SANTA FE, N.M. — A retired Air Force officer from Albuquerque will become the first Black state senator in New Mexico’s 108-year history.
In his first attempt at elected office, Democrat and retired Capt. Harold Pope Jr. unseated Republican Sen. Sander Rue, who is white, and held the suburban district since 2009.
Tuesday’s election is transforming both chambers of the Legislature to more closely reflect New Mexico’s demographics. For the first time, the House will be majority female, with 37 women out of 70 representatives, up from 32.
It’s likely that three more state Senate seats will be held by women, increasing the total to 12, or less than one-third of the 42-person chamber.
On the northwestern reaches of Albuquerque, Pope’s district is around 2.5 percent Black, similar to the low statewide number. Pope made education and the coronavirus — not race — the focal points of his campaign.
“We might have some budget shortfalls right now or some issues with the budget. But for me the fight we still have to continue (is) to properly fund public education,” Pope said Thursday.
The coronavirus pandemic was top of mind for many voters in New Mexico, who handed the state’s five electoral votes to Joe Biden.
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Thirty-nine percent said the pandemic is the most important issue facing the country, according to AP’s VoteCast survey of 1,654 state voters in a mix of English and Spanish, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points. Voters also considered the economy a major issue, with 29 percent saying it ranked at the top. Seven percent named climate change, 7 percent named health care and 6 percent named racism.
Pope says that if anything in his background helped him get elected, it was his military service.
“I would call folks who were Republicans. And just because I was in the military and they were a veteran they at least gave me the opportunity to have a conversation with them. And I did get some of those votes because of that,” Pope said.
In a state legislature known for its ranchers and lawyers, Pope will bring experience as a program manager for the Air Force, where he said he worked to usher multibillion-dollar technology contracts in new satellite and airplane technologies.
That perspective could serve the Senate’s collective wisdom as it considers addressing deficiencies in broadband infrastructure laid bare by the coronavirus pandemic that is limiting access to telehealth and online education.
Pope said he’s proud to be a “first,” though he wasn’t aware of the history of Black representation in the Senate until some told him after announcing his run.
“The way I look at it as me being in office right now, it’s giving young African Americans and indigenous —people of color — they’re seeing someone that looks more like them. And it’s letting them know that, hey, he did it,” Pope said.
He’s celebrating the victories of fellow progressives Carrie Hamblen of Las Cruces and Leo Jaramillo of Rio Arriba County, who will increase the number of openly LGBT senators from two to four.
They are part of a crop of seven newly elected progressive Democrats that could push through a stalled agenda to legalize recreational marijuana, expand pre-kindergarten, and change existing laws that would criminalize abortion were federal protections overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.
New Mexico became a state in 1912. It elected its first Black representative, Lenton Malry, in 1968, according to the Legislative Council Service. Like Pope, Malry is a retired Air Force veteran who lives in Albuquerque.
Popes’ milestone was first reported by Santa Fe New Mexican columnist Milan Simonich.
Staff Writer Morgan Lee contributed reporting.
Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.