Learning to Lobby, Winning a Battle

emma2There’s been much talk about how the New Mexico State Legislature is truly an inaccessible place for many residents who don’t have the time, the money or the practical knowledge of how business is conducted in the Roundhouse.

I’ve written about how perplexed and cynical I was after my first up-close look at the session.

But I wanted to also share the frustration of someone who was deeply involved in a particular piece of legislation that could have affected the civil rights of thousands of young people in Albuquerque.

Emma Sandoval, 22, is the youth coordinator at the Southwest Organizing Project, a social justice organization based in Albuquerque.

As one of SWOP’s registered lobbyists for this year’s session, it was Sandoval’s job to organize opposition to SB 525 and HB 379 – identical bills introduced in both houses that would allow Albuquerque Public Schools to create their own police force.

APS said they wanted their own force so they’d have access to the National Crime Information Center, a computerized criminal database.

But SWOP opposed the bill saying it would lead to unfair criminalization of young people and to a greater drop-out rate, especially among low-income teens and students of color.

To fight the bills, Sandoval had to wage a complicated campaign. She needed to track the progress of the bills though the maze of committees in both houses and attend key hearings. She needed to speak to legislators to know which ones supported the measure and which ones opposed it. She needed to be on top of attempts to amend both bills. And she needed to be able to inform and mobilize the people back in Albuquerque who stood to be deeply affected by the creation of an APS police department for specific events in and around the Roundhouse

After rocketing through several committees, the proposals to create the police department were tabled during the session and didn’t re-emerge.

So essentially, Sandoval won the battle.

But I asked her what she’d learned in her first head-to-head experience at the Legislature.

“The legislature is really not a place for the community,” she said. “It’s more for lobbyists and politicians and people who have the money and time to be up there every day.”

Sandoval said many of the meetings were deliberately moved or delayed to make it harder for opponents of particular measures to attend.  Sandoval said she only had to organize and transport her people from Albuquerque – one hour away from the Capitol. She says she can’t imagine how New Mexicans who live farther away could possibly respond to short notice of hearings or other events.

“I couldn’t imagine how anyone living in, say, Las Cruces could expect to make a change,” she said.

The flow of information emanating from the Roundhouse was often very slow or flat out incorrect, said Sandoval.  That directly affected citizen access to key legislative hearings, she said.

The website was really not helpful at all.  They wouldn’t post the correct agenda, or they would say,  ‘Check on the room door for the agenda.’

It really wasn’t helpful at all if you were sending people up there to go to the hearings. We we’re sending lots of young people up there and it was really very frustrating for us. “

Sandoval said she’s encouraged by the recent decision by legislators to webcast the Senate, saying it could go a long way in letting regular folks in on the legislative process.

But she said she remains wary of the legislative process and more aware than ever that citizens of New Mexico must be organized to make a difference.

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