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Know the West

The West needs more effective political coverage

Retrospective storytelling captures the nuance of our systems to better inform us as we enter election season.


American politics are complicated. And as we head into a new election cycle, there’s more to sort through than ever. That’s why we’ve dedicated a hefty portion of this double issue (more on that in a moment) to politics.

Democratic Party candidate for New Mexico’s 2nd U.S. Congressional District, Xochitl Torres Small (second from left), poses for photographs with supporters following her speech at a campaign event at an A&W restaurant in Belen, New Mexico, last November.
In our main feature, Albuquerque-based writer Will Ford documents the rise of Xochitl Torres Small, a Democratic representative in New Mexico’s Congressional District 2, and the methods by which she was chosen. In 2018, when Torres Small achieved her unlikely victory, she became a darling of the Democratic Party. Here, in a conservative district near the U.S.-Mexico border, was a young woman of color — a careful pragmatist with hopeful politics. The question is: Was she chosen democratically?

After more than two years of reporting, we discovered the uncomfortable story behind Torres Small’s triumph.

Ford illuminates how local players in New Mexican politics tilted the scales in the candidate’s favor. This retrospective offers lessons far deeper than traditional horse-race political coverage — the breathless, live reporting where leaders become losers, losers become leaders, and candidates zip up and down the polls like numbers on the stock exchange.

Torres Small is not the villain here. Rather, she, like all the other primary candidates in the story, is the product of a system. We believe that this full, though troubling, picture is more instructive, revealing in detail how our democratic processes work — who benefits, and who gets burned along the way.

Elsewhere, far from New Mexico, we take a look at Markwayne Mullin, a longtime Oklahoma congressman. Mullin is a conservative Republican, a member of the Cherokee Nation, and a bit of an enigma. Some see him as a much-needed Native voice in Congress; others say he is a mixed bag for Indian Country. In many ways, the duality of Rep. Mullin embodies Cherokee Nation politics. Understanding him helps us understand some of the nuances of political identity that seem to be missing from the national discourse.

Paige Blankenbuehler, associate editor
Brooke Warren/High Country News

We hope you’ll dive right in, and that as the next political season progresses, HCN gives you the tools to more carefully scrutinize each race. Maybe we need a better process, one where the people can choose representatives that fit them, instead of being pigeon-holed by a single party or ideology. The West is far too complicated for that.

Also, a quick note: You are holding a double issue in your hand, the last of the year. High Country News is taking a break after this to put together a brand-new magazine on a brand-new publication schedule for 2020. We have a lot of changes coming your way, including a new look. Our publisher will tell you more. Happy holidays, and we’ll see you in January.