High Stakes, Low Turnout Elections

Local politics was overshadowed by non-stop Washington dramas this fall, but important trends emerged and decisions were made in New Mexico and the Paso del Norte borderland that will chart the identity and destiny of the region for years to come. Yet in various contests, it was a distinct minority of the electorate that shaped future courses.

While the World Series, the NFL and the end of “Breaking Bad” might have absorbed the public’s attention, real-life decisions were made on taxes that people will pay in the coming years; the kinds of streets and public facilities that will exist in their communities;  the control of  sometimes controversial police forces;  and even whether enough water, already a precious resource in an arid land, will be available in a land likely to suffer persistent drought.

In El Paso County, Texas, voters went to the polls November 5 to decide on nine ballot propositions and elect local officials for three small towns that have developed as colonias, or  communities lacking in  basic services and infrastructure.  Located on the far east side or lower valley of El Paso County, the area surrounding the towns continues evolving from an agricultural belt into a pole of new growth encompassed by planned developments including a new international bridge, power plant and Wal-Mart.

The towns of Socorro and Horizon City each elected three town councilors, and Horizon City  voters reelected their mayor and passed five ballot propositions. November 5 was the birth date of a new incorporated city, San Elizario (2010 Census population of 13,603), when residents of the semi-rural community took a stand against an annexation attempt by neighboring Socorro and in favor of governing their own affairs.
Now promoted as a tourism destination and art district almost like a borderland Santa Fe, San Elizario has long enjoyed a historic place in regional history. Bounded by the Rio Grande, San Elizario was the site of Spanish conquistador Onate’s 1598 crossing, the scene of the 1870s’ Salt War between Mexicano communal landholders and Anglo capitalists, and a fertile cradle of the cotton farming that made the El Paso Valley famous in the 20th century.

Countywide, voters were polled on 9 state constitutional amendments like the ultimately successful Proposition 6 that established a $2 billion source of funding for statewide water projects.
For the first time in El Paso and Texas, voters were faced with new photo identification requirements  in which the name of a registered person had to exactly match the name on an acceptable form of identification, with student IDs excluded from acceptance.

Official results tabulated by El Paso County Elections reported a 3.58 percent turnout of registered voters in the election. Of 387, 327 registered voters in the county, only 13,855 cast ballots.

Municipal elections were held in New Mexico’s two largest cities, first in Albuquerque on October 8, and then in Las Cruces on November 5.  A noteworthy development in the 2013 New Mexico elections was the role played by women, whether as campaign activists or candidates, in addition to the prominence of women’s issues.

In the Duke City, Republican Mayor Richard Berry decisively defeated two challengers and avoided a run-off,  and most of the city councilors up for reelection won another term.   A fresh addition to the Albuquerque City Council, South Valley school and neighborhood activist Klarissa Pena will serve as the representative for newly-created Council District 3. Democrat Pena beat two opponents, including Republican
Tania Silva, a woman originally from Honduras who described herself online as a vegetarian concerned about Second Amendment gun rights.

The usual bond propositions passed with no fanfare. Of 360, 697 registered voters, 71,091 cast ballots for a turnout of 19.71 percent.

According to the Las Cruces City Clerk, the southern New Mexico city also experienced a very low turn-out at 8.19 percent of registered voters, despite a confluence of issues linked to growth, drought and continued high unemployment. The three city council races witnessed competitions involving candidates variously identified with the Tea Party, conservatism and progressive politics.

In the biggest shift, real estate broker and longtime Republican activist Ceil Levatino conquered a district usually identified with progressive tendencies by winning with a plurality of 42.65 percent  in a race against two opponents: Mark Cobb, who was viewed as the natural replacement for vacating council member Sharon Thomas, and Curtis Rosemond, a former Wal-Mart manager and the current president of the Dona Ana County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Levatino and her husband, Dr. Anthony Levatino, have been active in the anti-abortion movement.  In other races, Gil Sorg won re-election while District 3 incumbent Olga Pedroza handily defeated Tea Party-supported challenger Bev Courtney.

Creative campaigning was a hallmark of a Las Cruces election that largely passed under the state’s radar screen.

In a display ad published a couple of days before the election, Dr. Levatino’s description of his spouse’s credentials read like a pitch for a Democratic contender at first glance. The ad highlighted Ceil Levatino’s involvement in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, her participation in the 1963 March on Washington and an encounter with Jimi Hendrix when the Seattle axe-man pulled the young woman on stage during a rendition of “Foxy Lady.”

The ad ended with the statement: “There are those out there who would smear Ceil because she wants to serve as a Las Cruces City Councilor. IT’S TIME FOR A MAJOR CHANGE ON THE LAS CRUCES CITY COUNCIL.”

The Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce (LCCC) was very visible in the campaign, but did not endorse any specific candidates. Instead, the LCCC published a “business friendly” scorecard based on candidates’ positions on the recent municipal gross receipts (GRT) tax hike of 3/8 percent and a minimum wage increase, both of which the business organization opposes, and other local issues. Depending on their positions, the candidates were given green, yellow or red lights next to their names.

In a statement, the LCCC said it was “interested in having business-friendly and pro-jobs minded elected officials who realize the importance that businesses play in driving additional revenues into the community and increasing the quality of life in southern New Mexico.”

Although “Green light” candidate David Roewe  lost to Sorg,  similarly scored Levatino won her race. “Red light” candidate Pedroza, however, triumphed over “yellow light” contender Courtney.

