Battleground: New Mexico

Going door to door in the Land of Enchantment, where Hispanic voters could tip the election either way.

Published October 26, 2004 6:32PM (EDT)

Las Cruces is a quiet, dusty city near the southern border of New Mexico, and it is where I found myself in the first days of October, exhausted, unpaid, knocking on doors for the Kerry-Edwards campaign in this crucial battleground state.

My job was to seek out registered Democrats and Independents, and, if they had plans to punch a hole for anyone but Kerry -- besides Bush, New Mexicans, an independent-minded lot, might go for Libertarian candidate Michael Badnarik or Ralph Nader -- to try to convince them otherwise. Al Gore, after all, won the state by just 366 votes in 2000, after a retired schoolteacher named Chuck Davis found a box of uncounted ballots beneath a table in a polling station.

New Mexico is a battleground state in more ways than one. It represents a kind of collision of past and future, a land upturned by immigration while holding fast to the military and ranching, where nuclear physics is perfected and cow patties are sold. In New Mexico, laboratories such as the one at Los Alamos and military installations annually receive hundreds of millions of federal dollars, a price that goes up when a Republican is in the White House. A third of the population, meanwhile, qualifies for Medicaid.

Although New Mexico has only five electoral votes, it has done a good job of holding on to its crucial status for two reasons. First, because this election may come down to no more than five electoral votes. Second, because New Mexico represents the raw edge of voting in the U.S. and both parties know it. With a population that's 42 percent Hispanic -- the highest percentage of Hispanics in the country -- the state is not so much a melting as a boiling pot, being wrenched from one side of the stove to the other by the competing appeals of old-school liberals and God-and-country conservatives.

Las Cruces is at the bottom of the pot. Its name roughly translates as the Place of the Crosses and is derived from an incident in the 1830s involving a caravan of Anglos and some murderous Apaches. Its most famous son is Pat Garrett, the sheriff who caught Billy the Kid and either tried him or shot him, depending on whom you talk to. Geronimo hid out in the foothills here.

All of which is fitting: Las Cruces could prove to be the graveyard of either the Bush or Kerry campaign. The race will come down to Las Cruces and Albuquerque, most political experts here agree. But Las Cruces' allegiances are harder to pin down.

On the one hand, the White Sands Missile Range sits just east of the city, and Holloman Air Force Base is also nearby, making the area home to a lot of conservative old pilots and military personnel. Farmers, ranchers, oil- and gasmen, many of whom like to say they live in "Little Texas," still abound.

On the other hand, in Doña Ana County, where Las Cruces sits, 40 percent of the electorate is Hispanic, according to Brian Sanderoff, president of Research and Polling Inc. in Albuquerque. And many of the area's newly registered voters, he told me, are not only Hispanic but young. Like many states this election season, New Mexico has been registering 18- to 24-year-olds in record numbers. But while fully 85 percent of the Hispanic voters are registered Democrats in this county, that is by no means a guarantee of how they will vote.

"Ethnicity is just as strong a predictor as party in this state," Sanderoff said. "There are more undecided Hispanics than Anglos this year -- and that's rare. What makes this race different is that Bush is targeting Hispanics in this race to an unprecedented degree."

Indeed. Darren White, head of the Bush reelection campaign in Bernalillo County, where Albuquerque is the seat (he's also county sheriff), put it succinctly: "How do you get to the Hispanic voters? Family values. Partial birth abortion and gay marriage are big right now. Also taxes. Many of these people have owned the land they live on for generations and don't want government involved in their lives. They have a 'get off my back and out of my wallet' kind of mentality."

White said his office is concentrating on faith-based organizations -- read "churches." But so are the Democrats. Santiago Juárez, a member of the nominally nonpartisan group Re-Visioning New Mexico, has been working with the diocese in Las Cruces on a program called Faithful Citizenship. In efforts to get young Hispanics interested in voting, he's put on street fairs and low-rider shows. For an event last weekend, he rented a stretch Cadillac Escalade.

