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SANTA FE – New Mexico Republicans’ decision to hold a three-day soiree this week in neighboring Texas – instead of New Mexico – has reignited a debate over political activities during the pandemic.
State GOP Chairman Steve Pearce said simmering frustrations over COVID-19 restrictions in New Mexico were not the reason Republicans chose to hold the event, dubbed Operation Freedom, in Amarillo.
“We can be angry about it, but it was a very pragmatic decision,” Pearce said in a recent interview. “We would have loved to have this in New Mexico because it’s a big economic shot.”
Specifically, he said Republicans’ previous attempts to bring GOP elected officials from other states to New Mexico to headline political events were unsuccessful due to what he described as a state “shutdown.”
While Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration has eased business restrictions in recent months, a face mask mandate and limits on large public gatherings remain in place under the state’s public health order.
But Pearce said reluctance evaporated after the decision to shift the convention to Texas, which has fewer restrictions. Among those scheduled to appear at the three-day event, which starts Friday, are South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, a founding member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.
Pearce said more than 300 attendees have registered for the event, which will also feature workshops, presentations and other activities.
New Mexico Democratic Party Chairwoman Jessica Velasquez described Republicans’ decision to hold the out-of-state convention in person as irresponsible, reckless and selfish.
“Traveling out-of-state in order to hold a several-hundred person event is unnecessary and dangerous, and poses a significant public health risk for those who attend and their communities here in New Mexico,” Velasquez said in a statement.
While COVID-19 infection and death rates have declined significantly since last year, Velasquez said the pandemic is “not over.” She also said no state has reached herd immunity, which occurs when a large portion of the population is immune from a disease.
And state Democratic Party spokeswoman Miranda van Dijk said the party will continue to limit attendance at in-person political events, hold meetings outside when possible and wear face masks in compliance with the state’s public health order.
The divergent political responses to the pandemic are not new in New Mexico.
Last summer, Lujan Grisham sparked criticism – and praise – by urging political parties to bar their candidates from door-to-door campaigning, which she described as “hugely problematic” due to possible virus transmission.
But the Republican Party declined to issue such an edict, and some GOP candidates knocked on voters’ doors in the run-up to last November’s general election.
Republicans do not currently hold a single statewide, non-judicial office in New Mexico, and Democrats hold sizable majorities in both legislative chambers.
That prompted some GOP lawmakers to express frustration during this year’s 60-day legislative session about being unable to block a Democratic-backed agenda.
One Republican state senator even filed a proposal during this year’s session that would have allowed counties to petition the Legislature to secede from the state – either to join a neighboring state or create a new state.
Meanwhile, Pearce said a major theme of this week’s three-day event would be encouraging political involvement in school board races and other local-level campaigns.
“We can affect change from the bottom up,” he said.
He also said Amarillo officials have been “tremendously good” to work with, adding the city’s mayor and the area’s elected congressman are among those scheduled to address attendees.