Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Reies Tijerina, RIP

I knew Reies Tijerina, slightly.  I admired him, in spite of, and partly because of, his outrageous flaws.  Every day during the famous trial I would go to the courthouse and sit, spellbound, as the story of the courthouse raid unfolded.  I spoke to him occasionally at his headquarters in Albuquerque.

I first heard about Tijerina while in Quito, Ecuador, on a Fulbright scholarship.  One morning I picked up a newspaper and saw a picture of a tank in the lower right-hand side of the front page and a headline that read “Uprising in New Mexico.”  The story didn’t make sense, but my friend John Aragon, later to become president of Highlands University, was in Quito at that time so I called and asked him to fill me in.  The tank was National Guard, part of a manhunt; the “uprising” was a shoot-em-out at the courthouse in Tierra Amarilla; the cause was land grant ownership claims from decades before, promoted by a group calling itself the Alianza Federal de Mercedes.

The trial pitted the conservative Hispanic political establishment against a young upstart from Texas who stood them down while promoting downtrodden Hispanic populations of the North.  It also pitted the larger New Mexico social establishment, already nervous about Viet Nam, black power, and the Chicano movement, against the national forces of change during the crazy 1960s.  The national press corps, mostly favorable to Tijerina, took to the story like a herd of thirsty cattle sniffing the breeze of a distant pond of water. 

The presiding judge was Paul Larrazolo, son of former Governor Octaviano Larrazolo—the epitome of Hispanic establishment.  The courthouse raid had begun as an attempt to make a citizen’s arrest of Rio Arriba District Attorney Alfonso Sanchez, who had blocked some of the activities of the Alianza.  So the power structure in Rio Arriba County was in play as well, the same power structure that would later consolidate behind the leadership of patron Emilio Naranjo.  Sheriff Benny Naranjo, Emilio’s son, was one of the key witnesses in the trial.  Opposing this behemoth of political power was a band of rusty pickup-driving scraggly nortenos with names like Baltazar and Tobias, looking like characters out of the Milagro Beanfield War, and led by an impoverished, uneducated but ingenious Texan outsider and former Protestant preacher named Reies Tijerina.  He was also dangerous, and so were they.  The contrast was irresistible.

Tijerina defended himself in trial, brilliantly, with the help of Bill Higgs, a disbarred Harvard-educated lawyer from Mississippi who had worked for Martin Luther King, and Beverly Axelrod, who had defended Black Panther activist Eldridge Cleaver.  She was in New Mexico, I was told, chilling out after an impossible romantic, public, affair with Cleaver.  Key to the kidnapping charge against Tijerina was a moment during the raid in which Tijerina allegedly forced Sheriff Benny Naranjo at gunpoint to release prisoners from the courthouse jail.  The term kidnapping was carefully defined by the prosecution as forcibly holding or confining a person against their will, even for a short period of time.

Tijerina to Benny Naranjo (this is from my memory, not from a transcript):  Did I have a gun on you?  Yes.  Did I told you to release the prisoners?  Yes.  When I told you to release the prisoners did I pistol whip you?  Did I force you physically?  Did I follow you to make sure you released the prisoners?  No.  NoNoWere you afraid of me?  I was known as King Tiger.  Did you tremble with fear because of me? Are your afraid of me now?  (Tijerina grimaced in mock fear, facing Naranjo up close):  No, I wasn’t afraid of you, and I’m not afraid now.  Did you release the prisoners because I told you to or because you were afraid of me?  I went downstairs to release the prisoners because you told me to, not because I was afraid of you.  Tijerina had challenged Naranjo's self image in a very personal way.  No one but Tijerina could have made this work.  Naranjo's macho response pretty much destroyed the kidnapping case.  Tijerina was acquitted of all charges.He was later convicted of conspiracy in a separate incident.

On the day of his acquittal I went to the Alianza headquarters, arriving just as Tijerina got out of his car.  A group of Brown Berets surrounded him.  All of a sudden there was a fight.  One of the young Brown Berets had tried to punch Tijerina.  Tijerina admonished the young man, saying, “why would you want to fight me on this happy occasion?”  Tijerina’s brother Cristobal broke the tension, saying, “No es nada, una borrachera.”  It’s nothing serious, just too much liquor.  Not being part of the Alianza, I left the premises as the celebration began.

For an excellent set of pictures and notes taken by an eyewitness to much of Tijerina’s escapades, go to my friend Mark Bralley’s, website:  http://mgbralley-whatswrongwiththispicture.blogspot.com/

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Democratic Party: Early 2015

If the Republican capture of the House is, in part, a story of hard work, it is also in part a story of the other side’s decline.  The Democratic Party lost touch with its base.  It neglected to promote its most talented, ran out of new ideas, and in recent years sounded too much like the party of “no.”  Disoriented after long lapses without a compass, the party lost its capacity to foresee the present, much less the future, as it mistakenly took for granted a winning margin.

It can bounce back, in time, but:  as Confucius said, the beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.  Three things that need naming:  first, the Democratic Party is no longer the default party.  Three of the past five governors were Republicans.  In 2018 the governorship will have been held by Republicans for 20 of the past 32 years.  The last Democratic governor with a truly distinguished record for advancing governance was Jerry Apodaca, 1974-1978.  The Secretary of State is Republican, as is control of the House.  The Senate leadership was picked by a coalition of Republicans and Democrats.  While the party has local momentum in most counties, margins are slipping, for many reasons.  After Toney Anaya (1982-1986), who tried, but failed, at policy reform, the party settled for protecting its most powerful constituents—labor, the petrified school and higher education system—at the expense of good governance, while favoring narrow business interests under the guise of economic development.  With hardly a peep of dissent while state government declined, party leaders gifted their moral authority to Uncle Bill, tolerated the vultures of corruption, and then rode a long surf-wave of ostrich-like denial.  The public is aware of this and, no, it doesn't trust; the default position is gone.

