Republican 3rd Congressional District candidate Jeff Byrd says his Christian faith has carried him through difficult times and will influence how he votes if he’s elected.
He doesn’t remember specific prayers. “I know I spent a lot of time thinking about who I am and what I want to be,” he said. “That was my time to meditate, think and to pray.”
More than 20 years later, Byrd says his faith is his top priority in life. It’s carried him through his father’s cancer diagnosis, his 17-year marriage to his wife Suzanne and a shift in careers when he took over his family’s ranch after his father’s death. He prayed with his wife and pastor when he was deliberating whether to run for representative of the 3rd Congressional District, a seat currently held by Democrat Ben Ray Luján.
“I generally was able to handle the real stressful times because I was able to share it with a friend, if you will,” he said, referring to his relationship with God.
The 41-year-old Republican recently talked about his faith, his childhood, his jobs and how they all intersect with his political beliefs during phone conversations from his family’s home in Tucumcari.
As a boy, Byrd was naturally drawn to ranch life, a “horse and cow kid,” he said. He wanted to be a cowboy and his older brother wanted to be a mechanic.
“He was tearing apart the lawn mower, and I was messing with the horses,” he said.
He started riding a little Pinto horse when he was a preschooler. In the Byrd family – and in most families living in Harding County – honesty and hard work are important values, Byrd said. He was in elementary school when he started what he calls “any productive work” on the ranch: milking and taking care of the cows, working the wells, improving the corrals and fixing machinery.
Church was a fixture in Byrd’s life as well. His mom took him and his older sister and brother to the local Catholic church, where Byrd became an altar boy. On Wednesdays, he walked to church after school to ring the bells before service. He still remembers the sound of the three bell tones.
Sometimes priests called on him to serve during special services or funerals. He fondly recalled the annual outdoor service near an altar on a cliff rock where he could find arrowheads and eat potluck meals.
His Baptist father read scripture every Sunday evening after dinner from a big family Bible that had their family tree inscribed in the front. “A lot of times he would read verses out loud to us, things that were important or interesting,” he said.
By time Byrd reached sixth grade, he was as big as the high-schoolers – 5’8 and 180 pounds. Kids called him Moose. When a new high-school basketball coach required everyone be in shape to play on the team, Byrd spent that summer running. It was during those runs that Byrd felt his relationship with God develop.
Getting involved in politics
His relationship with politics came a few years later, during college at New Mexico State University. His family has always talked openly about religion and politics, and Byrd doesn’t understand why some people prefer not to discuss the subjects.
“We’ve always talked about both because they are both important to who we are as a people,” he said. “Our culture is driven by who we are as a people. If we don’t keep them in discussion, we lose track of what’s really going on. A lot of people have differing views of how we can achieve certain goals. If we aren’t going to talk about them, how are we going to find a reasonable solution?”
His family hasn’t had a uniform loyalty to either major political party, switching parties over the years. Byrd registered as a Republican when he was 18 and has confirmed his conservative beliefs over the years.
In the rural northeastern part of the state where the only statewide newspaper doesn’t deliver, Byrd gets Texas news, instead of New Mexico. His political focus has been national. Since college, he’s followed federal politics by reading proposed legislation on a congressional website and checking to see how New Mexico politicians have voted.
“I’ve always been one that thinks you need to know who you are voting for, and I don’t generally take one media source as a rule,” he said.
While he tracked politics, Byrd didn’t think about getting involved until much later. But his career did shape how he felt about government. At a small company called Environeering, he was an environmental engineer who felt a part of the business.
When the owners discussed the cost of government regulations, Byrd was in the office listening and absorbing.
“People in Washington are great about saying, ‘It’s not going to cost us anything,’ and yet it does cost to implement new rules and regulations,” he said.
An altered path
Then, a series of events altered Byrd’s career path. Both of his grandmothers died. His father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died three weeks later when Byrd was 28 and traveling often for work. A short time later Byrd was on his way to the airport in New York on Sept. 11 when the terrorists struck the city. That cinched it: He was done being away from his family so much.
He started work at Navajo Refinery while also running his family’s 3,500-acre ranch. In 2008, the family – including now 8-year-old Zachary and Noah, who turned 10 this month – settled in Tucumcari.
The family attends Divine Connection, an unaffiliated Baptist church in Tucumcari. Byrd said his relationship with God has grown in recent years, as he’s shifted from a “Doubting Thomas” to someone who has seen confirmation of God.
“He (God) doesn’t give you a definite path or make you whole, but you begin to understand how you should live and how you should handle yourself in situations around you,” he said. “It’s that understanding that gives you the peace people are looking for.”
Byrd cited two instances that reaffirmed God’s presence to him. One happened in November when a guy told Byrd he had considered running in the race but knew he didn’t have to when he heard Byrd’s name. Byrd had not decided to run yet. In another, a woman he didn’t know embraced Byrd and his candidacy so warmly, he said the “only way that can be is if God is real and working.”
He thinks his Christian faith has enabled him to get along with anyone and relate to different people, whether they are the high-school students he likes to play basketball with or the older people he knows in his community.
He sprinkles his conversation with scriptures and political quotes. When talking about being a true Christian – what he considers his biggest challenge in life – he refers to a President Jimmy Carter quote. When Carter was asked if he cheated on his wife, he said he had in his heart.
“I think everyone could relate to Jimmy Carter because everyone is fallible and makes mistakes,” he said. “I think it’s accepting that we all veer away from true committed relationships at time. Not that we ever ran out and had a relationship with someone else, but your mind pulls you away at times to unpure thoughts. It’s commitment every day. You have to make that decision every day not to go away from your spouse.”
He refers to another former president, Ronald Reagan, as a model for his own political career. “He was well known for saying what he means and meaning what he says and following through,” Byrd said. “Whether people agreed with him or not, he did what he said he would do, so people respected him.”
‘You have to tie it all together’
Byrd is clear about who he is and how he will vote his Christian principles. He is pro-life and doesn’t appreciate so-called Christian politicians who cite Bible verses to justify their decisions and ignore the rest of God’s teachings.
“A big part of your call is to not read one verse and assume you know what it means,” he said. “You have to tie it all together.”
He doesn’t believe church and state should be separated since, he said, that’s not part of the Constitution.
“Obviously the founders believed in Christ,” he said. “They prayed every day as a group. We were founded as a Christian nation. More than half of the sitting presidents have stated that we are a Christian nation.”
He mentions the 2005 lawsuit in which people wanted to remove three crosses in the city of Las Cruces’ official logo. “The first amendment is freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. For years we used the Bible to read out of. How was it constitutional before and now it’s not?”
Whether or not Byrd has a chance to follow his Christian beliefs in elected office next year, he will accept God’s decision. “If I lose, I get to stay and keep working on the ranch and be with the kids here, working with me,” he said.
Deborah Busemeyer is a freelance writer living in Santa Fe. Previously she was the communications director at the New Mexico Department of Health. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.