New Mexico Front and Center

News & Politics

From the day Governor Bill Richardson took office in 2003, New Mexico was hurled into the national political theatre like never before.

The gregarious Richardson – who speaks the Mexico City-tinged Spanish of his mother – has been wildly popular ever since winning a Congressional seat in 1982, and the national press immediately honed in on his potential to rein in the ever-important Hispanic vote.

To be sure, 42 percent of New Mexico's population is Hispanic, and Al Gore barely eked out a victory in 2000, winning by just 366 votes. But this is an exquisitely strange state, and prophesizing the intentions of its electorate by one issue alone is myopic.

Indeed, New Mexico is a place where mammoth nuclear factories jut out behind untouched high desert cliffs; where heroin and green chile are two of the most popular indulgences; where health insurance is almost as rare as the rain; and where new-age hippies from the coasts and ancient families who claim the blood of Spanish noblemen together bemoan a dry season that hasn't broken for nearly a decade.

Here, many of America's most pressing problems are played out in dramatic fashion every day, and the governor, whose national political ambitions are no secret, has stayed busy trying to right the state's many troubles.

So, despite what the pundits say, New Mexicans are likely to go to the polls come November with a lot more than just race on their minds. The following issues weigh the heaviest:

Poverty

Despite a few garish enclaves in Santa Fe, Taos and Los Alamos, New Mexico is extraordinarily poor, especially in rural areas.

Those familiar with urban poverty wouldn't know it when traveling through the state – New Mexico's charming, frontier-style towns, nestled among cactus and mesas, seem a far cry from big-city ghettos.

Don't be fooled. McKinley and Rio Arriba counties consistently rank among the nation's most impoverished, and with 20 percent of all New Mexicans living in poverty, this is the second poorest state in the country (Mississippi is the first), says Kim Posich, executive director of the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.

Things are even worse when it comes to children. A 2004 national study found that a staggering 26 percent of the state's kids are living below the poverty line, the highest such proportion in the nation.

The effects of such intense poverty are clear. According to a 2003 state epidemiology report, New Mexico leads the nation in drug overdoses, which jumped 22 percent statewide between 2001 and 2002. Tiny Rio Arriba, a beautiful but mournful mountainous region of 41,000, has been in the clutches of an overwhelming heroin epidemic since the late nineties, and suffers a higher rate of drug-overdoses than any other county in the U.S.

Kay Monaco, executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children, a child advocacy group, says the reasons for New Mexico's endemic poverty are numerous: There's no real industry here; the preponderance of small, family-owned business mean low-wage jobs; and providing access to social services in rural areas is difficult.

During his first two years, Richardson – whose old Congressional district included Rio Arriba – has taken the conservative approach of slashing income and capital gains taxes and killing the state's food tariff. He says such measures will keep hard-earned money in poor New Mexican's pockets, while critics argue it will only drain funding from critical state-support programs.

Meanwhile, some aren't waiting to find out. Earlier this year, Santa Fe's city council voted to raise the city's minimum wage to $8.50 to combat the rising cost of living in the capital.

"Poverty has a huge ripple affect throughout all of New Mexico," comments Monaco. "If we can fix it somehow, there'll be huge corollary benefits."

Health Care

Last year, New Mexico state senator Manny Aragon (D-Bernalillo) introduced a bill that would have created a universal health plan for all New Mexicans. Despite having the backing of over 50 local organizations, Aragon's proposed legislation was ultimately viewed as too extreme.

His effort, though in vain, is evidence of a raging debate about how best to fix New Mexico's mortally wounded health care system.

Twenty-one percent of all New Mexicans are without health insurance, well above the national average. Sixteen percent of the state's children don't have any coverage either, ranking New Mexico near the very top nationwide. According to Health Security for New Mexicans, the coalition of groups that backed Aragon, barely half of the state's employers were offering health benefits in 2003. Only Texas has a higher proportion of total uninsured.

It doesn't help that New Mexico's Medicaid program has swollen out of control. The state's Legislative Finance committee estimates Medicaid will need an additional $110 million in the coming year to sustain growth, and the legislature has its own Medicaid Reform committee to try and trim the fat. This past legislative session, lawmakers, with Richardson's blessing, approved health care tax hikes – in large part to keep Medicaid functioning.

Ellen Leitzer, vice-president of Health Action New Mexico, another group advocating for health care reform, says the crisis stems from the soaring cost of insurance premiums and prescription drugs, coupled with New Mexico's unique demographics.

"We are a poor state with a lot of mom and pop businesses and a large transient population," she says. "The cost for employers to provide health insurance and the cost for an individual to obtain it is simply not affordable."

And though the governor vowed to bring health insurance to all New Mexicans in his inauguration speech, some say he's been too reticent since taking office. The state did, however, just receive a $905,000 grant from the feds to figure out how to improve a situation that can't get much worse.

Education

As he stumped on the campaign trail two years ago, Bill Richardson spoke about education perhaps more than any other issue, and for good reason.

Many of the state's public school districts have long been in crisis mode – teachers are paid less than their colleagues in surrounding states; minority students' test scores indicate underperformance; truancy has been systemic; and school districts have don't have the spare cash to fix such powerful problems.

True to his campaign rhetoric, Richardson dove in headfirst, initially trying to bump teachers' salaries by 6 percent. That proposal was winnowed down to 2 percent after the state's educational employees union argued that the raise should be applied to all school workers

Richardson has also created a cabinet-level Secretary of Education position to oversee New Mexico's 89 school districts, and included in his 2005 budget an overall $112 million boost for public schools. The state legislature, with the governor's nudging, has passed a number of noteworthy bills as well: One prohibits schools from carrying over surplus money. Another creates a state licensing system to increase teachers' qualifications. One more toughens truancy laws.

