Environmental issues at center of New Mexico special election

Cecil Joe (right), a Navajo Indian, fills a water tank of a fellow member of the Navajo Nation
Getty Images

Environmental issues are taking center stage in New Mexico’s upcoming special election, where the Democratic Party is looking to maintain its hold on a seat previously held by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. 

Democratic candidate Melanie Stansbury, a state legislator, is leaning on her experience as an environmental science professional as she looks to defeat Republican state Sen. Mark Moores in the June 1 election, underscoring the importance of issues relating to water infrastructure and public lands in a blue district with a sizeable Native American population.

“Stansbury’s coming from a very progressive standpoint on environment and energy. … We’ve seen this turn in the district,” said New Mexico-based political blogger Joe Monahan, who noted that Republicans in the state have been reluctant to paint her stances on those issues as radical. “They’re protective of the environment regardless of party.”

The race to fill Haaland’s seat kicked off at the end of last year after President Biden nominated the former congresswoman for the top post in the Interior Department.

Though New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District has been trending blue for the past decade, the national attention the race is drawing is a sign that Democrats see it as a critical early test for their party.

Republicans need to flip just a handful of seats in the House to regain control of the lower chamber in next year’s midterm elections. And Democrats are smarting after being shut out in a special election in Texas earlier this month that saw two Republicans — including former President Trump’s favored candidate — advance to the runoff. The New Mexico special election offers the GOP an opportunity to flip a seat in the kind of suburban district where the party suffered losses under Trump, putting pressure on Democrats to secure a decisive win.

Still, Democrats are seen as holding a clear advantage heading into June 1. Haaland defeated her Republican challenger in November by more than 16 points, and President Biden won the state with more than 54 percent of the vote. Reflective of the district’s status as a Democratic stronghold, national Republicans have largely stayed out of the race, while recent Federal Election Commission filings showed Stansbury with a significant cash advantage over Moores for the period ending on May 12.

“They start from a deep hole, the Republicans. This has not really been a race that you would call in play or teetering on the edge,” Monahan said.

For Stansbury, a trained ecologist who worked in the Obama administration before being elected to New Mexico’s House of Representatives during the 2018 “blue wave,” continuing Haaland’s emphasis on environmental issues is key.

“In New Mexico, water is life, water is part of our culture. It’s part of who we are, it’s part of the identity of our communities,” Stansbury told The Hill in an interview. She pointed to the state’s ongoing drought and its effect on ranchers and farmers as one notable example.

Camilla Feibelman, the New Mexico state director for the Sierra Club, said climate and environmental issues are inescapable in the state, due to both the drought and the high probability of a devastating forest fire season.

“These are issues we’re facing in terms of the immediate impact of climate change,” Feibelman said, in addition to other questions about the future of the energy industry in the state.

Haaland made history as the first Native American Senate-confirmed Cabinet secretary, leaving her successor with big shoes to fill on issues specifically affecting Indigenous people. Feibelman noted Haaland had been a “real leader” on protecting the Greater Chaco Landscape, a national historical park that has seen expanded oil and gas leasing in recent years.

More than 90 percent of public lands surrounding the Chaco Canyon ancestral village have been leased for oil and gas extraction, according to the activist group Pueblo Action Alliance, which blames this activity for detrimental effects on the health of front-line communities.

Stansbury also called tribal and public lands an issue of major concern to her, noting that in her work at the federal Office of Management and Budget and on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee she focused extensively on tribal issues.

With an ally of tribal communities like Haaland now in the executive branch, “the next chapter … is really to continue the work of consulting with and partnering with tribes in a nation-to-nation way to address the issues that are important to each of our tribes,” Stansbury told The Hill.

In addition to ensuring coronavirus relief flows properly to tribes, she said, that includes pushing for the passage of provisions in Biden’s infrastructure plan of particular importance to indigenous communities, such as expanded broadband and drinking water infrastructure.

Stansbury and Haaland have a long relationship dating back to their time in the state legislature together. Stansbury said that if elected, she hopes to follow “in her footsteps doing important bipartisan work” but still being ready to “really fight” on issues like climate change.

The Democratic candidate has come out in favor of the Biden administration’s indefinite pause on new oil and gas leasing on public lands, and she also backs a Green New Deal.

Underscoring the importance of the environment to voters in the district, Moores has focused less on Stansbury’s views in that area than on other issues, such as crime in Albuquerque, hitting her over her support of the Breathe Act, a police reform proposal.  

“A lot more Republicans are more centrist on the environment” in New Mexico, Monahan said.

In addition to Haaland herself, Stansbury has secured the endorsements of the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club — something observers say will play well in an increasingly liberal part of the country.

Monahan, the political blogger, pointed to some of Stansbury’s more progressive policies as indicative of the district’s shift leftward.

A favored candidate backing something like a Green New Deal, he said, “would not have been happening 10 years ago.”

Tags Deb Haaland Donald Trump Joe Biden new mexico water environment issues deb haaland open seat democrats special election public lands tribes stansbury

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