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THURS: Dems flip house seat, Supreme Court favors Native child welfare law + more

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Shelby Wyatt
/
Source New Mexico
U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell (R-New Mexico) speaks briefly during the opening of the RNC Hispanic community center in southwest Albuquerque on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022.

Democrats flip House seat in New Mexico with Vasquez victory — Morgan Lee, Associated Press

Democratic challenger Gabe Vasquez has won election to Congress in New Mexico's 2nd District, defeating incumbent Rep. Yvette Herrell in a majority-Hispanic district along the U.S. border with Mexico.

Vasquez highlighted his Latino heritage and an upbringing along the border in a working-class, immigrant family. He advocated for solutions to climate change and conservation of public lands in a district traditionally dominated by the oil and natural gas industry.

Vasquez broke into politics as a Las Cruces city councilor and campaigned for Congress on support for abortion access and workers' rights. He painted his opponent as an extremist for voting against the certification of Joe Biden as president after the 2020 election.

Republicans are challenging the new outline of the 2nd District under a redistricting plan from Democratic lawmakers that divvied up a politically conservative oilfield region among three congressional districts.

Herrell was defeated as she embraced a conservative platform of strict border security and unfettered support for the oil industry. The district stretches from the U.S. border with Mexico across desert oilfields and portions of Albuquerque.

Vasquez flouted political taboos in a state with strong currents of Catholicism by aggressively campaigning to ensure access to abortion.

His opponent voiced support for banning abortion with limited exceptions. New Mexico allows access to most abortion procedures.

At ease speaking Spanish at rallies and television appearances, Vasquez also backed core Democratic initiatives in Washington on infrastructure spending to speed the transition to renewable energy, raise the U.S. minimum wage and write abortion protections into federal law.

Across the country, vote tallies are still underway Thursday to determine control of the U.S. House and Senate.

Herrell has congratulated Vasquez on his victory while also blasting recent changes to the 2nd District's boundaries by Democratic state lawmakers at the expense of rural communities.

In Tuesday's election, Democrats consolidated control of New Mexico's congressional district while sweeping a long list of statewide races for governor, secretary of state, attorney general and state Supreme Court seats.

___

Check out https://apnews.com/hub/explaining-the-elections to learn more about the issues and factors at play in the 2022 midterm elections. Follow AP's coverage of the 2022 midterm elections at: https://apnews.com/hub/2022-midterm-elections

Justices seem to favor most of Native child welfare law — Mark Sherman, Associated Press

The Supreme Court appeared likely Wednesday to leave in place most of a federal law that gives preference to Native American families in foster care and adoption proceedings of Native children.

The justices heard more than three hours of arguments in a broad challenge to the Indian Child Welfare Act, enacted in 1978 to address concerns that Native children were being separated from their families and, too frequently, placed in non-Native Homes.

It has long been championed by tribal leaders as a means of preserving their families, traditions and cultures. But white families seeking to adopt Native children are among the challengers who say the law is impermissibly based on race, and also prevents states from considering those children's best interests.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh called the case difficult because the court is being called on to draw a line between tribal sovereignty and "the fundamental principle that we don't treat people differently because of race, ethnicity or ancestry."

He was among conservative justices who expressed concern about at least one aspect of the law that gives preference to Native parents, even if they are of a different tribe than the child they are seeking to adopt or foster. Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Samuel Alito and Justice Amy Coney Barrett also raised questions about whether that provision looked more like a racial classification that the court might frown upon.

"To get to the heart of my concern about this, Congress couldn't give a preference for white families to adopt white children, Black families to adopt Black children, Latino families to adopt Latino children, Asian families to adopt Asian children," Kavanaugh said.

But none of the non-Native families involved in the case has been affected by the preference the conservative justices objected to, Justice Department lawyer Edwin Kneedler told the court.

Even if there is a court majority to strike down that provision, the rest of the law could be kept in place, Ian Gershengorn, a lawyer for the Cherokee Nation, the Navajo Nation and other tribes said.

He urged the court to uphold the law "that has made such a meaningful difference to so many children."

Representing the non-Native families, lawyer Matthew McGill called on the court to strike down the law because it "flouts the promise of equal justice under law."

Justice Neil Gorsuch, a conservative who is a strong supporter of Native Americans' rights, and the court's three liberal justices seemed strongly inclined to uphold the law in its entirety.

"Congress understood these children's placement decisions as integral to the continued thriving of Indian communities," said liberal Justice Elena Kagan.

Gorsuch said a broad ruling in favor of the challengers also would take "a huge bite out of" other federal programs that benefit Native Americans, including health care.

