Rep. Xochitl Torres Small offers lessons in rural politics

The Democratic congresswoman won a conservative region by talking about concerns all Westerners share.

 

New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District has elected Republicans for the past four decades (minus a two-year blip 10 years ago). That changed last fall, when Xochitl Torres Small, D, won.

The former water rights attorney now represents one of the nation’s largest districts, which covers more than half of New Mexico, from the Albuquerque suburbs to the southern border.

Torres Small attributes her success to her emphasis on issues her rural constituents care about, regardless of party. On several issues, she’s charted a middle course, breaking with her party to oppose gun purchase background checks, while voting to protect health care for people with pre-existing conditions and restore the Paris climate accord.

High Country News recently spoke to Torres Small about her surprising win, immigration, and energy production. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Rep. Xochitl Torres Small greets participants at White Sands Bataan Memorial Death March. She emphasizes the necessity of showing up for her constituents.
Courtesy of Rep. Xochitl Torres Small

High Country News: What can your example teach the West about rural politics? 

Xochitl Torres Small: In the West, I think there’s a specific opportunity when it comes to serving people in rural areas. The district I represent has an independent streak a mile wide. What (voters) are most interested in is seeing folks who are willing to put in the work, and most importantly, put in the work with anyone else who is willing to. And I think that’s something that hasn’t happened on either side in Washington for quite some time. So I think that’s the main lesson: Democrat or Republican, we serve rural communities best when we work with anyone who will lend a hand.

One of the local business leaders said when introducing me (at a town hall), “I don’t always agree with her, but she shows up and she says what she thinks and doesn’t try to hide it, and she listens.” And sometimes that’s the best you can do.  

HCN: You've introduced a bill on rural healthcare access, correct?  

XTS: It’s not the sexiest thing, right? (laughs)

When we talk about health care, we have to talk about making sure that it’s affordable, but you should also be able to get to a doctor close to home. And that accessibility factor is huge for rural areas. It's probably the issue that resonated most in my campaign.

Sometimes the way to make change is making improvements where you can, and one of those is increasing physician residency programs (which place doctors at hospitals around the country for training). It's arbitrarily capped right now, and a bill I introduced would increase the program by 3,000 doctors a year for five years. The bill also identifies priority areas where there are shortages, including rural areas.

At the U.S.-Mexico border near Sunland Park, New Mexico, Rep. Xochitl Torres Small meets with Border Patrol agents to discuss some of the challenges they’re facing like recruitment, retention and their needs for improved technology.
Courtesy of Rep. Xochitl Torres Small

HCN: There are reports that the influx of asylum seekers is straining local government services. How is your district being affected by federal border policies?

XTS: We've seen a rapid change in circumstances. If you look back at when I was first elected, we were continuing to see families voluntarily presenting (for asylum) along the U.S.-Mexico border. But the numbers are growing so quickly, and the resources are being depleted so quickly, that the burden of responsibility is being transferred more and more to churches and local governments as these families are released without any plan. It's becoming a humanitarian crisis. 

For example, Jakelin (Amei Rosmery Caal Maquin), one of the first children who died in (U.S. Customs and Border Protection) custody, died after not being transported from a remote part of the border in time. That delay was a key factor in her death. And when she finally got to the (CBP) station, they wanted to take her blood oxygen level, but they didn’t have an instrument that was small enough for a child’s finger.

These are things we should be able to fix, and we're all responsible. 

HCN: How do you balance conservation and human health concerns from oil and gas drilling against an industry that is a significant source of revenue and jobs in your district?

XTS: A lot of things were able to occur (during the most recent state legislative session) because of the budget surplus we had, because of the oil and gas production in the district. So being able to reinvest in education, in economic development, in road safety can happen right now because of that revenue.

We need to work to make sure that we produce energy in a responsible way to lessen the effects of climate change. Part of the reason why it’s so important to include everyone is that sometimes you need industry knowledge about how best to make the changes we need. I think New Mexico has a pretty good example with the (Energy Transition Act) that was just passed — zero carbon electricity production by 2045. It passed without opposition from the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association. 

HCN: Six months into your time in Congress, what's the strangest thing that has happened to you? 

XTS: There’s definitely a Republican side and a Democrat side (on the House floor), and I spend a lot of time on the Republican side talking with folks. And sometimes I get some strange comments, like, “What’re you doing over here?”

I was talking to some folks and one guy said, “You know, Xochitl, you’re my favorite Democrat,” and I said, “Thanks. …” And another guy said, ”I think you’re a lot of people’s favorite Democrat!” And another said, “You’re so many people’s favorite Democrat, you should just become a Republican!” And I said, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, that’s not the point!”

Nick Bowlin is an editorial intern at High Country News. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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