Progressives aim for another big win in Las Cruces as Election Day nears

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Albuquerque’s municipal election earlier this month saw a significant rise in voter turnout compared to recent history, as have other elections this year. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the same will happen in Las Cruces next month.

Voting

Heath Haussamen / NMPolitics.net

Early voting continues through Nov. 4 in the Las Cruces municipal election. Nov. 7 is Election Day.

“We haven’t seen any increased registration or anything else in our office indicating a higher turnout,” said Doña Ana County Clerk Scott Krahling, whose office handled voter registration in advance of the Nov. 7 Las Cruces municipal election.

Early turnout has been slow. As of Saturday, 906 people had voted — about 1.5 percent of the 57,808 city residents who are eligible to vote in the election. Early voting continues through Nov. 4 at the City Clerk’s Office.

Earlier this month, 29 percent of registered voters cast ballots in Albuquerque, making it the highest turnout in that city since 2001. Turnout was driven in part by a multi-candidate mayoral contest and a controversial ballot question that would have required employers to provide paid sick leave to workers. A surge of voters showed up to support progressive-backed mayoral candidate Tim Keller.

Other elections in New Mexico and nationwide have seen increased turnout since U.S. President Donald Trump took office in January.

But in Las Cruces, there’s no mayor’s race and there are no ballot questions. Three city council seats are up for grabs, as is a municipal judgeship.

The lower profile of Las Cruces’ election isn’t stopping candidates and groups from trying to turn out voters. Gabe Vasquez, a progressive-backed candidate running for the open District 3 seat on the city council, said he’s talked with hundreds of people.

“I started campaigning in June, which some considered too early for the municipal elections — but for the numbers of doors I wanted to personally knock on, it was the only way to get it done while working a full-time job,” Vasquez said.

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His opponent, conservative Bev Courtney, has been working hard too.

“Some days I’m exhausted — but none of my helpers slow down and expect me to keep working,” she said. “I’m talking to everyone.”

The two are battling to replace Olga Pedroza, who isn’t seeking re-election. Courtney challenged the progressive-backed Pedroza four years ago and lost 38 percent to 62 percent.

Independent groups are working to turn out voters as well. The progressive organization ProgressNow New Mexico is backing Vasquez in city council District 3, incumbent Gill Sorg in District 5 and challenger Yvonne Flores in District 6.

People backed by progressives have held the majority of elected seats in city government in Las Cruces for a decade. Ceil Levatino, who Flores is attempting to unseat this year, is the only Republican on the city council. Progressives have built such power by consistently organizing and getting out their voters — and their influence has been felt beyond city government in school board, soil and water district, and state-level elections.

Left-leaning activism has also spiked in Las Cruces this year. It has been visible in events including the women’s march in January that drew 1,500 people. Thus far in the Las Cruces election, progressive-backed candidates lead in fundraising in all three council races.

All of that has progressives sounding confident about the city election.

“Voters have turned out more and more to support good progressive candidates by wide margins at all levels in recent elections in Doña Ana County,” said ProgressNow’s Lucas Herndon. “We’ve seen the progressive base grow and empower leaders, which in turn builds wider support and solid infrastructure.”

Herndon’s group hasn’t yet filed a finance report indicating how much it’s spent on the election.

On the conservative side, the political action committee Advance Las Cruces is backing Levatino and Steve Montanez, one of two candidates trying to unseat Sorg in District 5. In a recent fundraising email, the group referred to progressive control of Las Cruces as a “dire” situation, stating that “despite their continued claims of ‘progress,’ we haven’t been able to recover from the Great Recession like all of our neighboring states have done.” That’s a reference to high unemployment in Las Cruces and statewide.

Advance Las Cruces didn’t respond to requests for comment for this article. As of Oct. 23, the group reported spending about $7,500 on its efforts, much of it on postcards.

