Swing-Time in New Mexico | The Nation


Swing-Time in New Mexico

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A former labor lawyer, Madrid was the first woman to win election to the district judicial bench. As attorney general she has built a pro-consumer, pro-environment record. She's won a favorable reputation for taking on predatory lenders, she didn't flinch from suing a dozen Indian gaming tribes for back taxes (even though the tribes are major Democratic donors) and she used her office to oppose energy deregulation. She has the support of popular and sometimes imperious New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, but she boasts about "standing up" to him when his office tried to purchase a plane with highway funds and when he tried to extend his control over the state university's board of regents.

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Marc Cooper
Marc Cooper, a Nation contributing editor, is an associate professor of professional practice and director of...

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At the biggest Democratic event of the campaign season, Obama argued that the coming election is a choice between the past and the future rather than a referendum on his first two years in office.

He'll probably fend off J.D. Hayworth, but in order to win he's lost most of his principles.

Edwards, as well as Wesley Clark, James Carville, Hillary Clinton and Barney Frank, is among the high-profile Democrats who have come out to stump and fundraise for Madrid. On the other side, not only did the President--accompanied by his top adviser, Karl Rove--show up to support her incumbent opponent but so, earlier, did Laura Bush. "My opponent's biggest liability is her attachment to Bush and Cheney," Madrid said as, outside the doors of her office, volunteers were signing up for precinct walking. "It's her rubber-stamp voting on the important issues that makes this race a referendum on the President, and I'm perfectly comfortable with that."

Wilson, a 45-year-old Air Force veteran, a New Hampshire native and an Oxford PhD in international relations, has been visibly more uneasy of late about her relationship with the White House. She votes as much with the White House as most Republican Representatives do--about 90 percent of the time. But she has recently taken pains to distance herself from Bush on some high-visibility issues. When the NSA domestic spying scandal broke earlier this year, Wilson, who sits on one of the agency's Congressional oversight committees, landed in the front section of the New York Times when she expressed "serious concerns" about the surveillance program (though she later refused to vote for an amendment that would have crimped it). One of the top recipients of former Congressman Tom DeLay's fundraising largesse, Wilson returned $10,000 from one of the PACs associated with him after he was accused of money laundering, and she opposed his return to a leadership post. She also broke with other Republicans in opposing a weakened Congressional ethics measure. In a touch of irony, Bush, during his brief fundraising stopover for her, highlighted her independence--the wrong person to be offering this sort of endorsement. "Heather Wilson is an independent soul," Bush told his paying audience. "That's what you want for a person from this district."

Wilson, while endangered, should not be counted out. A hand-picked protégé of veteran Senator Pete Domenici, she has the solid support of the Republican Party machine. Known as "leather Heather" not only for her Air Force background but also for her political resolve, she's recognized as a tenacious political fighter and an effective elected official. "Heather Wilson is very good at bringing home the bacon for this district," says University of New Mexico political scientist Lonna Atkeson. "And even her critics recognize that her constituent services are excellent." There's also a significant military constituency in the district, home to both Kirtland Air Force Base and the Sandia National Labs, a top nuclear research site.

But Christine Trujillo, president of the state AFL-CIO, thinks that in Madrid, Wilson has finally met her match. "We've had some great candidates in the past, but people are right when they say New Mexicans are too damn nice," she said. "Leather Heather has been able to frame her previous campaigns as that of a gentle lady running against men. But that's baloney. This time her opponent is a Hispanic attorney general who has taken off the gloves and isn't afraid to fight."

Political scientist Atkeson also sees a distinguishing strength in Madrid's campaign. None of Wilson's previous challengers had the sort of broad, statewide name recognition Madrid has. So in a state full of crossover voters, and with Madrid having won two terms as attorney general, Atkeson said, "there are going to be a lot of Republican and independent voters in the district who already know and have already once voted for Madrid."

Madrid has her own vulnerabilities. Her opponents criticize her for not acting quickly enough to pursue the still-unfolding corruption scandals of two other statewide Democratic pols, though she recently indicted one of them on a series of felony charges. Some of her supporters are privately concerned about what they say is a weak stump style, and others are concerned that in face-to-face debates with Wilson, Madrid will have to be better prepared on the details of her Congressional proposals. She also ruffled some sensibilities among LGBT activists when she shut down a move to issue gay marriage licenses in one county. And she has earned the enmity of the state's once sizable but now greatly diminished Green Party constituency when she made it more difficult for smaller parties to have statewide ballot access.

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