Female politicians gain ground in New Mexico

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SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) The New Mexico state House inched within four seats of gender balance with a surge in victorious female Democrats in the midterm elections, echoing the trend in Congress.

Overall, 31 women won election to the 70-seat New Mexico House, an increase from 23 female lawmakers a decade ago. In 1973, there were none.

"I hope it changes the culture of politics for the better," said Democratic legislator-elect Micaela Lara Cadena, a research director for a progressive advocacy group and former state Corrections Department employee. "I've been around that (Capitol) enough to know that women aren't always seen and heard and respected in the ways that they deserve."

Lara Cadena, who highlights her perspective as a working mother of two from the historically Hispanic and agricultural community of Mesilla, emerged from a three-way Democratic primary to win against Republican Charles Wendler.

Women spearheaded Democrats' expansion of their house majority and will outnumber men among House Democrats when the Legislature convenes in January.

In the state Senate, where elections last took place in 2016, men outnumber women 35-7.

In other gender milestones, the New Mexico governor's office will pass from one Latina governor to another with the election of Democratic U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

State Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard will become the first woman to lead the State Land Office that oversees energy and mineral development on state trust land to fund public education. She defeated two-time former land commissioner Patrick Lyons and brings a background as an education administrator to the job.

Democrat Maggie Toulouse Oliver was re-elected as secretary of state, one of the few statewide elected offices routinely held by women. Attorney Xochitl Torres Small, the wife of a state legislator, won election to New Mexico's southern congressional seat, currently held by Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce. Pearce lost a bid for governor.

Tuesday's changes in New Mexico's Legislature echo a national outpouring of women seeking public office, in a movement driven by a backlash to President Donald Trump. A record number of women were elected to the U.S. House, including its first two female Muslim members.

Christine Sierra, a research scholar on politics at the University of New Mexico, referred to elections results in New Mexico as "a special bump in numbers" for female candidates amid gradual increases over the decades.

"The Trump presidency has been a factor, but it is not the only factor," Sierra said. "There have been more deliberate systematic attempts to help women run for public office."

In New Mexico and nationally, she said, increases in the number of female politicians have been driven disproportionately by Democrats, whether recruited or self-motivated.

Democrat Melanie Stansbury of Albuquerque waged a campaign about "community well-being and crime" that touched on solutions to homelessness to defeat seven-term Republican state Rep. Jimmy Hall, in a district where registered Republicans slightly outnumber Democrats.

Stansbury said she tapped into instruction on the nuts and bolts of political campaigning from the Democrat-allied groups Emily's List and Emerge that both train female candidates but didn't run on gender-based issues.

"We knocked thousands of doors, we knocked on political registrations of every stripe," she said. "What people are hungry for is a new form of government."

Stansbury said she drew inspiration to run for public office from U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Maria Cantwell of Washington, whom she worked with during a stint in Washington, D.C., as staff member of a Senate committee.

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