The Roundhouse in Santa Fe. Post file photo
By ROBERT NOTT
New Mexico House Speaker Brian Egolf is facing sharp criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike over his opposition to having an independent commission oversee the state’s redistricting process.
In particular, members of both parties were thrown by comments the Santa Fe Democrat made during a Zoom conference last week with Retake Our Democracy, an organization focused on social justice. Part of the discussion centered on bipartisan proposals in the Legislature to create a commission to take on the often controversial task of redrawing electoral district boundaries based on new census data.
Egolf told panelists the plans could weaken Democrats’ advantage in the Legislature, “and the [Democratic] agenda goes out the window”.
He said he did not understand why “Democrats want to unilaterally disarm and give advantage to the people who are trying to make the world a dirtier place, take rights away from people, make it harder to vote — all the things that we oppose. I don’t want to make it easier for them to do it”.
Reactions on both sides ranged from disappointment to outrage.
Dick Mason of the League of Women Voters of New Mexico said Egolf’s comments are “pitting progressive issues versus redistricting reform”.
Redistricting is required in every state once a decade, following the national census. The 2020 U.S. Census Bureau data is not expected to be released until at least September, due to delays largely caused by the pandemic. The Legislature is likely to convene for a special session late this year, after the data is released, to choose a new district map.
Lawmakers have introduced three bills in preparation for the redistricting process — two proposing an independent panel to do the job. Those measures have the support of both Republicans and Democrats, while the third was sponsored by a single Democrat. All three are awaiting committee hearings with just a few weeks left in the 2021 session.
Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, is co-sponsoring one of the bipartisan measures, House Bill 211. On Friday, she said Egolf’s comments are “a direct attack on every New Mexican. He wants full control of this state without regard to the will of the people”.
Having an independent body create a redistricting plan is a “no-brainer”, she said, “and it’s unfortunate that a thirst for total power leaves every person in this state without a voice”.
Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, co-sponsor of a Senate version, said an independent panel is the only way to ensure the process doesn’t become one of “politicians picking their constituents — not the other way around”.
In a virtual news conference Thursday, Egolf reiterated his opposition to an independent redistricting panel. But he said the Legislature will “absolutely” produce its own redistricting plan.
“Until there is a uniform national program on independent redistricting, I’m not willing to take that step,” he said.
Egolf could not be reached Friday to comment on the criticism his remarks have drawn.
Kathleen Burke of Fair Districts New Mexico, an organization pushing for an independent commission, said she was “shocked” by Egolf’s comments at the event hosted by Retake Our Democracy.
She said Egolf “is cherry-picking” from the state Democratic Party platform to suit his own needs.
“That’s not really his job,” she said. “His job is to represent the whole platform of the Democratic Party of New Mexico. An independent redistricting commission is on the platform of the state Democratic Party.”
State Auditor Brian Colón — a fellow Democrat who said he has been friends with Egolf for decades and sides with him on most issues — said he “slightly” disagrees with Egolf’s view on redistricting.
“We should be skeptical of change — particularly when it shifts power from our legislative body — but I’m in favor of deliberately contemplating a fair districting commission and anything else that lends itself to more transparency in government,” Colón said Friday.
Voting districts in New Mexico were last drawn in 2012 by a state District Court after then-Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, vetoed a redistricting plan drafted by a Legislature with a majority of Democrats following the 2010 census.
HB 211 and SB 199 would create a seven-member redistricting commission and lay out requirements for choosing members. They require the commission to hold public meetings and formulate three to five options for the Legislature to consider during the special session.
Under each measure, if the Legislature does not agree on a redistricting plan, the commission would decide which option best satisfies the requirements of the Redistricting Act.
A different piece of legislation, SB 15, would create a 16-member commission made up of state lawmakers who would draft a plan for the Legislature to consider. The political makeup of that commission would be proportionate to the number of Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature.
The sponsor of that bill, Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, has said the other two bills violate the state Constitution by potentially forcing the Legislature to accept a plan.
He said Friday he plans to hear both Senate redistricting plans in the Senate Rules Committee, which he chairs, on Monday.
“I’m a big proponent of an independent redistricting committee, but we have to do it in a constitutional manner,” Ivey-Soto said.
In his talks with Egolf on the issue, he said, the two have agreed the process “should take into consideration the state first, and not the Legislature first”.
He said he did not think Egolf’s recent comments “were contrary to that”.