Johnson embraces role of underdog

Alexis Johnson

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Republican Alexis M. Johnson says she knows she’s a long shot in the race for the seat in New Mexico’s 3rd Congressional District, a district dominated by Democrats since its inception in 1982.

“It would take a David and Goliath feat, but Hail Mary’s are not impossible,” Johnson, who describes herself as “competitive,” told the Journal.

Only once has a Republican held the seat. After Bill Richardson resigned to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 1997, Republican Bill Redmond won a special election, beating Eric Serna by about 3,000 votes in a five-way race in which Green Party candidate Carol Miller collected 17,000 votes, likely spoiling victory for Serna. Only once since 2000 has a GOP candidate competing for the seat won more than 40% of the vote.

This year, Johnson is up against Democrat Teresa Leger Fernandez in the Nov. 3 general election for the seat being vacated by Rep. Ben Ray Luján, who after 12 years is leaving the position to pursue the U.S. Senate seat of Tom Udall, who is retiring.

Johnson says she’s also up against the “coastal elitists” and “high-profile politicians” supporting her opponent with endorsements and money, which gives Leger Fernandez a decided advantage.

An Albuquerque Journal poll conducted at the end of August and beginning of September had Leger Fernandez ahead in the race, with 50% of likely voters surveyed favoring her and 35% preferring Johnson. That left 15% uncommitted, a group Johnson hopes to swing her way – as well as a few others from her opponent’s column.

Since the poll was taken, Johnson and Leger Fernandez have engaged in three televised debates in which Johnson has forcefully tried to get her message across to voters.

“It’s time for the voice of the people to come out, and we start making a real change,” Johnson said during a KOAT/Journal debate earlier this month. “You can tell that I’m passionate because nothing is getting done. It’s time for a change.”

During that same debate, she argued that Democrats haven’t done enough for northern New Mexicans since they’ve been in charge and appealed to voters tired of the status quo.

“Do you see results in New Mexico’s education, in water supply to the Navajo Nation, in decreasing substance abuse and crime?” she asked, adding, “the difference between my opponent and I is I listen to New Mexicans.”

Brian Sanderoff, whose firm Research and Polling Inc. was contracted to conduct the congressional poll for the Journal, said Johnson will have a hard time picking up that 15% of undecided voters.

“The 3rd Congressional District has traditionally been a Democratic stronghold anchored by the north-central Santa Fe, Taos, Rio Arriba County area that votes Democrat by large margins,” he said. “She’ll need to gain the attention of a lot of Democrats and independents in the closing weeks.”

Sanderoff said Johnson should do best in more conservative pockets within the district, like the Four Corners region and Rio Rancho.

Defying the odds

Long odds have never stopped Johnson before.

“I started this candidacy with a voice of one. I had no power, no wealth, nothing,” said Johnson, who was a surprise winner of the June primary.

After garnering just 11% of the delegate vote at the state party’s pre-primary election in March, Johnson went on to win the June primary with 37% of the vote in a four-way race, outlasting former Democrat Harry Montoya in an election that wasn’t decided until four days after the polls closed due to an overwhelming number of early and mail-in ballots cast during the coronavirus outbreak.

And she did it on a shoestring, spending less than $10,000 in what was largely a self-financed primary campaign.

Johnson thinks she can beat the odds again. Her one voice has caught the ear of disenfranchised people across the district, many of whom she says aren’t on board with the Democratic Party’s progressive movement, she says.

“The message of our faith, our family, our freedom and New Mexican pride is resonating with conservatives in New Mexico. And it’s going to bleed out into our Democrat community, as well as independents,” she said. “I’m here to be a voice to the New Mexicans who are not being represented. I’m here to listen and see how we can work together for a better New Mexico for ourselves and our children.”

Johnson, who declines to state her age, describes herself as a wife, mother and retired environmental engineer who can speak for all segments of the most economically and ethnically diverse of the state’s three congressional districts.

The 3rd Congressional District run from the Navajo Nation and the Four Corners area to the vast ranchlands of the northeast plains. In between are the central mountains, largely populated by Hispanic families that have lived there for generations. It also includes wilderness areas, several pueblos and the lands of other tribes, the center of state government in Santa Fe, Los Alamos National Laboratory and the more metropolitan Rio Rancho.

Johnson’s messaging attempts to appeal to all groups. She says she’s different from the other Republican candidates that have sought the CD3 seat in the general election since the turn of the century.

For one, she’s a woman, the first GOP woman to compete for the seat since 2000.

