MON: NM Special Election Measures Pulse After Trump, More Schools Commit To Return Next Year + More

May 31, 2021

Special House Election Measures Political Pulse After Trump - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

A special congressional election is checking the political pulse of politics across the Albuquerque metro area and a few outlying rural communities in one of the few House campaigns since President Joe Biden took office.

Four names are on the ballot in Tuesday's election to succeed Deb Haaland in Congress after her confirmation as secretary of the U.S. Interior Department. After weeks of early voting, polling locations are closed on Sunday and Monday before reopening on Election Day with allowances for same-day registration.

New Mexico's 1st Congressional District has heavily favored Democratic candidates in recent years, shunning President Donald Trump with a gap of 23 percentage points in 2020 and reelecting Haaland with a margin of 16 percentage points as voter participation reached an all-time high.

Those margins bode well for Democratic nominee and second-term state Rep. Melanie Stansbury, as she confronts Republican state Sen. Mark Moores. Republicans hope to erode the 219-211 Democratic majority in the U.S. House of Representatives ahead of midterm elections in 2022.

Stansbury, a consultant on land use and water policy, has embraced Biden's core agenda for post-pandemic economic recovery, free universal preschool and infrastructure spending that modernizes energy and transportation sectors to address global warming. In recent debates, she has endorsed a $15 national minimum wage, reforms to address police misconduct and systemic racism, and a more humanitarian approach to immigration.

Moores has emphasized the need for aggressive drug interdiction and immigration enforcement along the U.S. border with Mexico and uninterrupted oil leasing on federal land as a crucial source of employment in New Mexico. His campaign has seized on concerns about public safety and crime as a core issue, backing more federal dollars for police body cameras that are required in New Mexico and voicing support for police officers.

A hardline approach to crime by Trump in 2020 fell flat with Albuquerque-area voters after he sent federal agents to bolster local law enforcement efforts. Still, crime remains an issue for the city.

Two additional candidates are vying for untethered voters in a state with strong currents of libertarian politics.

Independent contender Aubrey Dunn Jr., a former Republican elected to statewide office as land commissioner who didn't seek reelection in 2018, has cast himself as a staunch defender of gun rights and an experienced steward of public lands. Libertarian nominee Chris Manning, who lives far outside the 1st District in Farmington, is campaigning on an unorthodox plan to reduce health care costs by eliminating employer-based coverage and insurance requirements.

The potential for low turnout in the vacancy election adds an element of uncertainty — and a sense of rare opportunity among Republicans, who account for 31% of registered voters across the 1st Congressional District. 

The voting district encompasses Albuquerque, rural Torrance County and other outlying areas that include the Indigenous community of Sandia Pueblo.

Registered Democrats dominated early voting, casting roughly twice as ballots as registered Republicans as of Friday.

Political science professor Lonna Atkeson, of the University of New Mexico, notes that both major-party candidates have delved into attack ads and negative campaigning — a sign that neither campaign is confident.

"Nobody's felt confident enough that they can just ride it out in a positive way. So they're both feeling a little stressed," Atkeson said. "I mean, we never saw Deb Haaland do a negative ad."

The Democratic National Committee brought Doug Emhoff, the husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, to New Mexico on Thursday to campaign on Stansbury's behalf. At a rally with labor unions and other supporters, Emhoff acknowledged the thin margin Democrats have in Congress and said electing Stansbury would help to ensure the party's legislative initiatives make it to the president's desk.

Moores has repeatedly sought to link Stansbury to the so-called BREATHE Act proposal from the Movement for Black Lives that would divest taxpayer spending from traditional policing agencies and invest in alternative approaches to public safety. And he says Stansbury voted in 2019 for a bill that benefitted her consulting client.

Stansbury said she has stood by law enforcement in coordinating spending on police infrastructure and initiatives at the state Legislature. She has bashed Moores for opposing some pandemic relief measures while accepting $1.8 million in federal aid at his medical testing business.

Moores frequently invokes Latino family ties that date back to the region's Spanish colonial era, in a state where Hispanic pride is an enduring staple of politics.

Atkeson sees that as an overt push by Moores to win over socially conservative Latinos who might otherwise vote Democrat.

The 1st Congressional District has been controlled by Democrats since 2009. 

The seat has consistently been a stepping stone to higher office for Republican and Democratic politicians, including now-deceased Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr., former U.S. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

More New Mexico Schools Commit To In-Person School In Fall – Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press

More New Mexico schools are committing to offering full-time, in-person learning this fall, with some virtual learning options.

Schools confirming their commitment to widespread in-person learning over the last several weeks include districts that were the most hesitant to reopen, including Albuquerque and Santa Fe. That signals that parents across the state can expect to send their kids through school doors in the fall.