Still, the largely intangible challenge of better navigating the cultural and language differences of the state's students could be the toughest hurdle to clear.

A study done by the Santa Fe New Mexican this year found that Hispanic students in Santa Fe, who are the majority, test ten percent lower than whites, a gap the governor seems intent on closing.

"We have pueblos where our children speak three different languages. We have the Zuni, Hopi, Navajo and Apache reservations. And then we have a high percentage of Hispanics, many of whom are also second language learners," says Christine Trujillo, president of the New Mexico federation of educational employees and a member of the state's Public Education Commission. "In other words, we're a state that has a variety of different student needs. I don't think anyone truly understands how diverse we are."

The Environment

Pick up a newspaper in New Mexico on any given day, and you're liable to find at least one story about water. New Mexico, like the rest of the southwest, has been in throes of an unrelenting drought since 1996, prompting the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2003, to term the state an Agricultural Disaster Area.

Rainfall in New Mexico has been well below average levels for years, although places like Albuquerque have recently experienced some relief. Still, many crucial water sources, like the Elephant Butte reservoir, are at only a fraction of their normal capacity, says Consuelo Bokum, director of water projects for 1000 Friends of New Mexico, a local non-profit that works on growth-related issues.

Most large municipalities now have tight water restrictions – like the 2002 Santa Fe city ordinance requiring the installation of low-flow toilets in businesses and new homes – and are imposing increasingly stringent fines on violators.

The governor has taken an aggressive approach – he commissioned State Engineer John D'Antonio to devise an official state water plan, created a drought task force and rustled up $10 million to research innovative ways to conserve.

Of course, water is only one pivotal environmental issue. New Mexico's land is rich in oil and gas, and earlier this year, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), announced plans to drill for oil in the Otero Mesa, a 2 million-acre swath of Chihuahua grassland near the Texas border.

The idea has provoked the ire of both ranchers and environmentalists, and Richardson has publicly stated that he'll take the feds to court if necessary; he recently filed an official complaint with the BLM to prove his point.

Predictably, with some Democrats crying that the Bush Administration is pulling the strings, the situation has morphed into a political powder keg. According to newspaper reports, local environmentalists and state officials have accused oil man George Yates, whose company first drilled a test well in the area and who happens to be a staunch GOP contributor, of pushing the White House to influence the BLM. The BLM, in turn, has denied the Bush administration's involvement.

National Laboratories

Responsible for the country's nuclear research, Los Alamos (LANL) and Sandia National Laboratories are the biggest businesses in New Mexico with approximately 17,500 employees and a budget in the billions. They're also the most controversial – hazardous waste leaks, security breaches and lawsuits from workers who've been exposed to toxins make LANL and Sandia a mainstay in both the local and national media.

Since 9/11, public scrutiny has only increased, and the past few years have seen stupefying security breaches – LANL director John Browne resigned in 2003 after allegations of covering up an employee credit-card fraud scandal, while FBI surveillance tapes caught Sandia guards snoozing on duty.

This year, the DOE issued LANL a notice of violation for a 2003 incident in which two workers were exposed to plutonium radiation, and on July 3, the state proposed fining Sandia's operators, Lockheed Martin, $3.2 million for 27 different environmental violations.

Joni Arends, executive director of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, says her group is now monitoring the movement of contaminants from LANL towards the Rio Grande. For years, Arends and other watchdogs have been lobbying the DOE to beef up its half-hearted oversight, and in 2004 the DOE finally allotted $600,000 to create an environmental oversight agency at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a controversial nuclear waste dump in Carlsbad.

Considering all of these issues, the DOE's recent decision to put LANL up for bidding isn't much of a surprise; it has been managed by the University of California since its inception in 1943. So far, according to the Albuquerque Journal, the University of Texas and Lockheed Martin have both expressed interest.

Certainly, with LANL's future uncertain and unending questions about pollution and protection against terrorism, the labs remain a critical part of New Mexico's political landscape.

Native Americans

With nearly ten percent of its population Native American, New Mexico has one of the largest Indian populations in the country, scattered across 19 different pueblos and numerous tribal nations.

While each pueblo and tribe has its own government, New Mexico is unique in that native politics and culture are not necessarily self-contained, but a highly visible part of New Mexican society. Traditional feast days on the pueblos are widely attended by non-natives, both the acclaimed Institute of American Indian Arts and the pueblo-operated Santa Fe Indian School are located in the capital and the legislature has its own Indian Affairs committee devoted to issues affecting the native community.

Staving off corporate intrusions onto sacred land is one of them, and both the tiny Picuris Pueblo and the Navajo nation are currently involved in battles to keep mining companies from operating on their land, says Doug Meiklejohn, executive director of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center.

Language preservation, how to curb drunk driving on Indian land – a huge problem – as well as the question of whether tribal governments can create their own tax system are all at the forefront of native politics in New Mexico.

And though there are currently only five Indian state legislators, native officials have seen their influence rise over the past two years. Under Richardson, the secretary of New Mexico's Indian Affairs department is now a cabinet member, and the deputy secretary of environment is Native American as well.

The governor has publicly courted the Indian vote, promising to bring native concerns to the national political forum. He has also touted the success of New Mexico's 'Indian Gaming' industry, the state's third largest employer, which rakes in millions for the 11 casino-owning tribes. Gaming pumps between three and eight percent of the profits back into the state's general fund every year, as evidence of increasing political and economic muscle.

Says Representative James Roger Madalena (D-Jemez Pueblo) of Richardson, "He's been very, very sensitive to our issues and we think we'll be able to accomplish a lot with him in charge."

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