roadside marker in Guadalupe County recognizes her parents for their advocacy of bilingual education.
Her own pursuit of education led to an undergraduate degree from Yale and a law degree from Stanford.
If elected, Leger Fernandez would take her work to Washington, D.C., a city she is somewhat familiar with already. She served as a White House Fellow during former President Bill Clinton’s administration, serving as a liaison between the White House and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. She was also an appointee of past President Barack Obama, chosen to serve on the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.
Research and Polling’s Sanderoff pointed out that neither Leger Fernandez nor Johnson had much name recognition nine months ago, but that changed for Leger Fernandez this spring during the high-profile Democratic primary when her TV ads were running so often. He also noted that 50% of registered voters in the district are Democrats, compared to 27% for Republicans, and that both candidates being women neutralizes any gender preference.
Regardless of who wins, she will become the first woman to represent the district in its 38-year history.
And then there’s the difference in fundraising totals. Sanderoff said the National Republican Congressional Committee only doles out money to GOP candidates it thinks can win, and there’s been no sign of that.
So, inspired by her father’s old slogan and following in the footsteps of Democratic representatives Luján, Udall and Richardson, it may be Leger Fernandez’s time now.
“Republicans have always had an uphill battle, and it’s no different this year,” Sanderoff said.
Scott Turner contributed to this story.