“There may be a few schools — and they’re still working on this — that offer some online element. But the reality is the majority of that will be picked up at eCADEMY,” said Albuquerque Public Schools Superintendent Scott Elder. The district's online only district school is named eCADEMY.

In a letter to parents last week, Santa Fe school officials said classes will be in-person only starting next fall. However, students can register for online school with Desert Sage Academy.

The announcements came as school districts sort out enrollment for the fall. State education officials have taken a hands-off approach after a year of strict pandemic restrictions loosened in the middle of the spring semester.

Since the widespread reopening of New Mexico's public schools in early April, a few schools have had to shut their doors because of COVID-19 outbreaks, while over 800 schools have kept the virus in check within their facilities or have been in communities that managed to do so.

Schools and nonprofit groups in New Mexico are still making preparations for summer programs.

In June, the state Public Education Department is expected to update its COVID-19 guidance for public schools based on state health department guidelines.

In April, the Center for Disease Control updated its own guidance to reflect a growing consensus on the low transmissibility of COVID-19 on surfaces, which it put at about 1 in 10,000.

Last week, the federal agency updated guidance on summer camps, loosening mask restrictions for children who are vaccinated.

The agency said children who aren’t fully vaccinated should still wear masks outside when they’re in crowds or in sustained close contact with others — and when they are inside.

Pecos River Conservation Projects Awarded $1.5M In Grants – Adrian Hedden, Carlsbad Current-Argus, Associated Press

Conservation projects in the Pecos River area got a boost this year as about $1.5 million in grants were awarded to organizations in southeast New Mexico and West Texas to restore habitats and maintain the health of the river.

The Pecos Watershed Conservation Initiative, a consortium of private companies and government agencies created in 2017, released its fourth annual grant funds last week providing dollars for seven projects along the river.

The funds were matched by about $3 million from participating organizations, the Carlsbad Current-Argus reported.

Last year, about $1.8 million was awarded to eight projects, matched with $3.7 million.

Partners in the initiative included oil and gas companies such as Chevron, Occidental Petroleum and XTO Energy and federal government agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management.

In a joint statement, the initiative’s corporate members said the funding was intended to improve communities that host oil and gas extraction, such as those in the Permian Basin that spans southeastern New Mexico and West Texas along with the Pecos River Valley.

BLM New Mexico Acting Director Melanie Barnes said the projects were needed to support the diverse ecosystems in the Pecos River area, restore native grasslands and combat invasive species.

“Controlling invasive species brings restored grasslands and improved water quality and availability and modifying restrictive fencing brings unobstructed movement across these landscapes for both large and small game animals,” Barnes said. “Both of these efforts are management priorities for public lands.”

Between the 2020 and 2021, the 15 projects awarded funding led to the leasing of more than 13,000 acre-feet of water to support restoring aquatic habitats, restoration of about 26 square miles of grasslands in the Chihuahuan Desert, while improving grassland management of 36 square miles.

More than 60 miles of new fencing safe for native pronghorns was to be installed, while hydrology was restored at four habitat sites.

Alamogordo Repealing City Ordinance On Marijuana Possession – Alamogordo Daily News, Associated Press

With New Mexico legalizing recreational marijuana, Alamogordo is repealing the city ordinance against unlawful possession that has been on the books since 1960.

The Alamogordo Daily News reported that the repeal ordinance approved unanimously by the commission will take effect June 29, the same date that state law will allow people age 21 and over to possess up to 2 ounces of marijuana. 

"This simply strikes our marijuana ordinance and it still leaves everybody subject to state law, which will be enforced," Alamogordo City Attorney Petria Bengoechea said. 

No one is currently incarcerated for illegal marijuana possession since it is a civil penalty that carries a fine with it, Bengoechea said.

Alalamogordo's illegal marijuana possession ordinance only has jail time on the third offense which was not enforced, Bengoechea said.

However, the repeal is not retroactive and people who have already had a fine assessed will still have to pay the fine.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in April signed the state legalization bill in April.

New Mexico's Child Welfare Agency Seeks Tech, Culture Change - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

New Mexico's child welfare agency is promising technology improvements and increased transparency after its use of an auto-deleting messaging app came under fire by state lawmakers and others.

"When I came in the (Children, Youth and Families Department) was described— fairly or not — to me as a black box," said Cabinet Secretary Brian Blalock, who was appointed in 2019. "And so we wanted to fix that."

Blalock said the use of the encrypted Signal app was suspended, that public records request staff has been expanded under his watch, and the agency is on track with the largest software upgrade in decades that will improve agency operations ranging from the foster care system to juvenile justice system.

