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SANTA FE — Democratic divisions in the House doomed the Legislature’s chance to approve a plan that would revamp the boundaries of New Mexico’s congressional districts.
The Legislature ended a special session this weekend without the House and Senate agreeing on a congressional redistricting plan. But in the end, it may not matter.
A court almost certainly will determine the makeup of the three congressional districts. That’s what happened a decade ago.
Even if the Democrat-controlled Legislature had passed a plan during the special session, there’s a strong chance Republican Gov. Susana Martinez would have vetoed it, and the dispute would have ended up in court anyway.
Evidence of that is the solid Republican opposition to the plan the Senate passed and sent to the House.
The GOP contended that the proposed changes in district boundaries would give Democrats a stronger grip on the Albuquerque area’s 1st Congressional District, which the GOP held for nearly four decades until a Democrat won it in 2008.
But the Senate-approved plan never surfaced for a vote by the 70-member House before the special session ended Saturday.
House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Santa Fe, said Monday that Democrats weren’t able to muster enough votes for the Senate’s proposal.
Rep. Joseph Cervantes, a Las Cruces Democrat, opposed the Senate-passed plan because he wanted to transform the 2nd District in southern New Mexico into a competitive swing district with voting tendencies almost evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats.
The Senate’s plan, Cervantes said, would have conceded the 2nd District to Republicans and continued to give Democrats a stranglehold on the 3rd District, which covers northern New Mexico.
“I don’t think any citizen of the state wants to be relegated to a de facto congressman from one party or the other,” Cervantes said in an interview Saturday.
The 2nd District has long favored the GOP. A Democrat has occupied the seat for only two years since 1980.
Lujan said Cervantes had enough support from southern New Mexico members that House Democrats lacked the votes to push through the Senate-passed plan over GOP opposition.
Democrats cling to a narrow 36-33 majority in the House, and there’s one independent, who is a Cervantes ally.
Throughout the special session, Democrats struggled to keep all their members in the fold on key redistricting votes. One Democrat, Rep. Sandra Jeff of Crownpoint, joined the GOP in voting against Democratic-backed redistricting plans for the state House and Senate.
Those proposals barely passed, and only because Democrats picked up the support of independent Rep. Andy Nunez of Hatch, who had been a Democrat before switching his party affiliation earlier this year.
Democratic leaders wanted to approve a congressional plan — even if it was eventually vetoed by the governor — to allow party activists to argue in court that the proposal reflected the will of New Mexicans as expressed through a majority of members of the Legislature.
Not everyone agrees that the court would buy such an argument, however. The governor’s top lawyer, Jessica Hernandez, told a legislative committee that courts didn’t give preferential treatment to redistricting plans that passed the Legislature and were vetoed.
Lujan said the Senate-passed plan possibly can be used as template to present to a judge to consider when handling a congressional redistricting lawsuit.
Ten years ago, Republican Gov. Gary Johnson vetoed a congressional redistricting plan passed by the Democratic-controlled Legislature that would have greatly changed the district boundaries and created a majority Hispanic district in southern New Mexico that favored Democrats.
But a state judge in Albuquerque rejected that proposal and adopted a “least change” plan with only minor revisions to the existing congressional boundaries to ensure district populations were equal in compliance with the one-person, one-vote requirement established by the U.S. Supreme Court.
In deciding district boundaries for the state House of Representatives, however, the same judge used a plan passed by the Democratic-controlled Legislature — and vetoed by Johnson — as the foundation for the map he ordered after making changes to strengthen Native American voting influence.
The judge, the late Frank Allen, said in his congressional ruling that a court should be “exercising a limited role and applying neutral principles of law” in deciding district boundaries when there’s an impasse between the Legislature and the governor.
It’s certainly clear in New Mexico that an impasse exists today between Martinez and the Democratic majority in the Legislature.
Now all that is left is the race to the courthouse.
Expect Democrats, Republicans, Native Americans and Hispanic activists to join the legal fray — just as they did in redistricting lawsuits a decade ago.