In 1968, a turbulent year of assassinations and riots, Lenton Malry became the first Black state legislator in New Mexico’s history.
Malry, a Democrat, defeated Republican Rep. Edward Dunne in an Albuquerque district that was 99 percent white. Malry’s stunning upset made the national news wires.
Twenty-six years would pass before another Black candidate was elected to the New Mexico House of Representatives. Four other Black people — two Democrats and two Republicans — have served in the state House.
Malry can recite their names and the periods when they served. He points out another historical fact.
“We have never had a Black state senator,” he said.
This could be the year.
Harold Pope Jr., a Black military veteran with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemistry, is the Democratic nominee in Senate District 23 in northwest Albuquerque.
Pope is challenging Republican Sen. Sander Rue, who’s running for a fourth term.
Pope, 46, said he hadn’t thought about the Legislature’s ethnic makeup until Democratic Congresswoman Deb Haaland’s staff mentioned that no Black person has ever served in the state Senate.
“I don’t want folks to think it’s why I’m running. It’s not. But it’s history,” Pope said.
Even so, race is an unmistakable part of this year’s campaign in New Mexico, a state with a Black population of only about 2.5 percent.
Democrats on Saturday held a forum on the internet featuring Pope and two other Black candidates who hope to be pioneers in the November election.
Shammara Henderson, an incumbent by appointment, is trying to become the first Black person elected to the state Court of Appeals.
Gerald Byers, running unopposed for district attorney in Doña Ana County, is positioned to become the first elected Black prosecutor of the 3rd Judicial District.
Pope’s race looks to be the toughest of the three.
Pope, 46, grew up in Pueblo, Colo., and moved to Albuquerque to study at the University of New Mexico. He served for 21 years in the Air Force, on active duty and as a reservist, before retiring with the rank of captain.
He’s considering teaching in the public schools as his next career, though the coronavirus pandemic has stalled the plan.
This is Pope’s first try for public office. He entered the Senate race with a theme of “investing in us” to curb social inequities.
Two examples, he said, are expanding coverage to the medically uninsured and making sure the state’s new Early Childhood Education and Care Department is funded adequately.
Pope also is running as an alternative to Rue on a high-profile issue. Pope wants to repeal a 1969 anti-abortion law that’s still on the books in New Mexico.
Rue and every other Republican in the Senate voted in 2019 to retain the anti-abortion measure. Eight conservative Senate Democrats sided with the 16 Republicans to save the old law. Seven of those Democrats no longer will be in office in 2021, most having lost in primary elections.
The anti-abortion law is important to both sides in the debate. Pope says the U.S. Supreme Court might reconsider the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion, putting the old New Mexico statute in play.
Pope will receive help in the fall campaign from the Working Families Party, a new force in state politics. The organization targeted most of the conservative Democrats who favored the anti-abortion bill and helped defeat four of them this year.
“It would be historic for Pope to go to the Senate. He’s a very smart guy who can win,” said Eric Griego, state director of the Working Families Party.
Rue, 66, is an experienced campaigner, having been a senator since 2009. He has shown an independent streak on occasion.
In a notable instance, Rue was the only Republican senator who voted to outlaw spanking of students in public schools. The ban on corporal punishment cleared the House and Senate in close votes, and was signed into law by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.
Malry, the state’s first Black legislator, hasn’t met Pope.
“But my son tells me I need to send him a campaign contribution,” said Malry, who will turn 89 in September. Malry grew up in Shreveport, La. He played football at Grambling College and received degrees in education. He was a 37-year-old elementary school principal in Albuquerque when he first won election to the New Mexico House of Representatives. All his staff was white, and so were almost all the voters.
He took the attitude that he could win over people, in his profession and in politics.
Pope is trying to do the same.
“I wouldn’t be in this if I weren’t running to win,” he said.
Pope doesn’t like to talk about it, but he knows the moment is bigger than one election.
If he wins, New Mexico would have a Black senator after 108 years of statehood.