This week’s victory in New Mexico’s special election is notable for one thing: It continues a long streak of the state generally electing sensible, qualified politicians to Washington.

That may seem drab, but trust me, it’s not. Today, the newest members of Congress in Washington are all too often Instagram-producing, Twitter-memeing performance artists, especially those who call themselves Republicans but really are just the mimics, followers and useful idiots of Donald Trump.

By handily winning New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District in metropolitan Albuquerque, Melanie Stansbury steps into a long line of extraordinarily well-qualified occupants of that office. Stansbury herself quietly but firmly developed a reputation as a professional aide working for Washington state’s U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell.

Before her, every occupant previous to her in my memory was inarguably intelligent, devoted to the work and diligent about it. I covered Washington for the state’s other big newspaper, the Albuquerque Journal, for nearly a decade. Republican U.S. Rep. Manuel Lujan took care of business but soured on the then-new direction of the Republican leadership under Newt Gingrich. Republican Steve Schiff tried hard to fill Lujan’s shoes in Congress and was nothing if not hardworking.

When another Republican, Heather Wilson, succeeded Schiff, her brilliant and detailed mind was evident — it shone in Congress, later as Air Force secretary and now as president of the University of Texas at El Paso. Obviously, Deb Haaland, whom I spoke with once only briefly when she first ran, was more than equal to the job and brought the long overdue perspective of a Native woman to Congress.

Like Haaland, now secretary of the interior, all these people were serious students of government. The economy of New Mexico is in large part fueled by government, producing 22 percent of the economic output in the state. For the dilettante Trumpers out there, that isn’t a handout. Government, despite its inefficiencies, produces value in New Mexico.

Government, after all, doesn’t just steward public lands; for better and worse, it also stewards the nation’s nuclear weapon design, development, testing and maintenance. Government in New Mexico test-fires the missiles and trains the pilots streaking across the ranges and trains the special operators who have to rescue those downed pilots in combat. And much of that is just the federal government in and around Albuquerque.

The job of managing budgets, employing people and settling complex issues, of the land, Native American nations dealing with the federal one, and national security is not one for a rank amateur, or, worse, a poser. And New Mexico’s neighbors have those by the truckload: Arizona’s Paul Gosar, Colorado’s Lauren Boebert. And Texas? Need I mention Ted Cruz, the most unaccomplished windbag in the 232-year windbaggery of the U.S. Senate? Of course, New Mexico does have GOP U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell, as soul-crushing a failure in the right-wing flea circus as ever walked the earth. Hey, they can’t all be winners.

And candidly, though he got crushed even in his own district, the worst thing that can be said of Stansbury’s Republican opponent, Mark Moores, was that he was unaccomplished, too. As a result, he didn’t even give a whiff of competence to his candidacy. That is the gap that Stansbury seems to have filled with voters in her double-digit victory margin: competence.

Voters who aren’t fascists really don’t want to think about government all day long. They’re not glued to Fox or One American News Network 24 hours a day. They want to put competent, hopefully honest, people in to turn the knobs and pull the levers so they, the voters, can go on with their actual lives. Later, in an all-too-frequent re-election, they’ll judge how their choice did. That’s how representative democracy is supposed to work.

And yes, that reflection of competence does remind me of President Biden. His presidency is far from perfect so far; people who swoon over him or his spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, are making a huge mistake. They will disappoint you. They will, at some point, double cross your hopes and leave them hung out like yesterday’s laundry. You will regret canonizing them. That’s how politicians are supposed to work.

New Mexico certainly has its share of problems, but perhaps because government is so inextricably part of the lifeblood of the state, love that or hate it, New Mexicans historically are pretty good at picking politicians. New Mexicans have picked the winning presidential election about 90 percent of the time since statehood in 1912. That might help explain why New Mexico rejected Trump twice. And down ballot, the entire New Mexico delegation that I knew had its quirks and faults for sure. They were human, after all. Well, except for former Sen. Pete Domenici, or so he thought. But they were good at their jobs.

Domenici had one of the biggest egos I ever met outside my shrink’s office — but he was fantastically competent and devoted to governing principles that were once the very bedrock of being a Republican. That guy loved the federal budget like you love your favorite dog and did what was right for Albuquerque and New Mexico almost always. Former Sen. Jeff Bingaman knew everything about everything, covered every base carefully, detailed as a neurosurgeon and never missed a step. He came off to me as too fine a human being to be in politics — but was shy of taking credit to a fault. Today’s senators remind me of him. And that’s a compliment.

Down in the south, Joe Skeen knew how to take care of people, from fighter pilots to ranchers and farm hands and everyone in between. There wasn’t a mean bone in that man’s body and a more hail fellow weren’t never met, as he might’ve said himself.

New Mexico chose well this week. It blew some wind into the tattered sails of our democracy, still under siege right next door in Texas. The whole country owes New Mexico a debt. So, thank you.

The online article has been amended to correct the name of the senator for whom Melanie Stansbury worked. She worked for Sen. Maria Cantwell, not Patty Murray.

Richard Parker is an award-winning journalist and author who chronicles the American Southwest for the New York Times, Politico Magazine and others.

(2) comments

John Cook

New Mexico does have a sterling history of sending outstanding members to Congress. Perhaps this columnist has also shown competence from time to tome. However, Melanie Stansbury was an aid to Maria Cantwell in the Senate. Not Patty Murray.


You are correct in that Ms. Stansbury worked for Maria Cantwell in the Senate and I have asked the editor for a correction. Your comment about my competence, however, is unnecessarily sarcastic. Best not to insult someone's ability without reviewing a bit more of their work, Mr. Cook. However accurate you are, you are also impolite. Thank you.

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