The greatest activity thus far appears to be in the District 6 race. Progressives are attempting to expand their power by unseating Levatino. Flores has outraised Levatino and all other council candidates thus far — raising more than $23,000 as of Oct. 23, while Levatino had raised just under $18,000. Vasquez, in the District 3 race, was next among council candidates, having raised just over $9,000 to Courtney’s $2,600.

City elections are officially nonpartisan, but Flores, a Democrat, referred to the registration statistics in District 6, which she said is roughly 42 percent Democrat, 42 percent Republican and 16 percent independent or minor-party. Flores said she is often asked at doors about her party affiliation, and sometimes that’s all voters want to know. Other times, voters are more willing to share their concerns when she explains it’s a nonpartisan race.

Flores said the general response she’s received is that voters “would like to see change because the District 6 councilor has not been responsive.” She said she’s optimistic.

Levatino said she’s generally not seeing higher interest among voters than in past years, but it’s difficult to gauge. “I hope I am given the opportunity to serve another term, but in the end that’s in the hands of the voters,” she said. “I’m proud of my record.”

Four years ago, Levatino won a three-way race to take the council seat, getting 43 percent of the vote to Mark Cobb’s 36 percent and Curtis Rosemond’s 21 percent. With all the money Flores has raised this year, and progressives focused on backing a single challenger to Levatino, the incumbent could have quite a battle on her hands.

In the District 5 race, meanwhile, incumbent Sorg said he’s finding that voters are “concerned more than ever,” particularly about national politics and education. He said he sees “some higher interest” than in past elections and has more volunteers willing to help, but agreed with Levatino that it is difficult to measure.

Challenger Montanez said he’s aware of the “control” progressives have on local elections, “and I’m not afraid of that.”

“The families and children in my district mean more to me than any special interest groups ever will,” he said. “Hopefully they remember this on Election Day and get out and vote.”

Sorg’s other challenger in the District 5 race, Bill Fuller, said he’s encountered people while campaigning who won’t speak with him unless he states his party affiliation (he’s a Republican), people who aren’t registered to vote, and others who “just do not care.”

Fuller said he’s not sure about his chances because he’s not backed “by any money or ‘groups’ or political committees,” but that’s the way he wants it. He said he’s “trying to give the voice back to the community.”

Sorg faced one opponent four years ago, David Roewe, and won re-election 55 percent to 45 percent. This year he had outraised Montanez as of Oct. 23, collecting $7,750 to Montanez’s $7,175. Fuller reported raising no money.

Voter turnout had generally been declining in elections in the Las Cruces area and nationwide for years before Trump’s victory — though Las Cruces held the line in terms of voter turnout in its last municipal election in 2015. That election, which included a mayor’s race, saw about 19 percent of voters turn out, which was roughly equal to turnout in 2011, another year there was a mayoral race.

In 2015, turnout was driven in part by well-funded negative attacks against progressive candidates by political committees. Voters largely rejected those attacks by electing the targeted candidates.

In other words, those trying to counter progressive dominance in Las Cruces worked hard in 2015, but their attacks may have backfired by energizing progressives.

In 2013, the last time the council races that are up for grabs this year were on the ballot, turnout was 8.19 percent. Some 4,925 out of 60,140 eligible voters cast ballots. Given that progressives have reliably turned out to vote in the last several elections, it would likely take a surge of new voters with different views to effectively counter progressive dominance in the city.

There’s still time to vote, and anything is possible. The Las Cruces Sun-News gave a boost to Advance Las Cruces’ efforts on Sunday by endorsing Levatino and Montanez, along with Vasquez.

Still, given the lack of signs of increased turnout, there’s reason to suspect that progressive-backed candidates will do well in next month’s election. That’s Herndon’s goal.

“All the work being done by the volunteers and citizens who care deeply about their community are helping other voters realize the value in local elections,” he said, “and with the help of tools like voter guides that ProgressNow New Mexico publishes, voters feel more comfortable and confident about decisions they’re making at the ballot box.”

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