In an interview with FNS, Pedroza, who voted for the recent GRT increase, disagreed with opponents’ contentions that the extra tax wasn’t necessary at this time. Pedroza maintained that the hike was forced upon Las Cruces by the New Mexico State Legislature when state lawmakers voted last session to gradually phase out state financial support for municipalities, a revenue source which had been enacted a decade earlier after food and medicine were removed from taxation during the Richardson administration.

“Knowing that,” Pedroza said,  the burning question became: “How do we prepare for this cut in funds?” The Las Cruces city government has been in a financial vise since the Great Recession, she said, with city departments asked to cut back 5 to 10 percent in expenses during each of the last two years alone. “We increased in population and reduced our services,” the former legal services attorney said.

“The way I see it, the programs the city provides are really important.” In her campaign, Pedroza said she told her constituents that city government consists of employees and officials who are neighbors, friends and relatives, and performs vital functions like senior services or after-school programs for children of working parents who are hard-pressed to pay for expensive daycare.

Philosophically, Pedroza is opposed to the trend of government belt-tightening. “It seems like we’re going to impose austerity, regardless, and I don’t believe in those austerity programs,” the reelected city council rep said. “They haven’t worked anywhere in the world.”

On the economic front, Pedroza added that she would like to “raise the minimum wage as high as I can,” and introduce a local policy similar to one attempted in Richmond, California, in which  the city declares eminent domain on foreclosed homes as a first step in working out beneficial deals with either current residents or new buyers.  As for water and growth, Pedroza said getting an accurate assessment on the amount of groundwater available for Las Cruces is an urgent priority.

Contradictory assessments exist between the city’s water utility director, who insists the City of Crosses has plenty of water under the ground, and other experts in the field, Pedroza said.  “I have no reason to disbelieve him, but everybody else says the exact opposite. I hear so many conflicting ideas on that,” she said.

New Mexico’s political season in not yet over. All eyes are on Albuquerque, where a special election that concludes November 19 will decide the fate of a proposition banning late-term abortions, as well as the political balance of the city government.

The wordy “Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Ordinance” has made Albuquerque ground zero in the national abortion rights battle, drawing outside groups and money from both sides of the issue.

Pushing the measure are forces like the California-based Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust and New Mexico Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan, who openly appealed on voters to approve the ordinance.  Mobilizing against the ban are groups including Young Women United, Catholics for Choice, Respect Albuquerque Women, the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance, the ACLU, and Women Organized to Resist and Defend, among others.

“Even if a woman was raped, or a teen was assaulted by a family member, they would not be able to seek a legal abortion of 20 weeks under this proposed city ordinance,” read a mailer sent out by ordinance opponents. “Vote AGAINST Government Interfering in Women’s Personal Decisions.”  Ordinance opponents also stress that the measure would prohibit abortions in cases of fetus deformations and health risks to women.

If approved, the anti-abortion measure would be the first of its kind to pass in a U.S. city.  Anti-ordinance activists are expected to immediately challenge the law in court in the event of a yes vote.

Declaring that the proposed ordinance is an assault on women’s rights with national implications,  United Farm Workers Union co-founder Dolores Huerta is among the voices speaking out against it.

Arguably,  the referendum has evoked more passion than the general election itself, with pro and anti-ordinance signs sprinkling the city,  street demonstrations convened, billboards erected, phone-banking, get-out-the-vote drives, and glossy mailers stuffed into mailboxes.

On Veteran’s Day, a loud anti-abortion protester was removed from a ceremony where Governor Susana Martinez spoke. The same man, Rives Grogan of California, was later arrested for a disruption at the University of New Mexico.

Counting on a favorable turn-out of Latino voters, ordinance boosters are running Spanish-language media ads in the run-up to November 19.

Anti-abortion activist Grace Lardizabal said Hispano families are pro-life, holding a belief that is “very integral to our lives and traditions of faith.” For people to say otherwise, Lardizabal contended, is nothing more than a “lie.”

The political direction of Albuquerque,  and the prospects for Mayor Richard Berry’s agenda, are also at stake on November 19. A run-off election is underway for City Council District 7, a huge area spread across the middle and northeastern sections of city where a mixture of solidly working and middle class neighborhoods, lower-income apartment complexes and comfortably affluent zones has all the ingredients for an interesting race.

Although Albuquerque city council elections are nominally non-partisan, the District 7 run-off will decide if Republicans or the Democrats have the balance of power. Berry-appointed incumbent Janice Arnold Jones, an ex- state legislator and veteran Republican activist, is up against challenger Diane Gibson, a former Sandia National Labs employee and union official who is backed by labor organizations and all the members of New Mexico’s Democratic Congressional delegation. A third candidate from October’s general election has endorsed Gibson.

Additional sources: Kunm.org, November 17, 2013. Krqe.com, November 15, 2013. El Paso Times,  November 15 and 16, 2013. Articles by Aileen B. Flores and Luis Carlos Lopez.  New Mexico Daily Lobo, November 11 and 15, 2013. Articles by Chloe Henson. El Semanario de Nuevo Mexico, November 14, 2013.  Kvia.com, November 12, 2013. El Diario de El Paso, November 5, 2013. Article by Karla Guevara Walton.  Lapolaka.com, November 5, 2013. Las Cruces Bulletin, November 1 and 8, 2013. Articles by Todd G. Dickson.

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