Yesterday, I submitted my formal petition to run for public office as a Democrat for New Mexico State Representative for District 34. While many may not be surprised at my decision to run for public office I’m sure many others would think I am crazy given: the costs just to mount a reasonable campaign, the likelihood of an Anglo (gringo) to win in a predominantly Hispanic district, the challenge in taking on a well financed incumbent , the public exposure, and resultant stresses to my private life. All of this should I get elected for a job that will require much work, long hours, endless travel and absolutely no pay. It is hard to justify why I am running in a purely logical sense but I’ll give it a try.
District 34, is a large sprawling area (some 950 square miles) in southwest New Mexico, bordered to the south by Mexico, to the east by Texas and moves northward towards but short of Las Cruces. It’s largest incorporated community is Sunland Park with some 15,000 located on the border to the south and the remaining population of some 14,000 distributed in the communities of Santa Teresa, La Union, Chamberino, La Mesa, and Mesquite. Most of the non-urban areas follow the meandering Rio Grande with Pecan and grape orchards, chili and cotton farms, interspersed with horse and small cattle farms to the southern edge of Las Cruces, the second largest city in New Mexico. To the west, there are a few ranches with many miles of open desert and desolate areas devoid of populace or ground water. The district is also home to New Mexico’s main border crossing into Mexico, where billions of dollars worth of manufactured goods cross between the two countries taking advantage of the small but flourishing Santa Teresa Industrial Park nine miles north of the border, a newly created $400 million, Union Pacific intermodal hub nearby as well as the international, regional Dona Ana airport collocated with the Park.
The southern-most, sprawling city of Sunland Park faces major challenges in terms of income, jobs and education. While the largest city in the county after Las Cruces it has the lowest medium income of the district ($29,119), one of the highest poverty levels (39.1%) and with almost half of adults over the age of 25 without a high school diploma. Unemployment stands at 8.9%, almost double of that nationally. It is formally classified as a “colonia” (a community within the rural U.S.–Mexico border region with marginal conditions related to housing and infrastructure ) by HUD, the largest in the state. Just to the north of the city is the bedroom community of Santa Teresa. It stands in stark contrast to Sunland Park with the highest district medium income ($41,200), more than 80% with a high school diploma or higher and 6.6% unemployment (this is somewhat exaggerated since many residences are retired). Heading northward along the Rio Grande Valley, the towns of Chamberino and la Mesa are just behind in terms of incomes education and jobs.
They say all national politics is local politics. While we maybe mesmerized (appalled?) by the national primary debates and election theatrics our day to day living is most often impacted by what happens in our own back yards. We are driven by such mundane (but important!) issues as clean and abundant water, decent roads, good education for our kids and selves, good health, well paying jobs, opportunities to better ourselves and our lives, and open and honest government. The later issue–honest local governments–is often at the heart for obtaining the other quality of life issues. Unfortunately, when our local, elected leadership fails, either by ignorance, lack of interest or just plan corruption and greed our communities suffer the consequences. Often those consequences take years to be seen (schools or roads don’t deteriorate overnight) or turn into a crisis requiring emergency responses (for example, the Flint, Michigan lead contamination). I have written in earlier blogs about the “culture of corruption” that exists, particularly in Sunland Park–some of the antics we see described in the media would be almost funny if not for the serious nature of the impact on the lives of the citizens and their communities.
This has come more apparent to me as I have spent the past several years working and living in the small bedroom community of Santa Teresa only a few miles from the border with Mexico. Most of us here were attracted by beautiful, affordable homes next to a once, world class golf course, spectacular mountain and desert vistas, great weather, reasonable taxes, and quiet living with easy access to El Paso, Texas without the hassle of “city” living. However, Sunland Park’s politicians over the years have expressed interest in annexing their richer neighbors to the north–efforts that have failed in the past but seem to be part of an ongoing, not-too-well-thought-out, strategy of economic growth by annexation. The city’s boundary’s have crept northward, almost imperceptibly, over the years now almost encircling Santa Teresa. Despite economic studies showing such annexations, actually add to the city’s debts and would be unsustainable, the city continues its “annexation” strategy.
The residents of Santa Teresa see no value in being part of a government that can provide them with no services but would only burden them with new taxes and questionable governance. They have responded vigorously to maintain their independence and have sought several times to incorporate and establish their own local township. Unfortunately, city incorporation in the state has become more and more difficult over the years and Santa Teresa’s residents have run into one road block after another in attempting to secure their independence. Currently, they are in a protracted battle with the county and county courts over state law that would appear to allow them to move forward but have been denied by the County Commissioners based on their novel interpretation of that law.
The impact of all this goes beyond just the interests of one small community and their desire for independence. The industrial park to the north of Santa Teresa has master plans for strategic growth and development, coupled with international goals to further connect with Mexico through the existing portal. They look nervously to Sunland Park’s encroachment bringing with it uncertain and unstable local governance to their area. A number of companies have gone elsewhere rather than face an unsure local government climate outside the control of the governor. A “culture of corruption” is not part of their development plans. Millions of dollars are at stake as governors on both sides of the border have recognized the opportunities represented by the new businesses and enterprises coming to this part of the state. In the valley other communities are concerned as their valued land and water assets are threatened by an ever enlarging Sunland Park. Sunland Park in the past has had major problems with the management of its water and sanitation–its primary source of income in the past. To this day their exists major problems of arsenic in the water supply, exacerbated in part by the past poor maintenance and management by the City.
As with all complex problems there are no simple solutions. However, I believe that with the right people with the right interests in positions to make the right choices we can ultimately resolve or at least begin the process of resolving this and other challenges facing the district. For me that means pursuing a public position where I can try to apply my own expertise and experiences to not only solve such complex challenges but to pursue the many opportunities open to us as well. I have no doubt as to the difficulty of the road on which I have decided to embark. It is a bit of a leap of faith into a political ocean. However, I look forward to whatever adventures or new experiences may await. Hopefully, I will be successful in my campaign to become State Representative of District 34. The real effort lurks beyond.–Paul Maxwell