With a special session of the New Mexico Legislature set to begin next Monday, Gov. Bill Richardson (D) and legislative leaders have not ruled out the possibility of revisiting Congressional redistricting now that their Republican neighbors in Texas and Colorado have drawn new maps to favor the GOP.
While Richardson has yet to place redistricting on the special session agenda, his communications director, Billy Sparks, said that his boss, a former eight-term House Member, “is keeping his options open.”
“The governor is analyzing what’s occurred not only in Texas, but also in Colorado and what could happen in other states,” he said.
Although Richardson has been wary of reopening the redistricting issue, Sparks said that “politics was a living, breathing thing” that may require him to adjust his thinking.
The Legislature is set to meet to discuss education and health care policy and fiscal matters in a session that could last anywhere from one to 30 days, with Richardson controlling the agenda.
The session begins with just over a year to go before the 2004 elections, and with the race in the Land of Enchantment’s highly competitive 1st Congressional district starting to take shape. At this point, it promises to be a rematch between four-term Rep. Heather Wilson (R) and state Senate President Pro Tem Richard Romero (D), although other Democrats are also running.
In 2002, Wilson handily defeated Romero by a 10-point margin.
But Romero, who officially announced his candidacy Sunday at the historic La Posada de Albuquerque hotel, is clearly favored to take on Wilson for a second time. Romero has said he will not seek another term in the state Senate, whose 42 members are also up for re-election next year.
Also vying for the Democratic nomination are two political neophytes: Miles Nelson, an emergency room physician who lives just east of Albuquerque in a straw bale house, and Eli Chavez, a retired Drug Enforcement Administration agent and former CIA case officer from Albuquerque.
Romero “is the DCCC’s favorite,” said one national Democratic source, referring to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
“I want to win and I think I can,” said Romero, who’s counting on the increased Democratic turnout in a presidential election year as well as President Bush’s diminishing popularity to reverse last cycle’s outcome.
Romero said recent changes in state election law — which shorten the window of time allowed for absentee ballots (credited with Wilson’s win last cycle) and allow such ballots to be hand delivered to voters’ homes — also offer a potential boost to his candidacy.
The Albuquerque-based 1st, home to Sandia National Laboratories, is nominally Democratic with a large Hispanic population — Al Gore and Ralph Nader combined for 52 percent of the vote in the 2000 White House election — but it traditionally sends defense-oriented, moderate Republicans to the House.
Wilson, Congress’ first female military veteran, who spent more than 10 years in the Air Force, serves on the Armed Services Committee and seems to reflect the district’s priorities well. But Democrats are hoping a shifting emphasis to domestic issues will turn the tide in their favor.
In mid-July, Wilson was one of eight Republican Members in swing districts targeted by DCCC ads, which claimed that her vote in favor of a Republican-backed prescription drug benefit for Medicare failed to address seniors’ needs.
“Richard Romero will be a strong candidate,” said DCCC Communications Director Kori Bernards. “His name ID is pretty high and he learned from some of the mistakes made in the last election.”
Nelson and Chavez, however, say Romero is unlikely to fare better the second time around.
“I like him quite a lot, but he lost last time,” said Nelson, who hosted a fundraiser at his house for Romero during the 2002 race. “I haven’t worked my way up from dog catcher to alderman to Congressional candidate, but I don’t believe you need to to be a viable candidate.”
Chavez is even more blunt in his assessment.
“Richard Romero is a loser,” he said, adding that bad blood over Romero’s 2001 toppling of then-state Senate President Pro Tem Manny Aragon (D) — now state Senate Majority Leader — shifted many 1st district Democrats into the Wilson column in 2002.
Romero has been a leading advocate of re-redistricting since Richardson was elected in 2002, putting the Democrats in control of both the governorship and the Legislature for the first time in eight years.
The current district lines were imposed by a district court judge in January 2002 after then-Gov. Gary Johnson (R) twice vetoed plans approved by the Democratic-controlled Legislature.
But Romero was not sure whether redistricting would come up in the upcoming special session.
“It’s hard to say, I think we have to kind of meet and see what the [Democratic Caucus] says,” he said. “The Republicans really have changed the rules so anything is possible, I suppose.”
Brian Sanderoff, president of the New Mexico marketing research and public opinion firm Research and Polling Inc. and a longtime pollster for the Albuquerque Journal, said that if a new map was approved it would likely reshape Wilson’s swing district into a Democratic-leaning seat, while bolstering conservative numbers in Rep. Steve Pearce’s (R) already conservative 2nd district, where Democrats also hope to compete.
“They would essentially split Albuquerque and create a Rio Grande Valley district running along the Rio Grande Valley from Albuquerque to Las Cruces. … This would create a majority Hispanic district which would also create a most probable Democratic district,” Sanderoff said.
In the past, Wilson has expressed disapproval of Republican-initiated efforts to redistrict in Colorado and Texas, and she opposes redrawing the New Mexico map.
“We’re following the issue, but frankly Heather is keeping her eye on the ball,” said Jane Altwies, Wilson’s campaign finance director.
Wilson, a rising star in Republican circles, has benefited financially from her close association with the Bush administration. In August, Vice President Cheney headlined an Albuquerque fundraiser for Wilson that raked in about $180,000. Third-quarter campaign finance reports showed Wilson with slightly less than $590,000 in cash on hand and no debt.
Romero, who brought in about $1.2 million in six months for his 2002 race against Wilson, showed $50,414 in the bank through Sept. 30 but expects to raise more than $200,000 by the end of the year. Fellow Democratic competitors Nelson and Chavez have about $10,000 and $100 on hand, respectively.