"What I tell them is, you can't get everything right now, but like the Rolling Stones said, if you work real hard, you might get what you need," Juárez said. "And what you need right now is to be engaged. We have to understand that our people are new to the democratic process. Rich white males have been doing it for hundreds of years. We've only been doing it for a few years."

Late one afternoon, as the sun set into the dramatic peaks of the nearby Organ Mountains, I knocked on a door at a rundown Pueblo-style apartment complex in the middle of Las Cruces and was greeted by a friendly woman in her 30s named Yolanda. A daughter of Mexican immigrants and a lifelong Democrat, Yolanda admitted that she was still, just weeks before the election, undecided.

"I'm thinking about Bush," she ventured.

"Why?" I asked her.

She didn't really know, Yolanda admitted. She had recently gotten her degree in accounting but wasn't able to find an accounting job, and had seen no tax-refund check. She had a brother shipping off to Iraq. Her healthcare costs had gone up. She worried about the state of the public schools her younger siblings attended, and she'd watched tuition at New Mexico State University, where she worked as an administrative assistant, go up precipitously.

She realized that where all of these worries were concerned, it might behoove her to choose the Democratic ticket.

And yet in Yolanda's voice I sensed an admixture of forces: fear for her brother, ambivalence and, yes, a good deal of complacency when it came to gathering information. "Maybe I should just stick with what I know -- the guy who's already the president," she said. This was a common enough sentiment. I encountered it all over New Mexico, in Nevada, Ohio and Iowa.

So I went over the numbers with her. It had become a mantra: 1.6 million private sector jobs lost since Bush took office; 4 million more people living below the poverty line; healthcare premiums up 55 percent; $89 billion worth of tax cuts awarded to the top 1 percent of income earners. Over 1,000 men and women dead in Iraq, $130 billion in taxpayer money spent, and nary an exit strategy.

She nodded and kept saying, "It's terrible, it's terrible."

Yolanda was with me. I could feel it.

Then I noticed a gold crucifix hanging from her neck. Sure enough, it was not long before she asked, "What's John Kerry's stance on abortion?"

"He's pro-choice," I said. I could see some of the light in her eyes go out. Clearly, she was anti-abortion. I changed the subject as soon as possible, and, blessedly, she did not come back to it.

Finally, I shook her hand and looked her imploringly in the eyes and said: "I hope we can count on your support in November, Yolanda."

I walked to the next house, knowing that the same internal debates consumed Yolanda that consumed so many other young Hispanics in Las Cruces, N.M., and the Southwest: Should she listen to her priest or her party official, vote her religious conscience or her social one? Would it help her brother to stick with President Bush or go with a candidate who promised to get him home sooner?

While Las Cruces is essential to the campaign, the Kerry forces are massed principally in Albuquerque, 240 miles to the north. Political experts say a big percentage of swing voters in New Mexico -- the X factor -- will be conservative Democrats, and it is these Democrats who've been targeted by the Albuquerque crew. Which was apparent right away.

In Las Cruces, the campaign office was located in an old bank building tucked behind a plaza. Money was short and the staff was green. But the Albuquerque headquarters seemed to look over the city like a beacon. It was next to the University of New Mexico campus, at the top of a hill, in a large, free-standing, white cinderblock building. In front sat a campaign bus with a Kerry-Edwards banner draped over it.

I arrived on a Sunday and inside the open, airy office was abuzz. Campaign higher-ups stalked in and out of open offices. A bespectacled man with a "Students for Kerry" pin led a seminar on door-to-door canvassing while volunteers perched at folding tables, archaic white corded phones -- the kind you get at RadioShack for $8.99 -- pressed to their ears. On the walls, sign-up sheets stretched to the ceiling: "Doctors for Kerry," "Veterans for Kerry," "Christians for Kerry."

The crowd was eclectic, to say the least. There were grandmothers, burly union guys, stately Hispanic men in suits, single moms with or without their kids, rock-climbing dads, yuppie preppies and middle-aged Navajos. Downstairs the young, attractive press staff spun away, trying to sell the local TV stations on an impending Chris Heinz appearance. Old pickups, SUVs, hybrid sedans and station wagons rubbed against each other in the immense dirt parking lot.

