La Politica NM: Republicans Celebrate In The Shadow Of Arizona

What? No saguaros in New Mexico?

Primary election message from New Mexico Republicans to the political planet: Hey, we’re not Arizona! Or so it would seem to people whose knowledge of both states comes from the national media.
Poor Arizona: polygamists on the northern border, Minutemen on the southern border and “show me your papers” Republicans furious about illegal immigrants in the urban center. But New Mexico (insert smile face here) is the mysterious neighbor, further east along the Mexican border, where Republicans just nominated a lawyer named Susana Martinez for governor. In November she faces Anglo Democrat Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, term-limited Gov. Bill Richardson’s two-election running mate.The setup means New Mexico will have a woman as governor for the first time. And the lieutenant governor will be a Hispanic man, either Republican John Sanchez or Democrat Brian Colon. The last time a party put up a two-Hispanic ticket for governor was 1968, when Democrats Fabian Chavez and Michael Alarid lost by about 3,000 votes to incumbent Gov. David F. Cargo and Lebanese-ancestry Lt. Gov. E. Lee Francis.

National Republican Committee Chairman Michael Steele was fast on election night to congratulate the first Hispanic woman candidate for governor of any state. And there was good reason for Republicans to celebrate, it would seem, there in the long prickly shadow of Arizona, because the GOP needs Hispanic votes.

Still, in politics, a game of appearances, the thin surface can shatter, particularly now in the age of politicians who transcend racial or ethnic stereotypes. Martinez, a former Democrat, is the third-term district attorney in the near-border city of Las Cruces. And she has taken an Arizona-like stand against illegal immigrants, while Denish until now has not.

If you look at the Southwest on the ground instead of through the media binoculars, it is like the world in general — what the late esteemed cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz called “a scramble of differences in a field of connections.” At the end of a lifetime of study and field work, he observed there are few countries that coincide with cultures. “Political theories that both admit to this condition and have the will to confront it. . . barely exist.”

So if you can’t talk meaningfully about things like national character, how can you generalize about states within a nation? Perhaps all you can be sure of in the Southwest is that Arizona has saguaros and New Mexico does not — although people like to argue about cacti too.

Still there is the undeniability of political appearances: the saguaro state, where Republicans own the legislature and the governorship, has an anti-Hispanic image. And its not just the recent work of the media. It goes way back. It has a historical basis, which at one time was general in all the border states, Texas with its Rangers especially. Statehood for the vast Southwest territory controlled by Santa Fe was delayed from 1848, when it was taken from Mexico, until 1912, as members of Congress continually expressed fear of the Hispanic majority.

In 1906, Congress passed a compromise that would have created a huge state comprising the Arizona and New Mexico Territories, to be called Arizona with Santa Fe as its capital, provided that the voters of both sides approved separately.

New Mexico approved it by 64 per cent. Anglo Arizona killed the deal by 84 per cent. And so it goes. And now the Hispanic population of New Mexico is about 45 per cent and of Arizona, 30 per cent, but there’s a difference in the minority populations. One is predominantly native, the other immigrant, and Arizona Latinos are a growing political force that Republicans seem to fear rather than court.

On the other hand, there are some pretty good demographics showing Republicans nationally will need to lure more Hispanic voters if they are going to take advantage of Democratic disaffection. If this is the case, Arizona is a problem.

Hispanic political scientist Luis Fraga of the University of Washington argued in a talk last summer at Stanford that Barack Obama owes his election to minority voters and that the swing vote was, and will continue to be, Hispanic. He cited New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada as key states where the Hispanic vote gave Obama the electoral edge.

Nationally, only 43 per cent of white Anglos who voted in 2008 were for Obama. According to this analysis of exit polls, he received 95 per cent of the African-American vote, 62 per cent of the Asian-American vote, and 67 per cent of the Latino vote. Anglos made up 74 per cent, African-Americans 13 per cent, Asian-Americans 2 per cent and Latinos a growing 9 per cent of the electorate.

Fraga said the 2004 results showed there was no significant shift in what he called “the racial divide.” But he characterized Obama as a new kind of “transracial” figure, one who naturally appeals to Hispanics as well as some Anglos. Another such figure, he said, is Justice Sofia Sotomayor, Obama’s first Supreme Court appointment.

But “ethnic pandering,” which characterizes the old big-tent party philosophy with prizes for minorities every election year, won’t work anymore, the political scientist said. Former President George W. Bush, to his elective credit, did not pander. From his Texas governorship on, his relationship to Latinos was part of who he was. Bush’s Spanish might not have been good, Fraga said, but he did speak Spanish. Just trying made all the difference.

Spanish lessons for extreme Arizona Republicans? Not likely. But, come to think of it, there are now some Republican teachers available in New Mexico.