The law's fate is in the hands of a court that has made race a focus of its current term, in cases involving the redrawing of congressional districts and affirmative action in college admissions. Two members of the court, Roberts and Barrett, also are the parents of adopted children.

The full 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down parts of the law last year, including preferences for placing Native children with Native adoptive families and in Native foster homes. It also said Congress overstepped its authority by imposing its will on state officials in adoption matters.

But the 5th Circuit also ruled that the law generally is based on the political relationship between the tribes and the U.S. government, not race.

The tribes and the Biden administration appealed some parts of the lower court ruling, while the white families and Texas, allied with those families, appealed others.

More than three-quarters of the 574 federally recognized tribes in the country have asked the high court to uphold the law in full, along with tribal organizations. They fear widespread impacts if the court attempts to dismantle the tribes' status as political sovereigns.

Nearly two dozen state attorneys general across the political spectrum filed a brief in support of the law. Some of those states have codified the federal law into their own state laws.

A ruling in favor of the families and Texas could undercut the 1978 law and, the tribes fear, have broader effects on their ability to govern themselves.

When child protection authorities remove Native children from their homes, the law requires states to notify tribes and seek placement with the child's extended family, members of the child's tribe or other Native American families.

All of the children who have been involved in the current case at one point are enrolled or could be enrolled as Navajo, Cherokee, White Earth Band of Ojibwe and Ysleta del Sur Pueblo. Some of the adoptions have been finalized while some are still being challenged.

Before the Indian Child Welfare Act was enacted, between 25% and 35% of Native American children were being taken from their homes and placed with adoptive families, in foster care or in institutions. Most were placed with white families or in boarding schools in attempts to assimilate them.

___

Associated Press writer Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Arizona, contributed to this report.

New Mexico Indian Affairs' cabinet secretary leaving the job — Associated Press

The New Mexico Indian Affairs Department's cabinet secretary will be leaving her job at the end of this month.

Lynn Trujillo was appointed to the position by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in January 2019.

"Lynn has been an essential part of our efforts to better support, partner with, and invest in tribal communities across the state," Lujan Grisham said in a statement Thursday announcing Trujillo's upcoming departure.

The governor's office said it is conducting a search for Trujillo's replacement.

As cabinet secretary, Trujillo worked with tribal leadership, advocates and legislators on passage and enactment of aid legislation that provided additional funding to school districts in Native American communities.

She also led New Mexico's first Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives Task Force, which led to the creation of a state response plan to address the issue.

During Trujillo's tenure, the Lujan Grisham administration also provided life-saving resources to tribal communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mother sentenced for role in slaying of New Mexico girl — Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

The mother of an Albuquerque girl who was strangled and dismembered was sentenced Thursday to 12 years in prison for her role in the child's death, with six of those years already served.

The punishment for Michelle Martens was handed down by a New Mexico district judge during a virtual hearing. Martens appeared on screen in an orange jumpsuit from the detention center where she has been undergoing treatment and therapy.

Described as a model inmate, Martens wiped away tears as her defense attorney recalled for the court how her daughter, Victoria, was a beautiful child who did well in school, was well-behaved and was loved by neighbors in the apartment complex where they lived.

State District Judge Cindy Leos said well-behaved children usually come from homes where they are loved and cared for by involved parents. Pointing to evidence and testimony gleaned during multiple court proceedings, Leos suggested that was the case in the Martens home before Michelle Martens became involved with a man who had a criminal past.

"He preyed on Ms. Martens and she was in a position at that point in her life that she was easily manipulated by him and couldn't see what he was up to and the grave risk that was posed to her family," the judge said. "But nevertheless, we do have a little girl who is no longer with us because of some of the decisions that were made by Ms. Martens."

Martens pleaded guilty in 2018 to reckless child abuse resulting in death as part of a plea agreement. Her boyfriend at the time, Fabian Gonzales, and his cousin, Jessica Kelley, also were convicted of child abuse and other charges and have been sentenced to decades in prison.

Victoria Martens' death — on her 10th birthday — sent shockwaves through the community. An officer who responded to a report of a pre-dawn disturbance at the apartment found the girl's remains in a bathtub, partially wrapped in a blanket that had been set on fire.

The girl's grandparents and others who knew Michelle Martens said at the time of the killing that they were mystified over how Martens got involved with Gonzales and Kelley.

Gonzales was sentenced in October to 37 1/2 years in prison. In his case, prosecutors had sought a maximum sentence of 40 years. Leos combined two of the tampering with evidence counts that related to the removal of the victim's body parts, thus resulting in a slightly shorter prison term.

