The number of Republican state legislators in New Mexico has decreased dramatically after the last two elections. The number of elected statewide GOP officials dwindled to zero after last November, as did Republican representation in the state’s congressional delegation.
However, the state might be seeing the rise of a new conservative political force — in the form of county sheriffs. A couple of recent issues show sheriffs aren’t just friendly guys in cowboy hats but seem to be posing themselves as united voices for rural parts of the state.
Last week David Black, the sheriff of Otero County, sent a letter to news organizations concerning developments for which he’s blaming Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
In the letter, Black said his county is “dealing with a huge influx in drugs coming into Otero County via two main drug-smuggling corridors.” And contributing to that influx, he said, was Lujan Grisham’s decision earlier this year to remove National Guard troops from the state’s southern border and her more recent move to reallocate 50 state police officers to help Albuquerque deal with its crime problem.
Black also mentioned the federal government’s decision in March to close Border Patrol checkpoints in Southern New Mexico (which wasn’t the governor’s decision).
“Otero County is dealing with a huge influx in drugs coming into Otero County via 2 main drug smuggling corridors,” Black wrote. “… crime is on the rise in Otero County. We at the Otero County Sheriff’s Office have redirected all of our unobligated patrol efforts to highway interdiction on U.S. 54 and U.S. 70.”
He said his office is “stretched thin,” and the governor’s actions are largely to blame. He wrote, “Gov. Grisham [not “Lujan Grisham,” which is her name] has said that this problem is not her problem, that it is a federal-level problem. When the uninterrupted flow of drugs, crime and human trafficking is coming into the state of New Mexico it is all our problem.”
Black didn’t provide any actual statistics to show crime rates going up — though he said law enforcement had seized $63,000 worth of drugs in Otero County in April compared with seizing less than $4,000 worth of drugs in February.
Not to discount the actual issues the sheriff raised, Black’s letter had a familiar ring to it. Just a few months ago, sheriffs all over the state led an effort — with a little help from the National Rifle Association — to convince their county commissions to pass “Second Amendment Sanctuary Counties” resolutions, declaring their counties wouldn’t enforce some of the gun control laws passed by the Legislature (and later signed by Lujan Grisham).
Lujan Grisham spokesman Tripp Stelnicki called Black’s letter “purely an attempt to politicize public safety and divorced from reality.” He said state police are “doing a lot of work in Otero. The sheriff never reached out to state police or Chief [Tim] Johnson to discuss his concerns before sending a letter publicly.”
He also noted that his boss recently went to Washington, D.C., where she met with the acting secretary of homeland security “to press for reimbursement for border communities that have been receiving asylum-seekers and additional border personnel to beef up security efforts, among other things.”
Black is the only sheriff to go public with his concerns about state police and border policies. I have the feeling he won’t be the last.
“With the reduction in police presence in our community and our borders being wide open, crime is now on the rise in Otero County,” Black wrote, “and I suspect in other counties as well.”
Notice I said earlier that sheriffs might be becoming a new conservative political force, not a force in the Republican Party. More than half of the county sheriffs in the state are Democrats.
But to indulge in a little generalization here, the Democratic sheriffs I know tend to be a lot more conservative than your typical Democrat. Many of these sheriffs backed the Sanctuary County movement, including Cibola County Sheriff Tony Mace, who heads the state sheriffs association that’s very vocal in his opposition to gun control. Mace was one of five Democratic sheriffs to publicly back Republican Steve Pearce for governor. (The other four were not on the general election ballot last year so no longer are in office.)
As the state’s rural population continues to decrease, along with rural influence in state government, don’t be surprised if we hear more and more commentary on state issues from county sheriffs.