Blalock made his remarks to The Associated Press in an interview May 17, before news broke that he had fired on May 6 top staffers who had advised him and senior deputies on both the use of the app and the software development efforts.

The fired staff members said that a culture of punishing dissent threatens an upgrade of the agency's data system essential for federal funding and exacerbated a recent public relations crisis over the use of the encrypted messaging app.

Debra Gilmore was the director of the Office of Children's Rights until she was fired May 6 along with her husband, Cliff, who worked as the agency's spokesman. The Searchlight New Mexico investigative reporting website first reported the firing of the Gilmores.

She said the department reprimanded her for "failure to form productive and professional work relationships," including with project managers tasked with upgrading the agency's Child Welfare Information System, a database that is essential to running New Mexico's foster care system and meeting federal data reporting requirements. 

Debra Gilmore said the project managers were upset because she pushed them to account for the project's sprawling scope and nebulous deadlines. 

"I just could not get a satisfactory answer to the 'how' — how are we going to do that?" said Gilmore, a lawyer and certified project manager with decades of experience in social work project management.

Cliff Gilmore said he raised concerns about the use of the Signal app, which in some conversations was set to delete messages every 24 hours.

The department ultimately stopped using the app altogether after a report by Searchlight New Mexico uncovered the practice and fueled criticism over the possibility that public records were being destroyed.

"Our office is pleased that CYFD has discontinued the use of the app, and we are reviewing to ensure that the agency is complying with the law and best practices for retention of public information," said Matt Baca, spokesman for the New Mexico Attorney General's Office. 

Cliff Gilmore said he and his wife were aggressively recruited by the child welfare agency last year because of their extensive experience, including his decades of work as a spokesman for the military where he oversaw a team of 65 press officers serving a 55,000-strong Marine force. 

The couple says Debra Gilmore was hired in December, because of her decades of experience in state government and NGOs, including running a foster care advocacy organization in Oregon.

"I had never, until this time, been in a room where if I said, 'I think we got a problem here' that the answer would be anything other than 'OK, tell me more ' " he said. "But I got, 'Oh you're new, you don't understand.' "

Instead, he said that his advice to not use the Signal app and the auto-delete feature was ignored, though the agency eventually stopped using the app. 

The department disputed nearly every aspect of the couple's account of problems at the agency.

"What the Gilmores have, and are asserting is ill-informed and is not based on experience or expertise in New Mexico state government, state procurement laws, state IPRA and records retention laws, or importantly the technology needs of CYFD," spokesman Charlie Moore-Pabst said. "It is unfortunate in their very short time in NM government they have chosen to criticize CYFD's operations without all the facts and without an understanding of New Mexico law."

The agency has struggled in the past with employees claiming they have been retaliated against. 

"We welcome whistleblowers, we welcome attorneys and demand letters. We welcome any opportunity to improve CYFD," Blalock said in the May 17 interview. "There's a tension between allegations of whistleblowing and when you have an employee that's just not working out."

The department has said that the technology upgrade is key to meeting federal requirements, both for efficient case management and organizing and sending data to the federal government and the public. But the department said it is on schedule in the next round of software upgrades.

The $44.9 million project has seen delays in receiving approval for federal funding, threatening the budget, according to a recent Legislative Finance Committee IT project status report for the first quarter of the 2021 fiscal year. Out of nine state agency IT projects reviewed, the Children, Youth and Families Department's was the most at-risk of failure.

The current system makes it hard for the department to report required data to the federal government and hinders public access. When The Associated Press tried to compile a 50-state survey of a dozen child welfare indicators, New Mexico was one of 14 states that did not produce the data within a matter of weeks and free of charge.

Debra Gilmore said that without answering the tough questions she believes got her disciplined, the software project will fail to improve case management. "I am concerned because it is an opportunity to tailor the next generation of software to the needs of the children and families being served," she said.

Cliff Gilmore added that he would expect policies that deal with communication among employees and data to be articulated clearly in writing and publicly available, but that doesn't appear to be the case.

While Blalock has said the agency has policies and procedures in place to prevent destroying records that should be retained, the department confirmed that there was no official policy on the use of Signal specifically. It also doesn't have a guidance document on whistleblower protections, relying only on state statutes.

Moore-Pabst said the department has recently updated its retaliation policy, though it focuses more on employees participating in formal investigations rather than dissenting views. 

On May 25, the department began offering drop-in training on the ethics of whistleblowing, optional for senior staff and required for certain caseworkers.

