What ‘conservation’ means to Rep. Gabe Vasquez
‘We have to be smart about it,’ says the former staffer from New Mexico
Nearly a decade after Rep. Gabe Vasquez worked for Sen. Martin Heinrich as a field representative, the new congressman can count his former boss as a hunting buddy.
“I actually talk to him more now that I’m not a member of his staff,” Vasquez said, describing their outings to shoot Coues deer.
The New Mexico Democrat went on to serve as a city council member before running for Congress himself. He unseated incumbent Republican Yvette Herrell this election cycle with a razor-thin win in the 2nd District.
Now that he’s running his own office, Vasquez plans to continue at least one habit he picked up from Heinrich — he will quiz anyone within earshot on the names of New Mexico peaks.
While he may have discovered conservation policy while working for Heinrich, he’s felt the same since his childhood in Mexico.
“We deserve and we have a role in the natural environment, but we have to be smart about it,” Vasquez says. “We have to leave enough behind. We have to leave clean water and healthy air and wildlife — because without that, we don’t have anything else.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Q: How did you start working for Heinrich?
A: I’ve been working since I was 16, and I don’t think I’ve been unemployed longer than a week-and-a-half. I started out as a grocery bag boy, I worked the drive-thru at a fast food restaurant, I sold vacuum cleaners door to door, and I paid my way through college at New Mexico State University.
When I graduated, I was actually a journalist, and then director of the local Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. That brings you into the politics of a community. I think I showed up to enough events the senator was hosting that they eventually said, “Hey, this guy might be somebody we want to bring onto our team.”
I was so thrilled when I got the job that I remember my mom wanting to have a dinner for me that night, because it was such a big deal for our family.
Q: What moments stand out for you?
A: While I was a field rep, we helped bring home the Organ Mountain-Desert Peaks National Monument. It’s almost 500,000 acres, and my job was to talk to a lot of angry ranchers who were not very happy about the proposal.
I would go out to places like the Sierra de las Uvas and the Potrillo Mountains and talk to the ranchers and the lessees about what a national monument would entail. And so when the monument was designated under the Antiquities Act, a lot of the work that I did ended up being written into the proclamation, based on my conversations with the folks who live on the land. That was really cool.
It was one of the largest national monuments designated under President Obama, so it was no small potatoes. I remember the celebration when Sally Jewell, the Interior secretary at the time, came down to Las Cruces, and our native communities, our conservation communities and our sportsmen all came together and sat in a high school football field and looked over these towering arches of the Organ Mountains.
Conservation to me means the wise use of natural resources. It means that we use natural resources but we leave enough behind for it to be sustainable for future generations.
Q: Was that something you learned from Heinrich?
A: No, I grew up with conservation. We just didn’t call it conservation. My grandfather was a hunter, an angler and a farmer from a small ranch in central Mexico in the state of Zacatecas. And so even though I grew up in Ciudad Juárez, conserving everything was just part of our lifestyle, and we actually ate wild game. He had 10 kids, so he would go hunting in the mountains in Chihuahua and bring back Coues deer and mule deer and javelina to feed his family.
When I got to Sen. Heinrich’s office, I learned there was an entire world of conservation policy that I had never understood or known before. And in fact, if I had known that conservation was a career opportunity, I probably wouldn’t even be elected to office. I probably would have been a U.S. forest supervisor out in the Gila or something like that.
Q: So was that a lot of your portfolio, conservation issues?
A: Serving on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the senator was very much focused on conservation. But I essentially was a jack of all trades. I worked with veterans and on immigration issues, for example — those were gaps in the office I believe I helped to fill.
I helped bring one of the first 599 CBP pilot programs to expand international trade to the Santa Teresa port of entry, an area that had been economically depressed for many years. I was also co-chair of the Southwest Border Security Task Force, and so once every quarter, I would bring together Border Patrol and the local police to talk about what was happening on the border with our constituents, to help dispel rumors and myths.
Q: What was Heinrich like as a boss?
A: One of the fun games he liked to play was when you’re in the car with Sen. Heinrich, you’re expected to know the name of every mountain and every peak that you’re driving through, because as an avid outdoorsman, he spends a lot of time outside.
The first time I was in a car with him, I couldn’t name one of the peaks. So I made sure to memorize every one, so if he ever asked again, I would have the answer. And now I do the same thing.
Not as a staffer, but later, we went hunting on plenty of those peaks. I was on Cookes Peak with the senator just a couple years ago, and we’ve also been on the Cowboy Rim and the Animas Mountains, hunting Coues deer.
Q: Did you ever get to visit Washington during your time as a staffer?
A: I got a chance to come out here and meet our legislative staff a few times, and it was so vastly different from the work I was doing. It was a different world, but the senator was great about bringing out state staff to really understand how the office works holistically.
Q: How has Congress changed from then to now?
A: I was used to calling people boss, and now people are calling me boss. That feels different. But one of the great things I’ve seen is more Latinos on the Hill and more Latino staff. I’ve seen more people who are representative of their communities.
That includes more people of color in positions of leadership in House offices and Senate offices. That’s why one of my first priorities was to hire a diverse staff, and I think we’ve done a pretty good job of doing that.
In my district, I’ve hired folks who speak our language. I’ve hired folks who look like our district. My communications director is from Albuquerque, and she’s Latina. Our chief of staff is Latina, our staff assistant is LGBTQ and our scheduler is Latina. We’re not done staffing up just yet, but it’s all about opportunity, right? It’s about giving folks the opportunities you might not otherwise get if you don’t come from a privileged background.