Second, inclusiveness is a concept the party needs to revive.  New voices, some dissident and unpopular, should be encouraged, not stifled; channeled, not driven out.  Lack of inclusion has contributed mightily to the mass denial of obvious failures in recent party history, and to defection at the polls. Without it, re-establishing connections between leadership and the base will be impossible.

Third, the party needs a big-picture policy game plan.  What needs fixing?  How will we fix it?  Thousands of citizens, city councilors, county elected officials, legislators, desperate to tell their story, already have the answers.  The party needs to tap this strength.  With a credible agenda, mobilizing—recruiting, training, and rewarding a cadre of young and earnest workers—will be easy.  Without one, credibility will lag.  Democratic House members, now in the minority role, have a special responsibility to identify things that need fixing, and communicate these with the public.  The best role model I know is outgoing Majority Leader Rick Miera, who always understood the bottom line was better government, who fought with both grace and passion, and never forgot where he came from.  Others, like Ed Sandoval, Jim Trujillo, Lucky Varela, Sheryl Williams Stapleton, come to mind as well.

None of this is too much to ask; the Party has faltered before and recovered, and it might even be fun.  Ask Nick Franklin, Tim Kraft, Chris Brown, or Brian Sanderoff.  They were the Jay McClesky’s and Rod Adairs of the early 1980s, architects of modern party organization in New Mexico, moving election practice  to data-driven, media-led campaigns—they gave it hell and had a blast.  And in the best dreams they dream at night they can still feel the nervous rush of the clock ticking down, they can smell the gathering crowd, and savor the aftertaste of hard-won success.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Republican Party: New Mexico Early 2015

The return of the Republican Party to majority status in the New Mexico House of Representatives, after sixty years in the wilderness, is the political story of the decade--up to now.  Three points:

First, this is healthy.  Even if some policy directions taken by the new leadership should prove wrongheaded (and I don't necessarily predict this), new leadership in itself is welcome relief.  Shifts in leadership stimulate competition, transparency, and accountability.  They generate new ideas, new perspectives.  After decades of knee-jerk, tired and predictable power relations within a major branch of government, even youthful brashness and chest-thumping by some of the new victors, should it emerge, can create a healthy dynamic.  Yes:  Democrats, independents, this is good; get used to the competition.  It isn't going to go away.

Second, while this triumph is due in part to the colossal, accumulated failure of the Democratic Party--at the top, middle, and bottom levels--in recent decades, it is not entirely so.  A cadre of Republicans worked for decades to improve the competitive environment.  For example, it took hard work to counter the gerrymandering of districts:  Rod Adair, Pat Rogers, and others spent years leveling this field.  Others, like Jay McClesky, helped create a solid local fundraising infrastructure linked to the national party. Among the major longtime godfathers of success are Mickey Barnett and the late John Dendahl.  There are many others.  Without their work this power shift could not have happened.  Moreover, thankfully, leaders within the Republican Party have avoided the temptation to follow national party ideology, at least up to now, focusing instead on problem-solving at state and local levels rather than simple-minded one-size-fits-all formulas.  Another way of saying this:  while exiled in the hinterlands, many Republicans learned something about New Mexico.  This, too, is good. 

Third, on a more personal note, as I have interacted with some of the legislative leaders in the Republican Party (I am still a Democrat), I can say I am impressed by the aplomb, the energy, wit, and sincerity of many of them.  Don Tripp is not known for his Republican views, but for his moderation, tact, and common sense. If he were to exchange positions with, say, John Arthur Smith, a Democrat, unless you were truly involved you would not notice the difference in voting behavior.  Ditto for Larry Larranaga.  Conrad James, who regained a seat in the House this year, is another case in point:  I've seen him struggle to understand a complicated issue, from various perspectives, and make up his own mind.  Rod Montoya is a seasoned campaign pro, experienced in grass roots problem solving in the Lt. Governor's office, and full of energy.  There is talent here.

The achievement of the Republican Party last November was not a freak accident, a weird turn of events.  It was the result of years of hard work combined with the unsatisfactory performance, for many years, of those previously in charge.   For most of us politics is not about cheering for the party or lamenting the victories of the other team; it is about creating effective governance and New Mexico has a long ways to go in this department.  We wish the new leaders the best.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Juarez Homicides Down in 2014

The Chihuahua Attorney General's office reported a total of 429 homicides in Cd. Juarez in 2014, down from 485 in 2013, and down drastically from 3085 in 2010, when Juarez was believed to be the most violent city in the world.  Chihuahua is the fifth most violent state in Mexico, and Juarez is still the most violent city in the state of Chihuahua.  The homicide rate for Juarez is about 33 per 100,000 population, about two-and-a-half times the national rate of 13.5.

By comparison, New Orleans, Detroit, St. Louis, Newark, and Baltimore, all have homicide rates higher than 33 per 100,000.  And among nation states, Honduras has the highest homicide rate in the world, at 90.4, followed by Venezuela, Belize, El Salvador, and Guatemala.  Spain has a homicide rate of 0.8 per 100,000.

New Mexico ranks 8th in the nation for homicides, with about 6 per 100,000.  All of the surrounding states--Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Texas have lower homicide rates.  The national average is 4.7.  The Utah homicide rate is 1.7.

The first homicide in Juarez in 2015 was of a female prostitute, whose hands were bound and she was beaten to death and then thrown to the street from a second story downtown hotel room.