Shannon Robinson is an unlikely prototype of a twenty-first-century opinion shaper. With disheveled gray hair, a ruddy face, a voice gravelly from years of chain-smoking Marlboros and a habit of sipping translucent maté tea from a thermos through a silver straw, Robinson looks more like a down-and-out prizefighter than a cutting-edge politician. Yet this 57-year-old is a Democratic state senator in New Mexico, and he informally heads a group of state politicians who call themselves the Bull Moosers. When an issue that the members of this caucus care about comes up for a vote in the Santa Fe Capitol, they signal its importance by putting their fingers up to their ears and imitating the antlers on a male moose. Bills to do with hunting, fishing, guns, trucks, boats, ranching and such are routinely greeted by a raising of the antlers.
The Bull Moosers are a potent alliance of rural representatives, many of them Hispanic, and politicians, like Robinson, from poorer city districts (Robinson represents an impoverished, heavily immigrant and crime-ridden neighborhood in Albuquerque). "Not many people care much about my part of town," says Robinson, in between maté sips. "But these folks have done that for me. So when we talk about issues important to ranchers and the guys with boots on, I pay a lot of attention to that. I'm the number-one Bull Moose. One of those old stags. Got some chipped-off antlers."
One of the Bull Moosers' signature issues is opposition to gun control. For close to a decade, Robinson pushed for a concealed-carry law in the state, allowing residents to apply for permits to carry hidden guns. This year, with support from Democratic Governor--and talked-about 2008 presidential candidate--Bill Richardson, the law finally passed. Sponsored by Robinson, concealed carry was defended on the floor of the Statehouse by Democratic caucus chair John Heaton, a retired pharmacist from rural Eddy County, as well as Judiciary Committee chairman Joseph Cervantes--a young and rising star within New Mexico Democratic politics.
It was in many ways symbolic; only about 2,500 concealed-carry permits have been issued, and most of those are for the ruggedly remote rural areas of the state where, in practice, police have long turned a blind eye to people carrying concealed weaponry illegally. Nonetheless, Heaton, a tall, tanned man with a shock of gray hair parted down the left side and a kindly, grandfatherly face--a Norman Rockwell image brought to life--believes the bill's passage was important. Fear that Democrats will restrict gun rights "is a major background issue with voters in the West, particularly in New Mexico," a state with the country's largest shooting range (the Whittington Center, in the northern town of Raton) and about 40,000 National Rifle Association members, the representative states. "Guns reflect the independence, and the independent nature, of the people of the West, and restrictions on certain rights don't play very well. Frankly, being able to take that issue off the table makes a huge difference. There are many, many of my constituents who vote that issue by itself. I know people who are registered Democrats who vote Republican because they don't think there's any consistency on guns. At a national level they simply won't vote for a Democratic candidate. There has to be overt action by Democrats to demonstrate that they are not opposed to guns, in fact support them and the civil use of them."
A September 2002 poll published in the Albuquerque Journal found that 57 percent of New Mexicans supported allowing people who had completed a training program to carry concealed guns. Other polls suggested, not surprisingly, that a majority of urban residents in the state opposed concealed carry, while a strong majority of rural residents supported it. Since Democrats already do well in the population centers of Albuquerque and Santa Fe, it is these rural New Mexicans--Bull Moose by temperament, reared on stories of homesteading and gun-toting self-reliance, and living in areas scores of miles from the nearest law-enforcement officers--whom the Democrats have to woo to win back the state in national elections.
"Out here we have long stretches of eighty, ninety, 100 miles where there's nothing between towns," explains 64-year-old retired attorney Frank Witt, who lives on a ranch outside the southern New Mexico desert community of Carlsbad. His wife carries a Magnum in her car in case she breaks down far from the nearest population center and is menaced by a stranger on the road.
Witt votes Democratic down the line in state elections and claims to have contributed $15,000 to local and state candidates in 2004. But, he says, until the Democrats stop advocating national gun-control legislation, he will neither vote for national Democratic candidates nor give any money to the national party. "On health issues and economic issues and 75 percent of the issues, I would agree with the Democratic philosophy," he declares in a sonorous bass voice. "I think [having only] a 15 percent tax on dividends is a hell of a subsidy for rich people. I think Democrats, if they'd wise up and focus on issues of importance rather than stupid gun-control issues, would find they weren't disenfranchising all the sportsmen and people like myself. We would strongly support the Democrats. I understand they represent my interests. Without a doubt I do. By golly, leave me alone [on guns] and do some of the issues that are constructive, and I'll be behind you 100 percent."
No less a figure than Governor Richardson agrees with Heaton on the importance of cultivating voters such as Witt. A large man sitting in a small office, wearing a brown suede vest and heavy, battered boots, Richardson clearly revels in his image as the quintessential Westerner. "You have to talk about guns in the context of lifestyle, recreation, a way of life," the Governor argues, "rather than as just a measure to prevent murders and deaths. Democrats need to move into a void in the West. The Bush Administration is scaring off recreationists, hunters and fishermen because of their extreme anti-environmental policies. It's important to build alliances with these ranchers and fishermen and broaden the dialogue. The West is becoming more fertile Democratic territory. It's important for Democrats on the East Coast not to make the gun issue a litmus test."