After two days of toiling away, I decided to check out the rival camp across town. The atmosphere there was decidedly different. As had been the case in several cities, including Las Vegas, in which I'd campaigned, the Bush-Cheney '04 office in Albuquerque was on an affluent edge of town, situated in a black-glass office park. Its neighbors included a software company of some sort and a healthcare company of some sort. Applebees was the convenient lunch option.

Inside, the much-vaunted money gap between the Republicans and Democrats became glaringly obvious. New Dell computers and freshly installed black cubicles lined the room. There were nameplates. Everybody was unfailingly polite, even those who'd noticed the Kerry-Edwards bumper sticker on my car outside.

What the office lacked was spirit and bodies. Two elderly women sat at the phones, looking hungry, while a few well-quaffed functionaries in pleated pants and button-down shirts typed at impeccably clean desks. What the office possessed, which the Kerry offices often lack, was an air of supreme confidence. Victory seemed to be a foregone conclusion on this side of town. I didn't meet Sheriff White, but while I was standing there, something he told me kept ringing in my ears. "It's not rocket science," he'd said. "The candidate that gets the most voters to the polls wins." He added: "This is a bare-knuckle fight for me."

With these words in mind, and the monolithic Bush machine chugging away silently before me, I got indignant and frightened and decided to hightail it back to my side of the aisle and get canvassing.

That afternoon, folders and clipboard in hand, I ventured into a dilapidated neighborhood bordered on one side by a highway and on the other by the desert. Many Albuquerque neighborhoods are home to old Hispanic families, who trace their roots to the conquistadors. This was one of them. However, it was not the sort of place I would have liked to be after dark, or even in waning light.

Some people I talked to thanked me profusely; others cut me off with a curt "Not interested," and closed the door. Some yelled when I mentioned Kerry's name. "Hell no!" "You got to be bullshitting me!" Those visits, needless to say, ended quickly. Others moaned when I mentioned Bush. "Are you insane? I detest that man!" Those visits ended quickly too. I encountered a Colombian firefighter named Ramon who, despite all the cuts being made to firehouses across the country and the fact that the war in Iraq was sapping his department of first responders, had pledged himself to Bush for one reason: He knew homosexuality to be evil.

Still, as I continued to canvass New Mexico and talk with the state's political scientists, I had to conclude that the smart money here was on Kerry. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 200,000 -- a ratio of 1.6-to-1 -- and nearly half of all the 140,000 newly registered voters are Democrats (25 percent were Republicans). What's more, experts on both sides agreed, about 65 percent of the state's huge bloc of Hispanics could now be counted on to vote Democratic. And ultimately that could tip the scales toward Kerry.

Jose Z. Garcia, a professor of political science at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, felt the Hispanic vote would come down to loyalty. "Hispanics born into Hispanic families are born into the Democratic Party too," he said. "Family values are strong here, and extended family is more prevalent. You're loyal to your family and to your party." Indeed, Hispanics in New Mexico are intensely loyal to Mexican American Gov. Bill Richardson, who served as chair of the Democratic National Convention this year.

That evening, as dusk waned, I knocked on the door of a house that belonged to a man named Juan, a barrel-chested, bearded veteran who worked as a janitor at the local elementary school. He'd come from Mexico as a child and had voted in every election since 1968, he said proudly. We talked about his years in the Navy and it struck me that he could have been Yolanda's father.

He asked me what I thought about Kerry -- what I really thought, not what I'd been told to think. I told him I thought Kerry was a good man, that he'd make a good president, that I'd been following his career for years and believed in him. I told Juan that I wouldn't be volunteering my time to walk mile after mile through the streets of Albuquerque if I didn't believe John Kerry could help people like him and me.

Juan looked at me and smiled.

"You really think that?" he asked.

"Yes," I said.

"Good," he said, still smiling. He shook my hand and went back inside without another word.

By James Verini

James Verini is a writer in Los Angeles.

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