During his trial, prosecutors said that although Gonzales didn't kill Victoria Martens, he set in motion events that created a dangerous environment that led to the girl's death. Gonzales had moved into the apartment with Martens and her daughter.

According to investigators, Gonzales had allowed Kelley to stay at the apartment shortly after Kelley was released from prison. Investigators determined that Martens and Gonzales were not at the home when Victoria was killed but that Kelley was there.

Prosecutors said Victoria was killed either by an unknown man or by Kelley, who was using methamphetamine and acting paranoid that day. Gonzales' attorneys argued that Kelley killed the girl then tried to cover it up.

The case remains open and authorities are looking for an unidentified man based on DNA evidence.

Michelle Martens' attorney, Gary Mitchell, told the court that she has been participating in multiple programs while in custody and would be a good candidate for community rehabilitation. Despite teasing by other inmates, her defense team said Martens has remained calm, is doing the work needed as part of her therapy, and has learned coping skills.

Leos ordered that Martens continue with treatment once she is released and on supervised probation.

Head of New Mexico Department of Veterans Services resigns – Associated Press

Sonya Smith, head of the New Mexico Department of Veterans Services, said she will step down Friday to spend more time with her family.

Smith has been the Veterans Services’ cabinet secretary since October 2020 after previously working as a special projects manager at the state Department of Health.

With the Department of Veterans Services, Smith supported the enactment of an income tax exemption for armed forces retiree pensions.

She is credited with successfully galvanizing the state’s pushback against a nationwide Veterans Administration proposal to close 700 community-based outpatient clinics, including four in New Mexico.

Smith also oversaw the department’s launch of a transportation program that provided free round trips for veterans from 15 New Mexico counties to any VA-approved medical appointment.

A veteran of the Gulf War, Smith served as a medical technician in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm as a member of the Air Force Reserve.

Justices seem to favor most of Native child welfare law – Mark Sherman, Associated Press

The Supreme Court appeared likely Wednesday to leave in place most of a federal law that gives preference to Native American families in foster care and adoption proceedings of Native children.

The justices heard more than three hours of arguments in a broad challenge to the Indian Child Welfare Act, enacted in 1978 to address concerns that Native children were being separated from their families and, too frequently, placed in non-Native Homes.

It has long been championed by tribal leaders as a means of preserving their families, traditions and cultures. But white families seeking to adopt Native children are among the challengers who say the law is impermissibly based on race, and also prevents states from considering those children’s best interests.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh called the case difficult because the court is being called on to draw a line between tribal sovereignty and “the fundamental principle that we don't treat people differently because of race, ethnicity or ancestry.”

He was among conservative justices who expressed concern about at least one aspect of the law that gives preference to Native parents, even if they are of a different tribe than the child they are seeking to adopt or foster. Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Samuel Alito and Justice Amy Coney Barrett also raised questions about whether that provision looked more like a racial classification that the court might frown upon.

“To get to the heart of my concern about this, Congress couldn't give a preference for white families to adopt white children, Black families to adopt Black children, Latino families to adopt Latino children, Asian families to adopt Asian children,” Kavanaugh said.

But none of the non-Native families involved in the case has been affected by the preference the conservative justices objected to, Justice Department lawyer Edwin Kneedler told the court.

Even if there is a court majority to strike down that provision, the rest of the law could be kept in place, Ian Gershengorn, a lawyer for the Cherokee Nation, the Navajo Nation and other tribes said.

He urged the court to uphold the law “that has made such a meaningful difference to so many children.”

Representing the non-Native families, lawyer Matthew McGill called on the court to strike down the law because it “flouts the promise of equal justice under law.”

Justice Neil Gorsuch, a conservative who is a strong supporter of Native Americans' rights, and the court's three liberal justices seemed strongly inclined to uphold the law in its entirety.

“Congress understood these children's placement decisions as integral to the continued thriving of Indian communities,” said liberal Justice Elena Kagan.

Gorsuch said a broad ruling in favor of the challengers also would take “a huge bite out of” other federal programs that benefit Native Americans, including health care.

The law's fate is in the hands of a court that has made race a focus of its current term, in cases involving the redrawing of congressional districts and affirmative action in college admissions. Two members of the court, Roberts and Barrett, also are the parents of adopted children.

The full 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down parts of the law last year, including preferences for placing Native children with Native adoptive families and in Native foster homes. It also said Congress overstepped its authority by imposing its will on state officials in adoption matters.

But the 5th Circuit also ruled that the law generally is based on the political relationship between the tribes and the U.S. government, not race.

