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Census estimates offer peek at NM redistricting challenge

Storefronts sit empty in Raton this spring. Colfax County lost about 13% of its population over the past decade – part of a broader trend in which sparsely populated counties grew even smaller. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

A structure that previously housed a J.C. Penney store is part of a string of empty or mostly empty buildings in Raton. The population of Colfax County continued to fall over the past decade, from 13,750 people in 2010 to 11,927 in 2020, according to census estimates. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Bobby LeDoux knows it’s been a tough decade in Colfax County.

The economy is on a “respirator,” he said, surviving partly on travelers who stop along Interstate 25 and U.S. 87. The highways intersect in Raton, where LeDoux lives and serves as chairman of the County Commission.

“It’s a good place to raise your children,” he said, “but it’s hard to keep businesses here.”

Colfax and other sparsely populated counties will soon be caught in New Mexico’s broader debate over redrawing legislative and congressional districts to reflect new census data.

Over the past decade, New Mexico’s most populous counties generally grew the most in total population, while rural counties for the most part saw populations erode – a dynamic that could challenge policymakers crafting new maps.

The detailed census information necessary for redistricting is not yet available. But 2020 census estimates by county offer a peek at what’s to come:

• Three of the five biggest gainers in total population over the past decade are the counties covering Albuquerque, Rio Rancho and Santa Fe. Sandoval County, home to Rio Rancho, had the strongest growth on a percentage basis, at an estimated 13% increase in population.

• Doña Ana County in southern New Mexico and Lea County, home to the oil boom in the southeast, also grew at a faster rate than the state as a whole. Lea County, which includes Hobbs, saw 11% growth.

• San Juan County in the Four Corners area is in line for the biggest total loss of people, about 6,700 individuals. The community has been squeezed by the loss of energy jobs in the coal and natural gas industries.

• Scores of rural counties are losing population, too. The biggest net losers in total population include Grant County, home to Silver City; San Miguel County, which includes Las Vegas; Rio Arriba County, covering Española; and Colfax County.

Citizen committee

Redistricting implications won’t be clear until the U.S. Census Bureau releases more detailed information late this summer.

A newly empaneled Citizen Redistricting Committee will start holding public hearings and propose at least three sets of maps for New Mexico’s three-member congressional delegation, 70-person state House and 42-member state Senate.

The committee’s first meeting is July 2, and its maps are due by Oct. 30.

New Mexico legislators and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham are, however, set to make the final redistricting decisions.

A special session is expected in November or December to adopt maps, and lawmakers will be free to pick one of the redistricting committee’s proposals or develop new ones.

In contrast to the Legislature, the redistricting committee is prohibited from using partisan data and party registration as it develops maps – a ban intended to avoid gerrymandering and reduce political influence over the district boundaries.

The committee also faces limits on considering where incumbents live.

Besides Congress and the Legislature, the state Public Education Commission will also require updated districts.

Slower growth

Brian Sanderoff, president of Research & Polling Inc., a local company hired by the state to assist in redistricting, said the population changes over the past 10 years are less dramatic than in previous decades.

Growth between 2010 and 2020 dipped to just 2.8%, the smallest change since statehood in 1912.

“Now, we’re just not seeing the explosive numbers,” Sanderoff said. “It’s nothing like it was a decade ago or two decades ago.”

The biggest gainer on a percentage basis this time – Sandoval County at 13% – represents a far smaller change, for example, than what the state faced 10 years ago, when Sandoval County grew by 46% between 2000 and 2010.

The new census count puts New Mexico’s population at 2.1 million, or 58,343 more individuals than in 2010.

The ideal population for each congressional and legislative district, consequently, will grow as policymakers draw maps.

Based on the new census data, each congressional district would have an ideal population of about 706,000 people, or 19,000 more than the ideal for each district in 2010.

Ideal legislative districts will also be larger, with about 830 more people per state House seat and 1,300 more people for each Senate district. The ideal House district will have about 30,000 people, and the ideal Senate district will have about 50,000.

Political backdrop

Tepid growth, however, doesn’t necessarily mean New Mexico’s districts won’t change much.

Redrawing boundaries with less regard to where incumbents live – and without factoring in partisan data – could result in substantial changes when the Citizen Redistricting Committee proposes new boundaries.

The committee is new – created in a legislative session earlier this year.

Legislators could also make dramatic changes to political maps. In contrast to recent rounds of redistricting, Democrats now control all three of the major players – the Governor’s Office and both chambers of the Legislature.

Rod Adair, a former Republican state senator who runs a demographic research company that handles redistricting, said the county-level census estimates weren’t good news for the GOP.

The population climbed a bit in counties that tend to vote for Democratic Party candidates, he said, and fell in Republican-leaning counties, according to his analysis.

The “terrible loss” of population in San Juan County, he said, offset the nice gains experienced by Lea, Eddy and Otero counties – all sources of Republican strength.

He also noted that Democrats now control more of state government, unlike 10 years ago, when Republican Susana Martinez was governor.

“This is not going to be a pretty picture for Republicans when it’s all said and done,” Adair said.

Congressional map

As it stands now, Democrats hold two of New Mexico’s three congressional districts – all but the southern district, which leans Republican.

Each of the three districts covers some areas that saw strong growth, according to the county-level census estimates.

The 1st Congressional District includes most of Bernalillo County, which added about 19,000 in total population, the biggest net change in the state. The district is now represented by Democrat Melanie Stansbury of Albuquerque.

The 2nd Congressional District – held by Republican Yvette Herrell of Alamogordo – includes southeastern New Mexico, where Lea and Eddy counties saw strong growth as a result of the oil boom.

The 3rd Congressional District, meanwhile, includes much of Sandoval County, which had the strongest percentage growth of any county in New Mexico. It’s now held by Democrat Teresa Leger Fernandez of Santa Fe.

Democrats had a 27-15 edge in the state Senate and a 45-24 majority – plus one independent – in the state House during the sessions held earlier this year.

ABQ, Rio Rancho changes

Since 2010, the biggest growth in total population appears to have taken root on Albuquerque’s West Side in Bernalillo County and in Sandoval County’s Rio Rancho – adjacent communities in central New Mexico.

Together, the two counties added about 36,000 people over the past decade, according to census estimates. That would account for more than half of New Mexico’s total growth since 2010.

Rio Rancho Mayor Gregg Hull said his city, once a bedroom community for commuters who traveled to jobs elsewhere, is now seeing growth among small, local businesses and large employers. Intel, for example, announced a major expansion and $3.5 billion investment in May.

“We’re seeing investment on both sides of the spectrum,” Hull said, “which is a healthy balance.”

LeDoux, chairman of the Colfax County Commission, said he hopes lawmakers will keep in mind the needs of rural communities as they draw district boundaries.

“The pandemic didn’t do us any favors,” LeDoux said.

Debate over how to turn the population changes into political districts will intensify this summer.


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