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Dem control of NM House goes unchanged, but redistricting process may not

Republican Rep. Jane E. Powdrell-Culbert speaks after the end of the 2020 Legislative Session. She lost her bid for reelection in 2022 to Democrat Kathleen Cates after a redistricting process she'd been critical of.
Russell Contreras
Republican Rep. Jane Powdrell-Culbert speaks after the end of the 2020 Legislative Session. She lost her bid for reelection in 2022 to Democrat Kathleen Cates after a redistricting process she'd been critical of.

The election of all 70 seats in the New Mexico House of Representatives this month was the first go around for a new district map. The state legislative and U.S. congressional maps were redrawn late last year following the 2020 Census. While Democratic control of the House will remain the same, the redistricting process may not.

The map for the state House, unlike the new U.S. Congressional map, garnered praise for its partisan fairness. University of New Mexico professor Gabriel Sanchez, who evaluated the redistricting process before the election, told New Mexico PBS he found no compelling evidence of partisan gerrymandering in the state maps.

“And, in fact, even Republicans we spoke with had to give credit to Democrats, and said, ‘You know, they really could have made this much worse for us,’” Sanchez said on New Mexico in Focus. “And they really did put forth — at least in terms of partisan gerrymandering — a pretty fair set of maps.”

The Princeton Gerrymandering Project, which releases report cards for maps across the country, gave New Mexico’s House map an A grade for partisan fairness. However, it got a B overall, dragged down by a C for lacking competitive districts and a failing grade for its geographic features, since so many of the districts cross county lines.

Low competition and wonky boundaries could be chalked up to the type of gerrymandering that Sanchez’s team did find — what’s called “buddymandering.”

“There was unfortunately evidence that there were more protection of incumbents through the legislature's maps,” he said. “More so than the CRC and a bunch of computer-generated algorithm-based maps that are supposed to take politics out of the equation.”

The CRC is the Citizen Redistricting Committee. For the first time last year, the panel engaged the public and proposed maps to the legislature without using partisan data. Lawmakers didn’t have to choose a CRC map though, and they mostly didn’t.

Sanchez’s report cites several people with knowledge of the process who said the House met behind closed doors before the CRC even finished their work, and that there were transparency concerns when the final map protected so many sitting lawmakers.

Only two representatives who ran for reelection lost seats. Democrat Candie Sweetser in southwestern New Mexico — although that race is likely heading for a recount — and Republican Jane Powdrell-Culbert in district 44, northwest of Albuquerque.

The only Black Republican representative, Powdrell-Culbert was a vocal critic of the Democratic-led process on the House Floor last December, saying her district had been “destroyed.”

“This process sucks to be totally honest,” she told her colleagues and the Speaker. “This process that we have, and that we’ve gone through, has not been an honest process. And we knew going into it that it was for majority rule. That’s just called politics.”

Analysts come up with different estimates for how drastically the partisan balance of her district changed.

The Princeton Gerrymandering Project estimates it saw a 14% swing to the left. It uses data from the most recent elections for President, U.S. Senate and Governor. Whereas New Mexico-based Research & Polling Inc. have Democrats gaining an 8% share of the vote in district 44, factoring in a decade of all statewide election results.

Research & Polling’s Director of Data and Analytics Brittany Poss said using all statewide races helps “smooth out” the difference between presidential election year results and those from midterms, when turnout is usually lower and how a precinct performs can look different.

Democrats and Republicans also each lost one open House seat to the other party. If recounts don’t change any outcomes, the chamber’s partisan balance will stay nearly the same (the open seat of a retiring Republican-turned-independent was won by a Republican).

District 23 in the Corrales area was already Republican leaning despite being held by Democrat Damon Ely since 2017. He sponsored the new House map in last year’s session.

“I think the reason I’m being tasked to sponsor this is because I’m not running,” he told a House panel considering the map. “And so, I don’t find myself in that conflict except for the fact that I’m a Democrat.”

He praised the CRC and tribal leadership for their contributions to the final House map, even though Research & Polling Inc. estimates his district became about 4% redder than before.

“When it comes to the House map, this is something we, as a body, should all be proud of — Democrats and Republicans,” he told his fellow lawmakers.

His district went on to be won by Republican Alan Martine by eight percentage points.

Meanwhile the Democrats picked up southern New Mexico’s district 38 left open by Republican Rep. Rebecca Dow when she ran unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination for governor. The district has had Republican representation since 1969, according to legislative records, but had its partisan performance flipped on its head when Democrats became about 6% stronger in the new map.

Overall, Professor Sanchez concluded changes in the state legislative maps “were not gerrymandered to advance one party’s interests over the other.”

More controversial was how the southern U.S. Congressional district was redrawn, where Democrat Gabe Vasquez narrowly beat Republican incumbent Yvette Herrell. Lawmakers had included parts of Albuquerque's South Valley and Westside in the district, which made it lean to the left. The Republican Party has sued over that map and the Supreme Court is set to hear the case in January. Regardless of the ruling, this month’s election results will stand.

The fact also remains that the Citizen Redistricting Committee's maps were not used outright. The legislature either tossed them out or tweaked them.

Kathleen Burke with the nonpartisan watchdog group Fair Districts for New Mexico told KUNM that the House got the closest to honoring the work of the independent committee that gathered public input.

“They chose a CRC map and then they updated it a bit to include the Native consensus map, which was not yet ready when the CRC released their proposed maps,” she said. “So, the House did a tremendous job.”

Tribal leaders felt good about their dealings with the House around a new map, according to Sanchez’s report, noting that the discussions were “very positive and respectful.” The same can’t be said for the Senate, where a map the tribes preferred was replaced at the last minute.

Fair Districts for New Mexico, members of the CRC, and even some lawmakers say politicians shouldn’t have the power to tinker with the CRC’s maps. That’s how it works in 10 other states, including neighboring Colorado and Arizona, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

And legislation to that effect is on the agenda. Democratic Rep. Natalie Figueroa plans to reintroduce a bill in January’s legislative session.

“It's a question of public faith in our institutions at this point,” she said of why she advocates for the change. “Having legislators draw their own legislative maps is an inherent conflict of interest.”

A version of the resolution stalled in this year’s session. She is tweaking it after feedback and hopes it will move faster this time, saying people need to have faith legislators aren’t drawing maps to suit themselves.

The Your New Mexico Government project is a collaboration between KUNM and New Mexico PBS with support from the Thornburg Foundation.

Nash Jones (they/them) is a general assignment reporter in the KUNM newsroom and the local host of NPR's All Things Considered (weekdays on KUNM, 5-7 p.m. MT). You can reach them at nashjones@kunm.org or on Twitter @nashjonesradio.
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