The tribes and the Biden administration appealed some parts of the lower court ruling, while the white families and Texas, allied with those families, appealed others.

More than three-quarters of the 574 federally recognized tribes in the country have asked the high court to uphold the law in full, along with tribal organizations. They fear widespread impacts if the court attempts to dismantle the tribes’ status as political sovereigns.

Nearly two dozen state attorneys general across the political spectrum filed a brief in support of the law. Some of those states have codified the federal law into their own state laws.

A ruling in favor of the families and Texas could undercut the 1978 law and, the tribes fear, have broader effects on their ability to govern themselves.

When child protection authorities remove Native children from their homes, the law requires states to notify tribes and seek placement with the child’s extended family, members of the child’s tribe or other Native American families.

All of the children who have been involved in the current case at one point are enrolled or could be enrolled as Navajo, Cherokee, White Earth Band of Ojibwe and Ysleta del Sur Pueblo. Some of the adoptions have been finalized while some are still being challenged.

Before the Indian Child Welfare Act was enacted, between 25% and 35% of Native American children were being taken from their homes and placed with adoptive families, in foster care or in institutions. Most were placed with white families or in boarding schools in attempts to assimilate them.

Buu Nygren uses familiar platform to win Navajo presidency – Felicia Fonseca, Associated Press

Buu Nygren entered the Navajo presidential race with a platform echoed by generations of candidates: deliver basic needs on the vast reservation where most roads are unpaved and thousands of families don't have running water or electricity.

His expectation that Navajos hold him accountable on those promises resonated with voters who elected him to the tribe's top post Tuesday. Nygren ousted incumbent President Jonathan Nez, who guided the tribe during a pandemic and signed off on a plan for much-needed infrastructure using federal virus relief funding.

Nygren's win, along with his running mate Richelle Montoya, also means the Navajo Nation will have a woman in the Office of the President and Vice President for the first time. Navajo voters twice advanced Lynda Lovejoy to the general election for the presidency, but she lost both times.

The position wields influence nationally because of the tribe's hefty population and its 27,000 square-mile (70,000 square-kilometer) reservation that stretches into Arizona, New Mexico and Utah and is the largest in the U.S. The tribe's population of 400,000 is second only to the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.

Nygren kept his focus decidedly local after hearing from Navajos who are frustrated at the pace of tribal government and perplexed at why the economy largely has been stagnant. He acknowledged the hard work that lies ahead.

“I’ve said it time and time again, that we want to do the things that are tough,” he said to a rowdy crowd gathered Tuesday night in the tribal capital of Window Rock.

Unofficial results showed Nygren outpaced Nez by nearly 3,500 votes with all 110 precincts reporting. Turnout among the more than 123,000 registered voters was about 53% — low for a typical tribal presidential election.

Nygren, 35, positioned himself as the candidate for change and as someone who could get the ball rolling on long-awaited projects. He has a background in construction management and was a vice presidential candidate in 2018 but has never held political office. He is married to Arizona state Rep. Jasmine Blackwater-Nygren, who did not seek reelection.

Both Nez and Nygren are fluent in Navajo but were markedly different in tone and style. Nez preferred suits and often spoke calmly and measured. Nygren had a flair for rising and falling speech, wore his hair tied in a traditional bun and dressed in more casual clothing.

Nygren pledged to work more closely with the Navajo Nation Council that often is seen as more powerful than the tribal presidency.

The new 24-member council will have a record nine women. Three current council delegates did not seek reelection. Thirteen delegates either lost in the primary or were beat in the general election, meaning there will be many fresh faces.

The newly elected leaders take office in January.

Nez ascended into the presidency after more than two decades in elected positions in Navajo County and tribal government. He chose Chad Abeyta, a lawyer and veteran as his running mate.

Nez said he spoke to Nygren on Wednesday and congratulated him.

Nez had outlined his administration's work to ensure tribes received a share of federal virus relief funding, including $1 billion that Navajo leaders set aside for infrastructure projects.

The coronavirus pandemic highlighted inequities in basic services and thrust the Navajo Nation into the spotlight when it had one of the highest infection rates in the U.S.

“We pray that the next administration respects the will of our current leaders by fulfilling these projects for the people,” Nez said in a statement.

The tribe has long relied on revenue from the coal industry to fund its government, but those revenues have been declining as coal-fired plants and mines shut down. While the Navajo Nation owns a stake in one coal plant and some coal mines, it’s working to develop renewable energy sources.

Tourism also helps fuel the Navajo economy. Towering rock formations in Shiprock, Monument Valley and Canyon de Chelly are international draws for tourists, as is the story of the famed Navajo Code Talkers who developed a World War II code that the Japanese never cracked.

