Redistricting committee lacks hoped for cultural and geographic diversity - Albuquerque Journal

Redistricting committee lacks hoped for cultural and geographic diversity

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Appointments to New Mexico’s citizen redistricting committee were supposed to give “due regard” to geographic and cultural diversity under legislation passed this year.

But six of the seven appointees to the panel live in Albuquerque, and the other is from Belen.

All but one are men.

New Mexico’s redistricting group will also feature a heavy concentration of people with a background in politics, including two former Democratic state senators and a former chairman of the state Republican Party.

The committee took shape over the last few days through a series of appointments by the State Ethics Commission and legislative leaders.

Retired Supreme Court Justice Edward Chávez – who was appointed last week to lead the redistricting committee – said he is confident the group can produce fair, high-quality maps.

The committee, he said, will take public testimony from throughout New Mexico, and he will encourage its members to reach a consensus.

“I think we have an obligation to work together with an open mind,” Chávez said in an interview Monday.

The citizen redistricting committee was established through bipartisan legislation in this year’s legislative session. The goal was to limit political influence over the once-a-decade task of redistricting New Mexico’s congressional and legislative seats to reflect census data.

The committee will recommend at least three sets of district maps for New Mexico’s seats in Congress, the state House and the state Senate.

Its work won’t be binding. In special session, lawmakers will have the option of adopting the recommended maps, amending them or disregarding them entirely.

The final version of the this year’s legislation called for appointments to be made “with due regard to the cultural and geographic diversity of the state.” But no one was put in charge of coordinating the seven appointments.

The end result – with so many members concentrated in the central part of the state – was a disappointment to advocates from across the political spectrum.

“There could have been a much more equitable and inclusive list,” said Ahtza Dawn Chavez, a member of the Navajo Nation and executive director of the NAVA Education Project, which focuses on Native American voters.

Republican Rep. Rebecca Dow of Truth or Consequences – a key player in passage of the redistricting legislation – said she had hoped for more rural representation and fewer appointees connected to politics.

“The whole purpose of this effort was to take the politics out of redistricting,” Dow said. “While there are well-known political figures on this committee, my hope is they will carry out the will of the people, not their parties.”

Preston Sanchez, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, said fair redistricting is vital to avoiding dilution of the voting strength of Native American communities.

“A representative from one of our state’s pueblos, nations and tribes should have had a seat at the table,” Sanchez said.

The redistricting appointments came from the ethics commission and four legislative leaders – two Democrats and two Republicans. It isn’t clear whether any of them knew who the others planned to appoint.

The State Ethics Commission made three appointments – the chairman, who had to be a retired justice or appeals court judge, and two members who couldn’t be affiliated with a major political party.

The commission’s two independent slots went to State Demographer Robert Rhatigan and high school teacher Joaquin Sanchez, both of Albuquerque. Chávez, the retired justice, also lives in Albuquerque.

The four legislative appointees are:

• Ryan Cangiolosi, a former GOP chairman and former deputy chief of staff to then-Gov. Susana Martinez, appointed by House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia. Cangiolosi, who lives in Albuquerque, now works as director of economic and community development at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center.

• Former state Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, appointed by House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe. Sanchez is a lawyer.

• Albuquerque attorney Christopher Saucedo, a New Mexico State University regent, appointed by Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca, R-Belen. Saucedo ran for the Legislature as Republican in 2012.

• Albuquerque attorney and former Democratic state Sen. Lisa Curtis, appointed by Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque.

Heather Ferguson, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, which pushed for the redistricting legislation, said this year’s committee is a good start toward producing fair maps.

But the composition of the committee, she said, also demonstrates the need to further adjust New Mexico’s redistricting process.

An amendment to the state Constitution, for example, could bolster the committee’s independence and outline an appointment process ensuring the group better matches the state’s composition overall, Ferguson said.

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