What was supposed to be a “high noon at midnight” decision on a contested legislative redistricting map will turn into a “high noon Thursday” showdown.
That is, if all the senators show up for the fight.
The state Senate postponed a planned late-night debate on a redistricting bill that would benefit two Republican senators but leave one predominantly Native American district weaker after a GOP lawmaker demanded all members of the chamber be on deck for the vote.
Rep. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, requested a “call of the Senate” shortly after Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, introduced a substitute redistricting bill for all 42 seats of the Senate.
Brandt, the Republican whip, called Lopez’s map “a travesty.” After the evening’s session ended, Senate Republican leaders issued a statement in which they claimed Democrats tried to push through a map “while the people of New Mexico slept,” adding “They did so in an effort to hide their lies and their assault against Hispanic voices and representation. We would not stand for this. If Senate Democrats are successful in pushing their closed door, gerrymandered map to a vote, they will have to do it when the public is watching.”
That parliamentary move means all Senators must be present for all proceedings related to a bill. Though two Democratic senators have been permanently excused from this special legislative session, Sen. Crystal Diamond, R-Elephant Butte, was not, and she was missing from the floor when the debate began around 8:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Within a few minutes Senate Floor Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, made the decision to postpone the discussion until noon Thursday, saying it might take a while to locate Diamond and bring her back to the state Capitol.
The Senate adjourned shortly before 9 p.m. That left about a dozen Native American activists, who had been awaiting a vote, cooling their heels in the mostly deserted Roundhouse.
“It’s a disappointment,” said Regis Pecos, a former governor of Cochiti Pueblo who has been involved with the redistricting process. He told the small assembly surrounding him, “I guess they don’t know the stamina of our people.”
Such political moves can cripple the legislative process. Texas House Democrats left the state during a summer special session to prevent a quorum to block a voting restriction bill. Though their collective flight slowed the progress of that legislation, Gov. Greg Abbott eventually signed it into law.
In this case, the fight is over political and geographical territory in the state Senate and it has longterm ramifications: once the map is approved, it will stay in place for a decade.
The Senate map conflict began Sunday, when New Mexico Native leaders criticized the introduction of a substitute bill by President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, claiming the changes make short work of a consensus plan developed by all of the state’s tribes over eight months.
The battle revolves around a provision altering the boundaries of that consensus map — an unpairing of two Republican incumbent senators, Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca of Belen and Sen. Joshua Sanchez of Bosque, who otherwise would have had to run against one another in the same district in the next election.
As a result, Pecos said, Senate District 30 along the state’s western border would be stretched into rural Catron County, a heavily Republican area.
“It puts us to the wolves,” Pecos said before the Senate floor session. “What do we have in common with Catron County? There’s no community of interest.”
Pecos and other Indigenous leaders said legislative efforts to protect two incumbents should not play a factor in a monthslong effort to provide redistricting maps that strengthen six Native American majority voting districts.
Senate lawmakers involved in the amendment process have said redistricting is about compromise and not everyone will get what they want.
But Pecos said the history of Native American dealings with government is “full of examples of compromise” that don’t always work out.
He said sometimes “you have to walk away from a situation where the outcome, as a result, is to your own detriment.”
While the Legislature convened the special session to focus on redistricting, lawmakers also have been working to approve $478 million in federal aid money to help pandemic-stricken New Mexicans.
Lawmakers are grappling with trying to pass an emergency bill to fix language in the state’s Medical Malpractice Act to ensure independent physicians don’t have to pay for $4 million worth of malpractice insurance come Jan. 1. Health care providers say the bill is necessary to avoid a possible shutdown of smaller health care clinics.
Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee debated and criticized that bill during a two-hour plus hearing Wednesday and plan to return to it Thursday morning.
The Senate also approved a redistricting map for the 10-member Public Education Commission, which oversees the roughly 50 state-authorized charter schools. The House of Representatives already approved that bill, so it is now on its way to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk for her approval.
The Legislature already approved congressional redistricting maps, which await the governor’s signature.
The back-and-forth between Democratic Senate leaders and Indigenous activists over the redistricting map has added a touch of conflict and drama to the session that’s mostly been political wrangling.
Brandt’s move could call the future of these discussions into question. There is no guarantee Diamond or another lawmaker who does not have an excuse pass will be present Thursday.
Pecos acknowledged lawmakers could “pull this the rest of the week.” But, he added: “We’ll remain here and watch them destroy the faith of the public.”