Eight Democrats joined with the 16 Republicans in the New Mexico Senate to preserve a 50-year-old state law that criminalizes abortion.
Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa, had said he would vote to repeal the old anti-abortion statute. He reversed himself based on what he described as the power of the Catholic Church.
“At the demand of constituents, I shifted my position,” Cisneros said in an interview this week. “The church is very strong in my area.”
Now comes the fallout. Cisneros already has drawn an opponent for the primary election that’s almost a year away.
Taos Town Councilor Darien Fernandez is going to run, and he plans to make sure no one forgets how Cisneros wavered on the anti-abortion bill.
“He flip-flopped. He and [Rep.] Bobby Gonzales appeared in public. Both said they would vote to repeal it. Bobby kept his word,” Fernandez said.
Fernandez, who’s also chairman of the Taos County Democratic Party, said he plans to formally announce his candidacy for the Senate around the Fourth of July. He already has met with Cisneros to tell him he will challenge him.
After the death last month of Sen. John Pinto, Cisneros became the senior Democrat in the Senate. In July 1985, then-Gov. Toney Anaya appointed Cisneros to fill a vacancy. He has since been elected to the Senate nine times.
Fernandez might be only the first of a group of liberal Democrats who want to reshape the Senate.
Democrats control the chamber 26-16. But Cisneros and other conservative Senate Democrats have riled party regulars by siding with Republicans on the abortion bill.
The more liberal wing of the Democratic Party wanted the state’s 1969 anti-abortion law wiped off the books in case the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, the decision in 1973 that legalized abortion.
Cisneros maintains that judging him on one vote and one issue is unfair.
“You’ve got to look at the entire 35 years of legislation I’ve been involved in,” he said.
That’s not the way many voters see politics.
Plus, if Cisneros heartened Catholic bishops and congregants with his support for the anti-abortion bill, he has upset them with his resistance to using some of the state’s $18 billion land grant endowment for early childhood education.
Fernandez says Cisneros is out of step with his district, which includes all or part of Taos, Santa Fe, Rio Arriba and Los Alamos counties.
“People have gotten used to not seeing this guy anywhere,” Fernandez said.
Fernandez, 37, last year ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Taos. Turnout in New Mexico usually increases in presidential election years, so he hopes new voters and the progressive faction of the Democratic Party will deliver for him.
Cisneros, 71, wants another term in the Senate in hopes of rising in the chamber. He thinks he might have a shot at Senate president pro tem, if that slot opens.
The incumbent Senate president is Mary Kay Papen, 87, of Las Cruces. She told me her plan is to seek reelection.
“I’m no spring chicken, but I have the energy and I think I’ve done a good job for my community,” she said.
A senator for 19 years, Papen also voted to keep the old anti-abortion law on the books. Her district has become more liberal, so she could also face an upstart in the primary.
Other Democratic senators who might be targeted by members of their own party are John Arthur Smith of Deming, Pete Campos of Las Vegas, Richard Martinez of Española, George Muñoz of Gallup, Clemente Sanchez of Grants and Gabriel Ramos of Silver City.
All were part of the bloc that voted to keep the anti-abortion statute on the books.
Campos squanders Senate time by sponsoring useless bills, such as one to create a state chile song. Still, he knows a lot of people and would be tough to unseat after 30 years in office.
Muñoz, Martinez and especially Smith would be even harder to defeat. Smith is popular in his district and respected in the Senate for his leadership of the Finance Committee. He has such command of the state budget that other legislators seldom contest his views.
Sanchez and Ramos are more vulnerable.
Sanchez won his first term in the Senate in 2012. He defeated his far more liberal niece, Maxine Velasquez, by 11 votes. Sanchez breezed to reelection in 2016 but is likely to face a primary opponent in the coming election.
Ramos, an incumbent by appointment, is by far the weakest of the conservative wing. It’s a sure bet that another Democrat will try to oust him.
Abortion, a polarizing topic for 50 years, will be the defining issue in a fractious primary season — one that already is underway.
Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at email@example.com or 505-986-3080.