Tribes prevail as redistricting plans advance in New Mexico

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The Democrat-led New Mexico state Senate endorsed a new map for its own political boundaries Thursday that embraces recommendations from Native American communities for shoring up Indigenous voting blocs in the northwest of the state.

In a 25-13 Senate floor vote along party lines, Republicans opposed the redistricting bill that would pit two incumbent Republican senators against each other in the same district for the next election cycle. The bill moves to the House, where major changes are unlikely.

Democratic state Sen. Shannon Pinto, a Navajo Nation member from Tohatchi, described her vote for the bill as a gesture of appreciation for sovereign tribal nations and the state Legislature.

“With this vote, I believe there is a table out there where we can sit and nobody is higher than one another,” said Pinto, whose grandfather was a Navajo code talker in World War II and served in the state Legislature until his death in 2019. “With this vote, the voices of those overlooked are not silenced. ... I believe one day there will be justice for all.”

Native American communities account for about 12% of residents in New Mexico. Tribal leaders are seeking to bolster political influence amid frustration with public education, basic infrastructure and economic opportunities.

The Senate-approved bill would shore up Native American voting-age majorities in three Senate districts and ensure robust minority Indigenous voting blocs in two other districts. The state Senate has 42 seats.

In an acrimonious debate Thursday, several Republican senators said the redistricting plan was stacked in favor of Democrats at the expense of Hispanic voters, noting that it would reduce the number of majority-Hispanic voting districts in the state by at least one to 15.

“This floor amendment decides to pair two of our members,” Sen. Ron Griggs of Alamogordo said of final adjustments to the bill. “Those two members happen to be Hispanic Republicans. That certainly smells of partisan politics. It does not ... pass the smell test.”

Unaffiliated Sen. Jacob Candelaria of Albuquerque, who recently left the Democratic Party, said the bill would dilute the vote of his urban Hispanic constituents by disbursing them into multiple Senate districts. He still voted yes in deference to concern for Native Americans.

Tribal leaders say their communities negotiated painstakingly to arrive at a consensus proposal for the heavily Indigenous northwest of the state.

Elements of that consensus plan would leave Republican state Sen. Joshua Sanchez of Bosque outside the boundaries of his current district, to compete in a neighboring district against Senate minority leader Gregory Baca of Belen.

New Mexico presents unusual challenges in efforts to comply with the U.S. Voting Rights Act and preserve communities of interest and give minority voters a fair shot to elect candidates of their choice.

Nearly half of New Mexico residents claim Hispanic ancestry — the largest share of any state. The state also includes 23 federal recognized tribes.

Democratic Sen. Linda Lopez of Albuquerque, sponsor of the Senate redistricting bill, said she believed the 2020 census provided a “serious undercount” of remote tribal populations in the northwest of the state.

She also acknowledged that the redistricting process was inherently political, in New Mexico and statehouses across the country.