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New Mexico politics, immigration make headlines in 2018

December 24, 2018
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FILE - In this Oct. 25, 2018 photo, New Mexico gubernatorial candidate and U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham speaks to an audience including many unionized state workers in Santa Fe, N.M. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)
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FILE - In this Oct. 25, 2018 photo, New Mexico gubernatorial candidate and U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham speaks to an audience including many unionized state workers in Santa Fe, N.M. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico Democrats solidified their power over state government during the midterm elections as a long-held GOP congressional seat in a key border district was flipped by a political newcomer and voters sent one of the nation’s first Native American congresswomen to Washington.

Politics dominated New Mexico headlines in 2018 along with an economic turn-around fueled by oil and gas and efforts by the Trump administration to address illegal immigration and bolster security along the U.S.-Mexico border.

With Republican Gov. Susana Martinez marking the end of her two-term tenure, attention was on the race for her successor as two of New Mexico’s congressional representatives faced off for the top office. Michelle Lujan-Grisham defeated Republican Rep. Steve Pearce as part of a Democratic sweep that included legislative seats and judicial races.

Las Cruces attorney Xochitl Torres Small won New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District to join fellow Democrats Debra Haaland and Rep. Ben Ray Lujan in forming the first all-minority, three-member U.S. House delegation in New Mexico’s history. Haaland, a former New Mexico Democratic Party chairwoman, is a Laguna Pueblo member. Lujan is member of one of New Mexico’s storied political Hispanic families.

Democrats also expanded their majority in the state House of Representatives, building upon a decades-long history in which the party has dominated New Mexico’s political scene.

Here are other top stories of the year:

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BORDER WALL AND IMMIGRATION

A $73 million contract was awarded to a Montana company in February to design and build replacement fencing along a 20-mile section of the international border in southern New Mexico, prompting a lawsuit by environmentalists.

The work continued as New Mexico deployed fewer than 200 troops to the border at President Donald Trump’s request to fight what he called a crisis of migrant crossings and crime.

Immigrant advocates voiced opposition to the increased security and raised concerns about the treatment of migrants. In one case, a transgender woman from Honduras died while in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, sparking claims that she was not provided adequate medical care. In December, a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl died after she and her father — along with a group of 163 migrants — were detained after crossing the border in a remote area in southern New Mexico.

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ECONOMIC TURN-AROUND

New Mexico marked another year of record oil production, resulting in an economic boost and a significant budget surplus. That means state lawmakers and the next governor will have more options as they set spending priorities for the next fiscal year.

Prompted by previous investments from some of the largest energy companies in the U.S., oil production in New Mexico was on track to surpass 200 million barrels for the year. Federal geologists also released an assessment showing portions of the Permian Basin have the potential to double the nation’s onshore oil and gas resources and keep the boom going if prices remain favorable.

With the addition of more than 18,000 jobs over the year, New Mexico saw the largest percentage drop of any state in its unemployment rate from November 2017 to November 2018.

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EDUCATION SETTLEMENT

It was billed as a landmark ruling that could reshape New Mexico’s education system and how it gets funded. A state district judge in July ruled that New Mexico was violating the rights of at-risk students by failing to provide adequate funding for public schools.

The ruling stemmed from a lawsuit filed in 2014 by advocacy groups and school districts that accused the state of failing to meeting constitutional obligations to provide a sufficient education for all students.

The case highlighted the plight of English-language learners, Native American youth and students from low-income families.

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UNM SPORTS CUTS

The University of New Mexico came under great scrutiny as regents voted twice to eliminate the popular men’s soccer team along with other sports as a means to get spending under control within the troubled athletics department. The decision sparked public outcry.

The fiscal concerns came as the university also grappled with fallout from an ongoing investigation into questionable spending and violations of the state’s transparency laws .

A report released by the state attorney general’s office pointed to emails in which former Athletics Director Paul Krebs appeared to direct employees to destroy emails and documents related to a 2015 Scotland golf trip fundraiser where the university used around $25,000 in public money to cover private donors’ expenses.

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CLERGY SEX ABUSE

New Mexico’s largest Roman Catholic diocese dropped a bombshell in November, announcing it would seek bankruptcy protection after spending more than $50 million over the years to settle hundreds of lawsuits alleging child sex abuse by clergy members.

