As the proverb goes: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
And the makeup of the newly formed Citizen Redistricting Committee should send legislative leaders back to the drawing board.
The goal was to create an independent public body to limit political influence in the decennial redistricting process.
That’s a tall order since redistricting to reflect new census data is among the most political endeavors lawmakers undertake every decade. So lawmakers passed the Redistricting Act earlier this year, which mandates the formation of a citizen committee that may not use data about voting history or party registration when drawing district maps, except to ensure maps comply with federal law.
The inability of our state lawmakers and governors to agree on new boundaries for congressional, legislative and state commission districts in the last two rounds has cost taxpayers millions of dollars in court battles. The hope was to avoid the political disagreements and accusations of gerrymandering that forced the redistricting process to end up in the court system. But the process is off to a bad start.
Former lawmakers, political insiders and the city of Albuquerque will be well-represented on the seven-member Citizen Redistricting Committee, while Native Americans, women and the rest of the state will largely be voiceless. The committee has one woman and no Native Americans in a state with 19 pueblos.
The Redistricting Act calls for appointments “with due regard to the cultural and geographic diversity of the state,” but six of the seven members live in Albuquerque, with the other from Belen. There apparently was no coordination or compromise among House and Senate leaders who made four of the seven appointments, resulting in a committee lacking a single member from areas that include Española, Farmington, Roswell, Silver City, Hobbs, Raton, Las Cruces, Clovis, Portales, Gallup, Grants, Taos, Alamogordo, Carlsbad, Tucumcari, Chama, Artesia, Ruidoso, Fort Sumner or Abiquiú.
Exhibit A: House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, appointed Ryan Cangiolosi, a former chairman of the Republican Party of New Mexico and former deputy chief of staff to then-Gov. Susana Martinez. By appointing Cangiolosi, who lives in Albuquerque, Townsend left his own area of the state unrepresented on the redistricting committee. Was there no one qualified and willing to serve from Roswell, Carlsbad, Lovington, Artesia or Hobbs?
Exhibit B: House Speaker Brian Egolf appointed former state Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen. Sanchez was Senate majority leader in 2011 when Democratic leaders in the Senate and House couldn’t agree on a redistricting plan with former Republican Gov. Martinez.
Exhibit C: Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca, R-Belen, who defeated Sanchez in 2016, appointed Albuquerque attorney Christopher Saucedo. Saucedo ran for the Legislature as a Republican in 2012 and is currently a New Mexico State University regent.
Exhibit D: Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart appointed Albuquerque attorney and former Democratic state Sen. Lisa Curtis, who was defeated by Republican Mark Moores in 2012.
See a trend? The four legislative appointees look more like partisan political insiders than citizens willing to perform a civic service without considering partisan advantage or the protection of incumbents.
The State Ethics Commission did a somewhat better job with its three appointments. The Ethics Commission was tasked with appointing a chair who had to be a retired state Supreme Court justice or appeals court judge, and two members who can’t be affiliated with a major political party. The Ethics Commission appointed retired Supreme Court Justice Edward Chávez as chairman – a strong pick – and State Demographer Robert Rhatigan and high school teacher Joaquin Sanchez for the two independent slots. But all three live in Albuquerque.
“The whole purpose of this effort was to take the politics out of redistricting,” said state Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, who was a key player in the passage of the Redistricting Act. But as the No. 3 ranking Republican in the House, one would hope she could have had a role in House leader Townsend’s appointment.
Court battles over redistricting cost the state more than $6 million in 2011 and $3 million in 2001 in attorney fees and other costs. And the courts ultimately redrew the boundaries both times because lawmakers couldn’t.
Former Justice Chávez says he’s confident the group can produce fair, high-quality maps, but advocates aren’t convinced. Neither are we. Having experience in state government or with the Legislature – which most of the appointees have – helps in understanding the complexities of redistricting. But together, their appointments fail to meet the lawmakers’ mandate for creating a committee with “due regard to the cultural and geographic diversity of the state.”
Preston Sanchez, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, lamented the lack of Indigenous representation. “A representative from one of our state’s pueblos, nations and tribes should have had a seat at the table,” he correctly said.
Heather Ferguson, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, says it’s a good start, but the appointments demonstrate the need to further adjust the redistricting process.
All of this could amount to political theater anyway. The Citizen Redistricting Committee is tasked with taking public testimony from throughout New Mexico and then recommending at least three sets of district maps for seats in Congress, the state House and the state Senate. But its work won’t be binding. Lawmakers could amend the maps or just toss them in a trash can and draw their own.
Balancing our large state’s far-flung population while honoring communities of interest, governmental subdivisions, Indigenous governances and contiguity and compactness – and avoiding the purely political drawing of lines to protect incumbents – should be the goal.
But faith in our new redistricting process is already stalled. While each appointee may offer certain strengths and expertise, New Mexico deserves a commission as diverse as its constituents. Instead it got six guys and a gal from the Albuquerque metro area, primarily lawyers, politicians and political operatives.
Our appointers can and should do better. Try, try again.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.