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Ready for Washington

Teresa Leger Fernandez hugs her twin sons, Dario Fernandez-Leger, left, and Abelino, both 20, after finding out she had been declared the winner of the race for the vacant seat in the 3rd Congressional District. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

What seemed like a foregone conclusion played out on Election Day with Democrat Teresa Leger Fernandez winning the vacant seat in the 3rd Congressional District.

Democrats have held the seat for all but an abbreviated term since its inception in 1982. Even though Ben Ray Luján abandoned the seat to pursue the U.S. Senate seat currently occupied by the retiring Tom Udall, conventional wisdom and Journal polling predicted the Democrat would win by a wide margin. She did, winning 59% of the vote against her Republican opponent, Alexis M. Johnson.

And though Leger Fernandez says she wasn’t taking anything for granted, she has been preparing to assume the seat since she prevailed in a competitive Democratic Party primary election in June. “When they called the race, I was quite emotional because, in that moment, you realize you are going to be a Congresswoman. In that moment, you realize the awesome responsibility of serving,” she said. “I asked the voters to trust me and trust the vision I have for what I can do in Congress. That’s a huge responsibility; it’s an awesome responsibility.”

But Leger Fernandez, 61, says the experience she’s gained over the past 28 years as an attorney working on many of the issues facing the country right now has prepared her for the responsibility of representing the people of northern New Mexico and the rest of the country.

Among her priorities are addressing poverty, inequity, racial injustice, infrastructure, the environment and climate change.

“These are issues that I have talked about because I have experience working on them,” she said. “They’re not solely campaign issues, they are issues I have worked on for the past several decades, and I want to take that experience of seeing what happens on the ground to Washington as we formulate the legislation to address these crises.”

In addition, and especially in the wake of an election year marred by controversy over counting votes, Leger Fernandez says she wants to continue to advocate for voting rights.

“I am a Voting Rights Act expert, so I hope to work with the 117th Congress – is that the right number? – on the For the People Act, which will cover a lot of electoral reform,” she said.

The For the People Act has already passed the House and is awaiting action in the Senate. It addresses campaign finance reform, government ethics and voting rights – including creating a national voter registry, nonpartisan commissions to draw boundaries for electoral districts and restricting efforts to purge voter rolls.

Leger Fernandez says she’s already had conversations with some members of Congress about working for electoral reform.

But she says it’s the conversations she’s had with constituents that has guided her and prepared her for representing New Mexicans in Congress.

“As voters relayed those issues to me, I was researching those issues and coming to conclusions about possibilities of how to address those issues,” she said.

In a campaign held during the coronavirus pandemic, Leger Fernandez used tele-town halls, virtual “Tea with Teresa” events and online forums to get constituent feedback.

“What I’ve been doing is having the conversations, deep policies conversations, about ways in which we can address the problems of New Mexicans,” she said. “I think that’s really important. Gathering information – learning and listening that goes on during a campaign – is as important as earning the vote.”

Leger Fernandez will also be preparing to serve in Congress by attending orientations designed to help representatives understand the intricacies of how things work in Washington. She’ll be sworn into office on Jan. 3.

Teresa Leger Fernandez watches election night results with ther twin sons Abelino Fernandez-Leger, left, and Dario, right, and her friend Matt Gatton, at her home in Santa Fe. Leger Fernandez won the vacant seat in the 3rd Congressional District. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

It won’t be her first trip to Washington. She lived there for more than a year when she served as White House liaison with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development during President Bill Clinton’s administration. As a President Barack Obama appointee to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, she would make periodic trips to the nation’s capital. She’s also made plenty of trips there for her advocacy work as an attorney.

“I’ve spent enough time that I know it well. I think, as a city, it’s a beautiful city, I love the museums,” she said.

She said she was looking forward to the end of the pandemic and dining at some of the city’s fine restaurants. She likes southern food and there are some restaurants she remembers that serve southern cuisine.

“You know, there’s actually New Mexican restaurants there now, but I won’t do those because you cannot get good chile anywhere but New Mexico,” she said with a laugh, then adding that she doesn’t know if she can live without her Chimayó red chile. “I anticipate that, once COVID is over, I’ll likely be cooking our red chile and our enchiladas for my colleagues. That will be my secret weapon to get votes: to invite them over for Frito pies and tamales.”

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