U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández recalled the feeling that overcame her at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 — just three days after the freshman congresswoman had been sworn into office.
“I was angry that it had come to this,” she said Wednesday, just ahead of the insurrection’s one-year anniversary.
“But I understood that what we were witnessing on Jan. 6 was the culmination of months of the former president making falsehoods, lying about what happened in November” with his general election loss, the New Mexico Democrat said.
Vigils are planned around the nation Thursday to commemorate the deadly uprising by supporters of former President Donald Trump who believed his claim the 2020 presidential election had been stolen from him. The incident rocked a nation that had believed its Capitol in Washington, D.C., and what the building stands for — democracy — were impenetrable.
Many members of the U.S. House and Senate have spoken this week about their lingering trauma from the attack, in which they were shaken by the chaos, including a fatal gunshot fired by a Capitol police officer.
A few days after the attack last year, U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján, another New Mexico Democrat, said in an interview he heard a mob of protesters moving toward the Senate chamber and saw Secret Service agents rushing into the chamber to move Vice President Mike Pence to safety. He also heard a report of shots fired, followed by cries of, “Get them out of here!”
The effects of the riot were felt in New Mexico as well, where some state lawmakers feared a similar attack on the state Capitol in downtown Santa Fe as they prepared for a 60-day legislative session. They voted to increase security measures, prompting the installation of chain-link fences and concrete barriers around the building. Security patrols and door checks by New Mexico State Police officers and New Mexico National Guardsmen became a regular sight during the 2021 session.
The Roundhouse was closed to the general public during the session, though the decision was due in large part to the still-surging coronavirus pandemic.
Luján joined activists from several voting-rights advocacy groups in a virtual news conference Wednesday to discuss the Freedom to Vote Act, legislation that would give the federal government more control over state elections. Luján said the anniversary of the Capitol insurrection is the right time to act to protect Americans’ fundamental right to vote.
“These bills must become law,” Luján said. “Our democracy depends on it.”
Leger Fernández also supports the measure.
Voting rights activists insist the legislation is necessary to ensure another Capitol attack does not occur. They say Republican leaders in many states already have enacted laws limiting voter access and subverting the election process.
Republicans, meanwhile, have blocked the legislation with a filibuster.
Earlier this week, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said the chamber will vote to change its filibuster rules in an effort to pass the bill, as well as the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — named for the civil rights activist and congressman who died last year — by Jan. 17, Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The John Lewis legislation would restore and reinforce portions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, put in place to protect minority voting rights.
Senate Republicans in Washington are engaging in “pure obstruction,” Luján said Wednesday. “They have made the political calculus that it is to their advantage to not allow access to the balloting box and enact rules that make it harder for people to vote.”
Among other provisions, the voting rights bill would set federal mandates for early and mail-in voting and would require voters to provide some form of identification before casting a ballot. It also would make Election Day a national holiday, when a range of businesses would be closed and more workers could get to the polls.
During Wednesday’s news conference, Luján said, “One year ago, Jan. 6, 2021, our democracy bent — but it didn’t break. That dark day reminded us how fragile our democracy is. On that day, many heroes stood up to protect America — from the Capitol police to Capitol leadership to everyday Americans. We made it clear we will not hide in fear. Rather, we will rise to the occasion to do the jobs we were sent here to do.”
Leger Fernández, reflecting on the attack in an interview later Wednesday, said, “I want us all to be very honest about what happened on Jan. 6 so we can make sure it does not happen again. I want all Americans to recognize how close we came to undermining this very precious and fragile thing called our democracy.”
Passage of the voting rights bill, she said, is key to ensure “no president — especially a president — is above the law.”