And though she says she doesn’t like to play identity politics, Johnson is not what she appears to be on the surface. While her name appears on the ballot as “Alexis M. Johnson,” Johnson is her married name. The M stands for Martinez – her ancestors immigrated from Mexico – and her great-great-grandmother was Apache.

“I’m a very proud Hispanic woman. I’m very proud to say I have Native American ancestry, and maybe people don’t want to talk about it, but I’m very proud to be a New Mexican,” she said.

Johnson’s ethnicity also distinguishes her from other recent Republican entries. The past seven Republican candidates have been men with the surnames Byrd (twice), Dolin, East, McFall, Mullins, Romero and Tucker – just one Hispanic name among them in a district that’s 41% Hispanic, 37% white, and 18% Native American.

Humble beginnings

Johnson’s personal story is a bit of an underdog tale in itself.

Born in Portales in the far eastern reaches of the district, she and an older sister were raised in Roswell by her grandparents because her own parents couldn’t afford to raise them on their own. She says she grew up in a humble home with dirt floors, but it was a loving and happy upbringing.

Her grandmother was a woman of faith, she says, and her grandfather was a kind, hard-working man, and together they taught her life’s values.

She says they were a “typical New Mexican family” that made do with what they had but helped their neighbors when they could. The kids were taught that through hard work and determination they could achieve anything.

Johnson took that to heart, and after graduating from Las Cruces High School, she earned an academic scholarship to Vanderbilt University in Nashville. But she soon returned home to be closer to her ailing grandmother and finished school at New Mexico Tech in Socorro, where she earned a degree in environmental engineering.

She then went to work for Larson & Associates, an environmental consulting firm out of Midland, Texas.

“I went there because, when I graduated from New Mexico Tech, I was unable to find employment in New Mexico … I had to leave the state,” she said, adding that she wants to prevent that kind of situation for New Mexico’s college graduates by creating jobs at home.

She spent most of her professional career working in the oil-rich Permian Basin. She says her job involved working with federal regulators, local governments and stakeholders “to keep energy flowing, to keep people employed and to be respectful to our environment.”

“The environment is something I hold near and dear,” she said. “Anytime we use a resource – whether it’s lumber, whether it’s oil – there’s an impact. So my job was to make sure we didn’t have negative impacts on our environment.”

But Johnson says her top priority is education.

“For me, that’s the main area of my focus because it’s what I grew up with – education was paramount,” she said.

She met her husband, Chris Johnson, at New Mexico Tech. His family owns EnXL, a company based in Midland, Texas, that serves the oil and gas industry.

The candidate is quick to note the company employs New Mexicans in the Las Vegas, Mora and Hobbs areas.

Johnson lives in Las Vegas, New Mexico, with her husband and children, though she also maintains a home in Santa Fe.

Recently, Leger Fernandez’s campaign took issue with Johnson’s residency, claiming she only moved back into the district to run for Congress.

Johnson purchased the Santa Fe home in 2019, they point out, and that’s where she’s now registered to vote. Prior to that, Johnson was registered in Midland, where her voting record dates back to 2011.

Republican positions

While Johnson may be different from past GOP candidates in the district, her positions on issues like abortion, gun rights and immigration are in line with the Republican Party platform.

The mother of four children, the abortion issue is personal to her. Her 2-year-old twins, Vera and James, were born prematurely at 31 weeks. The cutoff for a legal abortion in New Mexico is 32 weeks.

She favors gun rights, sharing that her car was vandalized outside her Santa Fe home one night last summer.

“If there’s someone that wants to do harm, I want to be able to protect myself and my family,” she said.

But Johnson says that if she’s elected, she’ll stand up to President Donald Trump if something he supports doesn’t help New Mexico.

“I’m about New Mexico first. I stand for New Mexicans first, and if it’s in the best interest of New Mexico, I will agree with the president. If it’s not in the best interest of New Mexico, I will voice that respectfully,” she said.

In July, Johnson defied Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s mandate that masks be worn in public as well as a Santa Fe city ordinance while campaigning on the city’s historic Plaza. Johnson was cited for violating the city’s mask ordinance. She pleaded no contest to the charge and received a warning.

Asked about her position on wearing masks during one of the debates, Johnson said people shouldn’t be vilified for not wearing masks. She said she believes it’s a good idea to wear masks in confined spaces and that she does wear a mask, practices social distancing and uses sanitizer.

“However, we must also make sure that we are tempering our constitutional rights with science and work together and make sure we are not overriding one another,” she said.

Scott Turner contributed to this story.


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