Candidates who backed overturning Trump loss are rebuffed – Nicholas Riccardi, Associated Press

Republicans made a striking decision earlier this year to nominate candidates for top statewide posts in swing states who backed overturning President Donald Trump's loss in 2020. Most of those candidates lost in the midterm election.

Doug Mastriano, who commissioned buses to take Pennsylvanians to the Jan. 6, 2021, protests in Washington failed in his bid to become that state's governor. Kristina Karamo, a community college instructor who spread misinformation about voting on Twitter even on Election Day, was crushed by Michigan's Democratic secretary of state.

Mathew DePerno, an attorney who filed a lawsuit spreading Trump's election lies in Michigan in 2020, lost his bid to be that state's attorney general. Audrey Trujillo, a political novice who cheered Trump's defiance of the vote in 2020, was defeated for New Mexico secretary of state.

Two such races remained too close to call on Wednesday — Arizona and Nevada. And in more conservative states, from Indiana to Kansas, election conspiracy theorists still won key positions.

Many observers argued that the 2022 midterm election has shown that imperiling democracy is not politically successful.

“It turns out that trying to overturn an election is not wildly popular with the American people,” said Whit Ayres, a veteran Republican pollster.

That even extends to Arizona, Ayres added, where a prominent former television newscaster-turned-election-conspiracy-theorist, Kari Lake, remains in a right race for governor against Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, whose campaign has been widely panned.

"The fact that it is close with a very polished, very good Republican candidate and a very weak, very unpolished Democratic candidate tells you how much of a weight election denial is on a Republican candidate,” Ayres said.

Lies and conspiracy theories about elections burrowed deeply into the 2022 Republican field, with nearly one-third of the party's 85 candidates for governor, secretary of state and attorney general embracing Trump's efforts to overturn his 2020 loss.

About half of those won — almost all of them incumbents, except for candidates such as Kris Kobach, a member of Trump's 2016 voter fraud commission who won the race for attorney general in Kansas, and Chuck Gray, a Wyoming state representative who ran unopposed for secretary of state in that heavily Republican state.

More significant are the outcomes in the six states that clinched Joe Biden's win in 2020 and where Trump and his allies disputed his loss.

In most of those states, as in most of the country, the secretary of state is the top election official while the governor and attorney general often play key roles in voting rules and certifying election results.

In Georgia, Trump unsuccessfully backed a slate of election conspiracy theorists in the GOP primary in May, seeking revenge against incumbent Republicans who rebuffed his requests to overturn his loss.

On Tuesday, Trump lost bids to install supporters in three more of those pivotal states. In Pennsylvania, Mastriano would have had the power to appoint a secretary of state to oversee voting, but he was routed in the governors race by Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro. In Wisconsin, Trump’s pick for governor, Tim Michels, lost to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, dooming Republican dreams of disbanding or significantly overhauling the state’s bipartisan election commission.

In Michigan, Karamo and DePerno had been key players in spreading misinformation about Trump's loss in 2020. Along with Tudor Dixon, the party's nominee for governor who repeated Trump's election lies, they provided a drag on the GOP ticket that contributed to Democrats capturing full control of the statehouse for the first time in decades.

In two other competitive states — Minnesota and New Mexico — GOP candidates for secretary of state who echoed Trump's election lies lost badly, performing worse than the top of their respective tickets.

“There are more of us pro-democracy Americans who are not Democrats — who look at the Republican Party and say ‘That is not for me’ — and that was borne out last night,” said Jeff Timmers, a former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party.

Nevada and Arizona will continue to test that idea as ballots are tallied in their close races for top statewide posts.

Nevada is where former state lawmaker Jim Marchant organized a coalition of election conspiracy theorists to run for voting posts nationwide as he himself ran for his state's secretary of state position.

Democracy advocates were optimistic on Wednesday, especially as some Republicans conceded their losses without alleging mass fraud.

"We’re seeing a bit of a scramble for the right message” among election deniers online, said Emma Steiner, who monitors disinformation for Common Cause.

She said concessions from candidates including Dixon in Michigan and Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania make "it a little more difficult for election deniers to continue.”

But even as advocates celebrated, they kept a wary eye on Arizona and Nevada and acknowledged that Trump has inflicted grave damage on the trust in democracy that helps bind the country together.

“Without a doubt, election denial is alive and well, and this is a continuing threat,” said Joanna Lydgate of States United, which has sought to publicize the danger of election conspiracy theorists. But she took solace in Tuesday's results.

“It was a really good night for democracy,” Lydgate said.