What the Attacks on New Mexico Democrats Say About Being a Woman in Politics

What the Attacks on New Mexico Democrats Say About Being a Woman in Politics

What the Attacks on New Mexico Democrats Say About Being a Woman in Politics

Female politicians are three times more likely than their male colleagues to be targeted with threats and harassment.


Albuquerque, N.M.—On December 4, Adriann Barboa, the Bernalillo County commissioner, returned home from buying Christmas lights, and what she saw terrified her: Her front door was riddled with bullet holes. Only hours earlier she’d been playing with her grandchild behind that door. Police said a person had shot eight times into her home. It was sheer luck that she and her family were away. She told me that she asked herself in that moment, Why would somebody do this? “I immediately thought,” she said, “it must be because of one of two things: my position as a commissioner or because of the work I’ve done on abortion access.”

Barboa was the first of several New Mexico Democratic leaders targeted by Solomon Peña, a 39-year-old far-right politician who had just lost his bid for the state House of Representatives. (He received 26 percent of the vote.) On January 17, Albuquerque police arrested Peña on suspicion of “masterminding” attacks on four lawmakers’ homes over the course of a month. He is accused of hiring men to carry out drive-by shootings and participating in one of the attacks himself. Peña made news in August 2022 when his Democratic opponent asked a judge to bar Peña from running because his felony criminal record—Peña served time in prison for burglary—would have prevented him from holding office. (The judge ruled that the state law barring felons from holding office is unconstitutional).

While in Santa Fe in January speaking about a reproductive health clinic that she helped to secure state funding for, Barboa told me that she wondered if Peña went after her and her colleagues because of their stances on abortion and if the majority of them had been targeted because they are women. Of the four politicians whose homes were shot up in Albuquerque, Barboa notes, three belonged to women of color and the fourth to one of the first children of immigrants to serve as speaker of the House.

“As someone who’s worked on abortion access for the last 15 years,” Barboa said, it “didn’t feel surprising. It felt like a reminder.”

Across the country, right-wing extremists have targeted female politicians—from the failed plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer to the arrest of an armed stalker outside Representative Pramila Jayapal’s home to attack on Paul Pelosi as part of an attempt to abduct US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. According to a national database maintained by the Anti-Defamation League and Princeton University and released late last year, female politicians are three times more likely than their male colleagues to be targeted with threats and harassment.

Before the shooting spree, Peña repeatedly threatened and demeaned female lawmakers. In one tweet from December 4—posted 15 minutes before someone fired into Barboa’s home—he called Republican state Representative Rebecca Dow a “prostitute” who “stood silent while Donald J. Trump was overthrown.” After Republican Alexis Martinez Johnson posted a photograph of herself wishing her followers a Merry Christmas on December 25, he replied, “Drop 20 pounds.” And in a November Telegram message responding to an article about Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, he called on followers to “hang her, until dead.”

But Barboa speculates that Peña attacked her home because of her defense of reproductive rights. Alongside her role as a county commissioner, Barboa is also known for her work with Strong Families New Mexico, a nonprofit involved in the successful effort to repeal the state’s pre-Roe abortion ban in 2021. And she’s not the only politician Peña targeted who supports abortion rights: Representative Linda Lopez was the primary sponsor of the bill that repealed the pre-Roe ban, and Representative Javier Martínez began organizing to ensure New Mexico could provide care for out-of-state patients soon after the Dobbs decision leaked.

Although Peña denounced abortion care only briefly on his campaign website, his social media reveals strong anti-abortion beliefs that appear to have been shaped by the same leader of a local mega-church who counseled Republican gubernatorial candidate Mark Ronchetti to ban the procedure if elected.

As the 2022 midterms approached, the state’s abortion policy was hotly contested, especially in the governor’s race between Democratic incumbent Michelle Lujan Grisham and Republican newcomer Mark Ronchetti. On the table was not only New Mexico’s status as a blue island in a sea of red, but also its ability to offer all-trimester care to patients across the country, as one of only six states in the country with no gestational limits on abortion.