White House Asks Court To Dismiss Lawsuit Over Drug Imports - By Bobby Caina Calvan Associated Press

The Biden administration is urging a federal court to dismiss a lawsuit that could stand in the way of Florida and other states importing prescription drugs from Canada.

In a legal brief filed Friday, the White House argues that the lawsuit filed last year on behalf of U.S. pharmaceutical companies was premature because the federal government has yet to approve any importation programs. 

The administration's legal filing came on the same day Florida's Republican governor, who is considering a run for the White House in 2024, called on the Biden administration to approve its drug importation application.

Florida and New Mexico are the only two states thus far to formally ask the U.S. government to allow federally approved drugs to be imported from Canada, arguing that doing so would save Americans millions of dollars. Other states are poised to follow, despite a lawsuit raising concerns over safety and costs that was filed by the Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America, the trade group that represents U.S. drug producers.

In its legal filing, President Joe Biden's administration argues that drug companies "pre-emptively launched this wholesale attack" on a program that has yet to be implemented. 

"Although two proposals have been submitted to FDA, no timeline exists for the agency to make a decision," the government's motion states. 

During a Friday news conference, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Floridians could save as much as $150 million in drug costs in the program's first year. 

DeSantis signed a bill in 2019 allowing prescription drugs to be imported from the neighboring country, but the plan awaits federal approval. 

In November, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under then-President Donald Trump issued a ruling, which DeSantis said was based largely on Florida's plan, further opening the door for states to pursue importing prescription drugs. That same month, the trade group filed its lawsuit.

The governor's office on Friday issued a statement asserting that the current government's legal filing "puts the Biden Administration on the record in support of the FDA rule." 

The Florida governor has increasingly taken a combative tone against the Biden administration as he positions himself as one of his party's leading critics of the current White House.

"It is disappointing that the FDA appears to have no timeline to review any state importation proposals as referenced in today's filing," the governor's statement said. "Floridians have been waiting long enough for lower drug prices, and there is no good reason to keep them waiting."

Some consumers have long crossed into Mexico and Canada to buy medicine that sells for far less than in the United States. But it's against federal law to import drugs.

The lawsuit filed by the Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America accuses the federal government of failing to demonstrate the safety of importing medicine and any actual cost savings. 

DeSantis and others have dismissed those concerns, saying that Canada, like the United States, has stringent pharmaceutical guidelines, and "we obviously would have our process to ensure quality."

DeSantis said his state is ready to act swiftly to put its program into place should the federal government approve its request to launch a drug importation program.

Santa Fe Police Searching For Suspect In Shooting, Car Theft - Associated Press

Police in Santa Fe are searching for a suspect who shot a man in the head outside a motel before fleeing the scene in a stolen car.

They said officers were called to the GreenTree Inn around 1 p.m. Saturday on a report of gunfire.

When officers arrived, they reported finding a 59-year-old man the victim bleeding in the parking lot.

Medics rushed the man to a hospital where he's listed in critical condition.

His name hasn't been released.

Police said witnesses gave them a description of the suspect and the license plate number of the stolen vehicle.

Drug Overdose Deaths In New Mexico Increase By 25% In 2020 – Albuquerque Journal, Associated Press

Drug overdose deaths in New Mexico in 2020 increased by 25% from the previous year, continuing a trend seen before the pandemic.

Increased abuse of the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl pumped up the number of overdose deaths to 721 in 2020, up from 574 in 2019, the Albuquerque Journal reported.

The provisional numbers were gathered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and broken down by QuoteWizard, a division of LendingTree, according to the Journal.

Fentanyl is an extremely potent opioid that is prescribed for legitimate medical uses, including treatment of cancer patients and in surgical anesthesia, but it also is smuggled into the United States from Mexico and often trafficked illegally in counterfeit pills known as "blues."

"The pervasiveness of fentanyl on the illicit drug market in New Mexico is one of the most daunting public safety issues we face," said Fred Federici, acting U.S. attorney for New Mexico. "Over the past several years, we have seen the prevalence of fentanyl rise from occasional seizures to an alarming number of cases."

Navajo Nation Reports 9 New COVID-19 Cases And 4 More Deaths - Associated Press

The Navajo Nation is reporting nine new confirmed COVID-19 cases and four additional deaths.

Tribal health officials said the latest figures released Saturday night pushed the total number of cases since the pandemic began more than a year ago to 30,839 on the vast reservation that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

The known death toll now is 1,322.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said people must continue getting vaccinated, wear face masks and practice social distancing. 

"I must also remind our people that following the Memorial Day weekend last year, we experienced an increase in new COVID-19 infections here," Nez said in a statement. "There are variants in every part of the country and here on the Navajo Nation that continue to pose risks for us all."

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