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Lea joins redistricting lawsuit

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CURTIS C. WYNNE/NEWS-SUN

LOVINGTON — Lea County Commissioners agreed on Thursday to join an ongoing bipartisan lawsuit over the New Mexico Legislature-approved mapping of U.S. Congressional districts.

Encouraging public input while acknowledging the likelihood of no improvement being made, Commission Chairman Dean Jackson brought the question before the commission.

“I feel we are being overlooked down here. If we take this without saying a word, that’s wrong. We should at least have our voices heard,” Jackson said.

With three congressional seats allotted to New Mexico, the previous lines generally provide one district for the northern part of the state, one for the southern part and one basically encompassing Albuquerque and Bernalillo County.

The redistricted maps now splits southeastern counties into more than one district, with residents of Hobbs in districts two and three, and those in Roswell in all three congressional districts.

“That effectively was to dilute the southern voice that spoke largely with one voice for more conservative values and particularly for the petroleum industry,” said state Rep. Larry Scott, R-Hobbs. “These voices have now been weakened and moved into areas with little or no common interest. Hobbs has been bifurcated along Marland Avenue. Roswell is now in three districts. No case can be made that this held contiguous communities or contiguous areas of interest together.

“The advantage that conservatives and moderates held in the south half of the state is now gone. All three districts now lean toward more progressive values.”

State Sen. David Gallegos, R-Eunice, and Bobby and Dee Ann Kimbro of Loving-ton, along with former state Sen. Tim Jennings, D-Roswell, Manuel Gonzalez Jr. of Alamogordo, Dinah Vargas of Albuquerque and Pearl Garcia of Albuquerque are the plaintiffs in the suit filed in Lea County District Court in January by the law firm of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.

Besides Jennings, who served as a Democratic state senator from Roswell for 34 years, all the plaintiffs are Republicans.

The political maps were approved in December by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the Democrat-led Legislature in Senate Bill 1. The traditionally conservative-leaning 2nd District was shifted to incorporate heavily Hispanic neighborhoods of Albuquerque and cede portions of an oil producing region in southeastern New Mexico.

The redistricting measures taken were expected.

Supporting Jackson’s effort to involve the board of commissioners, Commissioner Gary Eidson said Thursday, “After the 2020 election, the speaker of the New Mexico House (Democrat Brian Egoff) said by the time they finished redistricting there would be no minority representation in Santa Fe or Washington. Pretty much what he said. I just can’t sit back and let them silence our voice. So, I support this.”

Commissioner Jonathan Sena preferred to downplay the partisan politics.

“We need to have our voices heard,” Commissioner Jonathan Sena agreed. “Voting has to be our top priority. It’s not about party; it’s about being heard and making sure we’re all represented in Washington, making sure we’re all represented in Santa Fe.”

Commissioner Rebecca Long noted the Citizens Redistricting Committee’s efforts to create district maps that maintained common communities and area interests.

“The Citizens Redistricting Committee did a good job and they were totally ignored. When the Legislature said no we’re going to do our thing, that was totally, totally wrong,” Long said. “A message needs to be sent.”

From southern Lea County, which now is represented in a completely different congressional district than the part of the county north of Mar-land Street in Hobbs, Commissioner Pat Sims added, “This reeks of taxation without representation. It stinks.”

Scott told the commissioners he doubts the lawsuit will succeed, but he supported the effort.

“What I hope is that my progressive colleagues have out-smarted themselves,” Scott said. “I hope it because they have energize moderate and conservative voices. If those voices rise up to be heard, we may end up with more than one moderate congressperson serving the state.

“At the end of the day, our best chance is not in the courthouse, but at the ballot box,” Scott concluded.

County Attorney John Caldwell recommended joining the current lawsuit, rather than filing a new suit.

“Time is of the essence. Probably the best course of action is to file a plea of intervention in the lawsuit,” Caldwell said. “I believe we have additional arguments as a county representing our constituents who believe their rights have been violated. … Unfortunately, I do agree with Rep. Scott that the likelihood of success in New Mexico courts is low because our appellate courts are very liberal.”

Before the commission voted unanimously to join the lawsuit, Jackson pointed out, “Maybe we don’t stand a chance, but we sure don’t stand a chance if we don’t stand up and scream from the top of our lungs. We supply the state of New Mexico with 30 percent or higher revenue and we’re basically being told they don’t care what we think, that our voice doesn’t matter. By God, our voice does matter. We should do this, I believe.”

Also in the audience and speaking in favor of doing something were Eddy County Commissioners Steven McCutcheon (chairman) and Jon Henry, who is also mayor of Artesia.

With primary elections coming in June, McCutcheon noted, “We can’t wait forever. Eddy County is on board, I believe, but I can’t speak for the commission. … Eddy, Lea and Chaves are all split up and that’s not representing anybody.”

Saying he has been in touch with people in Roswell, Jackson concluded, “We hope our colleagues in Eddy and Chaves will come aboard.”

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