Analysis: New Mexico statehouse is nation’s most Hispanic

header-hoover-institution-fellows1-1by Russell Contreras

Gov. Susana Martinez, middle, listens to one of the speakers during the press conference.
Gov. Susana Martinez at press conference outside the New Mexico legislature

It’s a legislature that often begins with the Pledge of Alliance in English and Spanish. Lawmakers sometimes drop Chicano slang during debates. Every year, a Navajo Code Talker lawmaker sings the traditional “Potato Song” on the Senate floor.

While minorities remain significantly underrepresented in state legislatures across the nation, New Mexico’s Legislature is among the country’s most diverse, according to an analysis by The Associated Press. The Southwest state of 2 million people has the highest percentage of Latino lawmakers in the country and is near the top with the number of Native American lawmakers.

Meanwhile, whites make up only 50 percent of the New Mexico House and Senate. Only Hawaii has a lower percentage of white lawmakers. New Mexico also is home to the nation’s only Latina governor, a Republican.

And although the New Mexico Legislature falls short of mirroring its majority minority population with representation, state Democratic and Republican lawmakers say the diverse body should be a model for the rest of the nation. They say it’s a legacy that goes back to its Spanish colonial and frontier days.

“It reflects the goodness we have here in New Mexico,” said Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, a Belen Democrat. “It’s part of our long history. I think the country can learn a lot from us.”

Around 37 percent of New Mexico Legislature is made up of Latino lawmakers, according to the AP analysis. American Indians make up 5 percent of the New Mexico House and Senate, around the same percentage of Native American lawmakers in Montana. Both parties each have a black female state representative.

In contrast, 47 percent of New Mexico residents are Latino, and 9 percent are American Indian.

The AP analyzed the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Congress and the National Conference of State Legislatures. It found non-Hispanic whites hold more than 80 percent of all congressional and state legislative seats across the country. Whites make up a little over 60 percent of the total U.S. population.

Nationally, the disparity in elected representation is especially wide for Hispanics, even though they are the nation’s largest ethnic minority. Hispanics comprise more than 17 percent of the U.S. population, yet they are fewer than 4 percent of state legislators.

In New Mexico, the diverse body has aided in the passage of laws aimed at making the state a hospitable place for minorities. For example, immigrants living in the country illegally who have graduated from a New Mexico high school can attend state universities at in-state tuition. The same immigrant students also can obtain lottery-funded scholarships if they maintain a certain grade-point average.

Lawmakers also tout the importance of ethnic studies, and rarely do debates surface on the prospect of changing the state’s bilingual culture — something protected under the New Mexico Constitution.

Under this environment, the state’s Republican Party in 2014 captured the New Mexico House for the first time since President Dwight Eisenhower was in office, thanks to support from Latino voters. In other states, Hispanics have turned away from the GOP.

“There has been an extraordinary effort to make sure our caucus is reflective of the diversity of this state,” said New Mexico GOP House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, who is white. “To grow our party, we have to appeal to a wide base.”

The New Mexico GOP also has attracted Latinos and Native Americans to run as Republicans.

While the last session saw its share of partisan bickering over efforts to revamp driver’s license laws, Gentry said both sides generally get along and respect each other compared with those in other state legislatures and Congress.

But Sanchez conceded the New Mexico Legislature isn’t immune to partisan fights.

As leader of the state Senate, Sanchez keeps on his desk a copy of “Profiles in Courage” by John. F. Kennedy, the nation’s first Catholic president. He said the book is a reminder than the New Mexico Legislature has a larger purpose than petty partisan battles of the moment.

“We’re all family in New Mexico,” Sanchez said. “We’re not perfect, but all of us respect each other’s differences.”

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