Archbishop John Wester, leader of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, said he had been contemplating the action for years but that the archdiocese had reached a tipping point and he wanted to ensure there would be resources to provide compensation for victims. He described the filing as an equitable thing to do as church reserves dwindle.

National watchdog groups and attorneys for victims have said the move suggests otherwise. They pointed to money spent by the archdiocese on lawyers in recent months and the tens of millions of dollars in real estate that was transferred to parishes in recent years, effectively reducing the amount of assets held by the archdiocese.

More lawsuits claiming clergy abuse were filed in 2018. Church officials expect there will be more.

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VIOLENCE AGAINST NATIVE AMERICAN WOMEN

The high rates of violence that have victimized numerous Native American for decades received heightened attention in 2018 as concern grew about the cases of missing and murdered indigenous women — including in New Mexico.

Federal officials, lawmakers and advocates called for more robust investigations into missing persons cases and the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs ended the year with a hearing that focused on the deaths and disappearances of Native American women.

Democrat Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico said factors compounding the crisis include poor coordination among the multiple law enforcement agencies tasked with investigating crimes on Indian reservations. He and other senators also shared concerns over a lack of government data to measure the scope of a problem.

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NEW MEXICO COMPOUND

The search for a Georgia boy led authorities in August to raid a ramshackle compound on the high desert plains of Taos County. They found 11 hungry children living in filth, a dirt tunnel, arms and ammunition, and five adults related to a well-known imam from New York.

The body of 3-year-old Abdul-ghani Wahhaj was found days later during a second search. Authorities said the boy, marked for an exorcism, had been denied medical treatment that he needed for seizures and other ailments.

The adults were initially detained by authorities on suspicion of child neglect. They remain in federal custody on firearms and conspiracy charges. A federal grand jury indictment alleges a man in the group helped train children for potential attacks on schools, law enforcement agencies and other institutions.

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PLUTONIUM FUTURE

The federal agency that oversees the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile recommended in May that the production of the plutonium cores that trigger nuclear warheads be split between South Carolina and New Mexico. Officials said the plan would boost the resiliency and flexibility of weapons manufacturing by not relying on a single site.

Production of the cores had been based at Los Alamos National Laboratory — the northern New Mexico site where the atomic bomb was developed decades ago — since the 1990s. However, none have been turned out in years because of a series of safety lapses and concerns about a lack of accountability.

U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall, both New Mexico Democrats, had pushed to keep the work at Los Alamos, given the hundreds of jobs and billions of dollars in federal funding at stake.

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DEADLY CRASHES

Two passenger bus crashes resulted in a dozen people being killed and nearly 50 injured in accidents on New Mexico’s highways.

The first crash came in July along Interstate 25 just north of Albuquerque. Authorities say a bus driver tried to avoid hitting a car that had just slammed into the back of a pickup truck, but instead rolled on its side and was sideswiped by a semi-truck. Three women were killed, and 24 people injured.

The second crash happened in August east of Gallup. Nine passengers were killed, including an infant born prematurely as a result of the collision. Police said a semitrailer going in the opposite direction lost the tread on its left front tire, veered across a median and smashed into the bus. Twenty-five people were injured.

In April, Jennifer Riordan, a well-known figure in New Mexico community relations and communications died after fellow Southwest Airlines passengers said she was partially sucked out the window of a flight bound from New York to Dallas. The jet’s engine had blown in midair and shrapnel hit the plane. She left behind a husband and two children.

In January in northern New Mexico, a key Zimbabwe opposition leader died in a fiery helicopter crash along with his wife and three others. Roy Bennett had won a devoted following among Zimbabweans for passionately advocating political change.

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DROUGHT

New Mexico farmers and water managers wrapped up the year hoping that El Nino would develop and save them from what could otherwise be another dry winter.

The Rio Grande marked some record-low flows in 2018, prompting federal officials to partner with the largest water utility authority in the state and others to keep the river from drying up at least through the Albuquerque stretch.

Elephant Butte, the state’s largest reservoir, dipped to just 3 percent of capacity at the end of September. While there was a slight uptick since then, that marked the lowest level since the early 1970s.

Federal drought maps shows the situation has improved in a small portion of northern New Mexico and along the Rio Grande corridor, but the Four Corners region and the southern Colorado mountains that feed the river are still stuck with extreme to exceptional drought.

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Associated Press writer Mary Hudetz contributed to this report.

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