New opportunities to defeat far-right in New Mexico

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico is offering new opportunities to trounce the Republican right next year.

A labor-community coalition scored a significant political victory this month, electing two pro-labor and community activists to the City Council here. The Oct. 2 victories of Rey Garduño and Debbie O’Malley demonstrated the power of such a coalition to overcome machinations by Mayor Martin Chavez aimed at getting a City Council more favorable to real estate developers and the Chamber of Commerce.

Then, on Oct. 4, Republican Sen. Pete Domenici declared he would not seek another term, citing health reasons. But other factors may have been involved. Domenici’s approval rating, for the first time in his 36-year career, has dropped to 40 percent, due in part to his involvement in the politically motivated firing of U.S. prosecutor David Iglesias and his continued support of the Iraq war. Critics speculate that the Albuquerque City Council race could have been a factor in the senator’s decision. Why? Because this demonstration of people power poses a threat to continued right-wing Republican domination of New Mexico politics.

Suddenly all political estimates have changed here. With Domenici’s announcement, labor and progressives are looking at three possible congressional seats open for a serious contest to defeat the Bush agenda.

GOP Rep. Heather Wilson, long perceived as Domenici’s political heir apparent, announced her candidacy for his seat and said she would not run for re-election to the House. This gives the Democrats an open shot not only for the Senate seat but also Wilson’s 1st Congressional District slot. Steven Pearce, the Republican congressman from southern New Mexico’s 2nd District, also indicated that he might run for the Senate, leaving his seat open as well.

So far Democratic leaders have been slow on the uptake. Martin Heinrich, former Albuquerque City Councilor and active participant in the local labor-community fight for a livable wage, has announced his candidacy for Wilson’s House seat, but has yet to come out fighting the Republican agenda full force. He is opposed in the primaries by Jason Call, a young high school mathematics teacher proposing a comprehensive progressive program (including opposition to the Iraq war, defense of the Constitution and support for labor). Also running is Michelle Lujan Grisham, former state health secretary and protégé of Gov. Bill Richardson. A political newcomer, she has also projected an antiwar and people’s agenda.

On the Republican side, Bernalillo County Sheriff Darin White is running to replace Wilson.

As for the Senate race, thus far only two Democrats, Don Wiviott, a small businessman with a labor background from Santa Fe, and Albuquerque Mayor Chavez, have announced their candidacies.

A recent survey of likely voters indicated that the only Democrat capable of defeating Wilson for the Senate is Bill Richardson, the popular governor who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Richardson has said he is only interested in becoming president. However, his campaign and position statements suggest to many here that he would make a perfect Senate candidate. He has been known to change his mind at the last moment.

All the Democratic candidates have stated their opposition to the Iraq war and support for universal health care and other liberal-progressive measures. But the community-labor coalition that was so instrumental in sweeping labor-friendly Garduño and O’Malley into the Albuquerque City Council has not yet projected an independent program that could influence these campaigns in a progressive and winning direction.

The Bernallilo County Republican Party, taking a page from the Karl Rove playbook, did not hesitate to attack Democratic Senate candidate Chavez, Albuquerque’s mayor, for making the city a “sanctuary for illegal and criminal immigrants.”

On the other hand, if Chavez wants to convince his constituents he merits a Senate seat, he will have to overcome some of his reactionary baggage such as his hardnosed approach to negotiations with city unions and his opposition to increasing the city’s minimum wage.

With close to one-third of New Mexico voters registered as independents, for the Democrats to win all three open congressional seats, they must come out fighting hard on domestic issues as well as ending the war. If the Albuquerque-Santa Fe community-labor coalition takes an independent stand on issues and candidates, it could become a big factor in the primaries and the 2008 elections.