Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
When state Rep. Melanie Stansbury found herself in distant second place after the first round of voting by the Democratic Party’s state central committee, she started to work the phones.
“Whether you are running a race where you’ve got hundreds of thousands of constituents you are trying to reach out to, or 200 (party officials) … at the end of the day, really, politics is about having conversations about the issues you care about,” she said.
Twenty-four hours later, Stansbury staged a come-from-behind victory and was tapped as the Democratic candidate for the upcoming special election to fill New Mexico’s vacant seat in Congress.
“I think all the candidates had conversations with (state central committee) members to say, ‘If I’m not your first pick for Round 1, will you consider me for Round 2,’ ” Stansbury said. “We had been having those conversations for many weeks. So when the vote was called the first night, we just called back through the list and had those same grassroots conversations with people.”
Stansbury, 42, is hoping that strategy works again and leads her on a rapid rise in New Mexico politics. The Democratic Party of New Mexico’s state central committee voted 103-97 on March 30 to nominate Stansbury ahead of state Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, who had a 15 percentage-point lead on Stansbury after the first round of voting, when there were eight candidates in the mix.
The 1st Congressional District seat is empty after former Rep. Deb Haaland resigned to serve as interior secretary.
The district includes most of Bernalillo County, all of Torrance County and small sections of Sandoval, Santa Fe and Valencia counties. Voter data plays to Stansbury’s favor: there are about 218,000 registered Democrats in the district and 132,000 Republicans.
The last Republican to win the seat was Heather Wilson, in 2006. The last Democrats to hold the seat were Haaland, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Sen. Martin Heinrich.
Early voting starts May 4 at the clerk’s office and expands to other polling locations May 15. Election Day is June 1.
Stansbury’s first election victory came in 2018, when she flipped a previously Republican state House district covering the Northeast Heights from Montgomery and Tramway to Lomas and Juan Tabo. She was part of a heavily female blue wave that year that moved the Roundhouse and the Albuquerque area further to the political left.
Since 2018, New Mexico’s largest city has just two Republican lawmakers left in the Legislature. One is Stansbury’s main competition in the special election: state Sen. Mark Moores.
Work behind the scenes
Before returning to New Mexico to open a consulting business before the 2018 election, Stansbury worked in Washington, D.C., for eight years. She held positions in the White House’s Office of Management and Budget during the Obama administration and the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. She also worked as an aide to Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.
Cantwell said in a statement to the Journal that Stansbury was critical to the passage of a Yakima River Water Basin bill, which Cantwell called the “model for water management in the 21st century.” The senator said Stansbury worked with a diverse group of stakeholders to balance the tribal, environmental and agricultural needs during times of drought.
“Her ability to find common ground and bring people together who had previously only ever interacted in a courtroom proves she will be a strong advocate for all people in New Mexico,” Cantwell said.
Stansbury said her behind-the-scenes work on public policy will be an asset if she is elected.
“I think that the moment we are facing in our world and in our community right now really demands that we have someone representing our community who really deeply understands New Mexico and who also understands the systems of government at the federal, state and local levels,” she said. “And who understands the science to drive policy for our people.”
In response to questions the Journal sent all candidates in the race, Stansbury said she supports universal health care and bans on high-capacity magazines and assault rifles. She said climate change is a pressing issue that needs to be urgently addressed, and she supports President Joe Biden’s American rescue and jobs plans.
Stansbury was born in Farmington and raised in Albuquerque, graduating from Cibola High School before accepting a full-ride scholarship to St. Mary’s College of California, where she studied human ecology and natural sciences.
When she was growing up, Stansbury said, her family worked hard and “struggled to make ends meet.” Her mother worked as a heavy-equipment operator in a power plant and as a seamstress. Her father at one point worked in the extraction industry in the Four Corners region. As a teenager, Stansbury worked at her stepdad’s landscaping business and as a server at restaurants on nights and weekends.
Celerah Hewes, who has been friends with Stansbury since fourth grade, said her friend’s work ethic separated her from her peers. In high school, Hewes said, Stansbury acted and helped produce high school plays; she was on the mock trial team; and she earned straight As and worked as a waitress.
“She never did anything halfway,” Hewes said. “It was always all in for whatever she took on.”
She also said many of Stansbury’s interests, such as her environmental advocacy, were hatched at a young age. For instance, Hewes said when Stansbury was in elementary school, she would go around her apartment complex and try to collect cans and items from her neighbors so they could be recycled. To this day, Stansbury said she continues to be a champion for environmental causes.
“She was always about doing something to better wherever she’s been. And that’s been an ongoing thread since I’ve known her,” Hewes said. “She’s always (asked), ‘How can we clean up where we’re at? How do we appreciate our surroundings?’ That’s always been a piece of what she was interested in.”
After college, Stansbury returned to New Mexico and worked as an educator for a state-funded science program before going to graduate school at Cornell University, where she received a master’s degree in development sociology and worked toward a Ph.D., which she hasn’t finished as she left Cornell to work in Washington.
She is a self-proclaimed “science and policy wonk.”
Some of her proudest work in the Roundhouse, Stansbury said, was the New Mexico Water Data Act, which she said brings more science and data to the management of water in the state. She also worked to get firefighters and other first responders better access to care for post-traumatic stress disorder, and she partnered with utilities and environmental organizations on a power grid modernization bill for New Mexico.
Stansbury said she’s also taken a leadership role by trying to organize the more than 30 Albuquerque-area lawmakers in the Roundhouse to better coordinate their capital outlay spending, which Stansbury said has pumped more money into local law enforcement.
And she was involved in removing the co-pay that students had for school meals.
“Taking away that co-pay opened up the opportunity for thousands of kids across the state to get free lunches,” she said. “That’s another thing that I’m really, really proud of.”