Former Democratic lawmaker backs state GOP redistricting lawsuit

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ROSWELL N.M. — The newly-drawn congressional districts in New Mexico are getting an unlikely critic: a former longtime Democratic state senator.

Tim Jennings, who was recently sworn in as mayor of Roswell and served in the state Legislature, earlier this year signed onto a lawsuit filed by the Republican Party of New Mexico. Jennings served in the New Mexico Senate from 1979 until 2013, including as Senate President Pro Tem from 2008 until 2012.

The all-Republican Chaves County Board of Commissioners in March voted to join the suit seeking to strike down the new district boundaries of New Mexico’s three congressional districts.

On Wednesday Jennings and the other plaintiffs in the suit won a legal victory, when state District Judge Fred Von Solen denied a motion by Democrats named in the suit, including Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver and Brian Egolf, speaker of the New Mexico House of Representatives to dismiss the lawsuit.

That allows the litigation to move forward. However, Von Solen ruled that the new maps will remain in place during the 2022 primary elections in June and the midterm general elections in November.

The suit alleges that the congressional boundaries of the new districts approved by the Democratic-led Legislature and signed into law by Lujan Grisham in December, violate the state’s constitution and were designed to dilute the voting strength of Republicans.

Jennings said Thursday he believes the new U.S. House Districts break apart communities that share geographic, political and economic interests.

“To me it is a benefit for the Democratic Party, but looking at it, it’s also detrimental to our areas of interest that we have down here in the southeast,” Jennings said.

Among other changes, southern New Mexico which now resides within the New Mexico 2nd Congressional District, represented by Congresswoman Yvette Herrell, the only Republican in the state’s congressional delegation.

Instead, reliably conservative Chaves, Eddy, Lea, Lincoln and Otero counties are each dispersed between each of the three districts.

In one of the most dramatic examples, Chaves County will now be in each of the three districts. Northern Chaves County and the northern part of the city of Roswell will be in the First Congressional District, represented by Democrat Melanie Stansbury.

Most of Roswell and southern Chaves County will be in the newly reconfigured 3rd Congressional District, currently represented by Democrat Teresa Ledger Fernandez.

A single precinct in the sparsely populated southwestern section of Chaves County, known as the Boot heel’ will remain in the 2nd congressional district.

Jennings, who as a senator from 1979 to 2013 oversaw four rounds of redistricting said the breaking apart of cities like Roswell is unnecessary.

“I mean southeast New Mexico, you can cut it some, but you know, to just cut it three ways is unbelievable,” he said.

Jennings, said beyond the political effects, the fracturing of the southeast could adversely effect some of the area’s major economic drivers such as agriculture, and the state’s oil industry, a major source of jobs in the region and state budget revenue.

“To cut them up three ways not really… when they , you know, a congressional representative that they feel they can really, that they can really talk to , I think is a traumatic decision that happened and I think it’s not in the best interests of the state,” he said.

Some constituencies, such as several of the state’s Native American communities, such as the Apache Mescalero, whose reservation is in both Lincoln and Otero counties, lobbied to be part of more than one congressional district, reasoning that having more than one representative would increase their political voice.

Proponents of the maps also say the new maps will help narrow the long held urban-rural divide, by making each district a mix of New Mexico’s densely-populated cities and rural enclaves.

Jennings though worries that having portions of southern New Mexico divided and sharing congressional representatives with cities like Albuquerque, will leave smaller communities with less political clout and their interests overshadowed by the more populated northern part of the state.

“They don’t even have enough of us in there, where they (members of congress) ever have to even come and talk to us in my opinion,” Jennings said.

The case will go before the state’s higher courts and if they are ultimately found to be unconstitutional, either a judge or the state Legislature will have to create new districts that will stay in effect for the next decade.

Jennings for his part, said what he wants is for districts to retain the common areas of interest to ensure what he believes is fair representation.