Over the summer it had looked like Lujan Grisham would beat Ronchetti, known for his time as a local television weatherman, in a landslide. But by election night, it no longer seemed clear that Lujan Grisham, who had pegged her reelection campaign on securing abortion rights, would have an easy victory. Crisis Pregnancy Centers were flooding southern New Mexico as abortion clinics, like the Las Cruces Women’s Health Organization—once the Jackson Women’s Health Organization—relocated their practices. And Texan Pastor Mark Lee Dickson had been visiting eastern New Mexican towns and encouraging residents to join a movement, which he launched in 2019, to declare their municipalities “sanctuary cities for the unborn.” On November 7, Hobbs became the first New Mexican town to do just that. Two days later, Lujan Grisham triumphed, with 52 percent of the vote to Ronchetti’s 45.6 percent.

Earlier in the year, Ronchetti’s views on abortion had made headlines when the pastor of a local mega-church told his congregation that Ronchetti had confided in him that if elected, he would ban abortion in the state. Although Ronchetti had publicly stated that he intended to pursue a 15-week ban, pastor Steve Smothermon told members of Legacy Church that he had spoken to Ronchetti “for hours” about his intention “to end abortion in New Mexico.” (Ronchetti denies this.)

It now appears that Peña sought guidance from Smothermon. In a reply to a tweet denouncing homophobia and the Club Q shooting on November 21, Peña wrote: “They can do it behind closed doors, just like I do. I ain’t altering my life to cater to their lifestyle. Pastor S. Smothermon ministered this to me at Legacy meeting hall, and I stand with it.”

One of the largest donors to Ronchetti’s campaign for governor, Smothermon leads six Legacy Church locations across the state, including in Clovis and Portales, two more towns that have banned abortion care as self-described sanctuaries for the unborn.

Despite IRS regulations that bar churches from endorsing political candidates, Smothermon has preached at length about which candidates he does, and does not, support. In 2021, he attracted media scrutiny when he told congregants whom to vote for in a city council runoff, and during the 2022 midterm season he described Lujan Grisham as “demonic.”

Denouncing politicians and progressive movements as “demonic” is not uncommon across the region—and the phrase featured heavily on Peña’s campaign website. “Feminism is demonicism,” he wrote. “All of our accumulated thoughts and knowledge are steadily being erased by it. Of the movements of our time, it is the most potentially corrosive and radical. Women and men are not equal. They have immutable characteristics that separate them from each other.”

Peña goes on to state: “Critical Race Theory, the entire Black Lives Matter movement, aborting the unborn, food stamps, affirmative action, etc. are all demonic. There is no inequality in the USA. The USA is a great land of freedom and opportunity for all who are willing to work.”

Although Peña did not speak at greater length about abortion on his campaign site, his Twitter account, one of his few social media profiles still active, reveals his views on reproductive rights.

Leading up to the election, he replied to a tweet from Lujan Grisham denouncing Ronchetti’s anti-abortion views, stating: “And I will help him. Life begins at conception. MAGA!” And in response to a statement from Democratic Representative Melanie Stansbury, he wrote, “We need a global population of ten billion people in order to have the proper division of labor so we can colonize the moon and Mars, but you are highly focused on helping abort 890,000 babies a year, in the U.S.”

When asked if they were investigating whether Peña was potentially motivated by his views on abortion rights, Albuquerque Police Department spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said he did “not have any additional information.” Legacy Church did not respond to a request to comment or confirm Peña’s membership.

At a recent public meeting of the county commissioners, Barboa said, a member of the public stood up to say he felt no sympathy for the leaders who’d been targeted. “How much can women withstand that kind of directed public abuse?” she asked. “I just think of what it means for our representation in office, that is another way that women will be deterred from running for office.” But Barboa noted that it’s vital that women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community continue to enter politics, because “if we don’t fill these spaces, then they do, and then their tactics win.”

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