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Wind or Oil? New Mexico Voters Face Sharp Choice on Nov. 2

Teague's clean energy agenda draws some, but others say Pearce will defend the state's oil industry

Nov 1, 2010

Editor's Note: SolveClimate News political reporter Elizabeth McGowan traveled to New Mexico to cover the 2010 midterm elections race in the state’s 2nd Congressional District. It pits an incumbent against a former legislator, both with long careers in the oil and gas industry. This is the final installment in a three-part series. Read Part 1 and Part 2.
 
TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, N.M.—Mention cap-and-trade systems, renewable electricity standards or low-carbon economies to Hatty Smith, and her snappy blue eyes quickly telegraph that such Washington gibberish gives her a headache.

But turn the conversation toward harnessing her home state’s ferocious winds to create electricity and the 83-year-old’s ears perk up.

“I think it’s the best thing they could ever think of,” says Smith, a retired restaurant owner. “It’s natural. We have plenty of wind, and it’s free. I don’t understand why we’re not using more of it.”

Boosting wind power is one of the reasons Smith is backing renewable-energy champion Democrat Harry Teague who’s in a down-to-the-wire match with a climate-change denying Republican Steve Pearce to hang on to his House seat in New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District.

Truth or Consequences is a hardscrabble-leaning community of about 7,300 residents some 150 miles south of Albuquerque on Interstate 25. It’s in the heart of Teague’s district—a sprawling, rural and traditional GOP stronghold encompassing the southern half of the state—where the 61-year-old freshman legislator won with 56 percent of the vote in 2008.

Sandwiched between the Gila National Forest and the White Sands Missile Range in the high desert of the Rio Grande Valley, the oddly named city is surrounded by a seductive, magical mix of mountains, buttes, canyons and calderas formed during an ancient volcanic past. It’s as if a colossal —and explosive—artist spent a career toying with sand, rocks and lava.  

In the midst of this stunning geography, Hatty and her husband, 89-year-old William, join dozens of other retirees tucking into a lunch of sweet and sour meatballs, fried rice, string beans, apricots and biscuits at the Sierra County Senior Center just a week before Election Day.

On days like this one—with weather forecasters issuing warnings for sustained winds of 50 mph and gusts up to 75 mph—the Smiths laugh in agreement to the suggestion that it makes sense to lengthen the state’s nickname to the “Land of Enchantment and Relentless Wind.”

However, the registered Democrats are not nearly as receptive to televised attacks on Teague, whom they have met during various campaign swings. For instance, they’re offended by a U.S. Chamber of Commerce ad claiming the Democrat’s vote for the American Clean Energy and Security Act will kill jobs and lead to costlier electricity and $4-a-gallon gas.

“Nope, that doesn’t scare us a bit,” says Hatty, speaking up to be heard over the luncheon’s live piano accompaniment. “It’s all ridiculous.”

Election-Season Smears and Squawk-Fest

What alarms and annoys her is watching this election season devolve into an expensive and months-long smear campaign and squawk-fest.

“You turn on the television, and 75 percent of the ads now are political,” she says. “Why are they spending so much money when we’re hurting so bad? Why don’t they spend that money telling us what good they’ve done instead of the other person’s bad?”

A cursory survey of the Smiths’ fellow diners reveals that while they didn’t fully grasp the specifics of the science behind global warming, they are aware it’s a looming threat that legislators need to be involved in solving.

“We’ve got to do something about it because we’re going to destroy ourselves if we don’t,” explains 86-year-old Judge Hamilton, a Republican who cast an early ballot for Teague. “Pearce was in there for years, and what did he do?”

“It was an honest and down-to-earth decision,” Hamilton says about Teague’s support for a climate bill designed to curb greenhouse gas emissions and promote cleaner technologies. “I trust the guy enough. So, if he thought this bill was good for our state, I’ll go along with him. We need people with common sense.”

Not Everybody on the Teague Bandwagon

While the senior center is laden with Teague supporters, that isn’t the case at a stucco house steps away across Third Street. One of Ronald Sullivan’s cars, sporting a “Bring Back Pearce” bumper sticker, is parked near a wave of colorful yard signs for Republican candidates and a fence bedecked with a homemade sign calling for President Barack Obama’s impeachment.

Sullivan has a one-word response for the science proving that manmade warming has dangerous consequences: Hogwash.

“The Earth has so much more power than we do,” says the ebullient 63-year-old mechanic, who cheerfully pulls his head out from under a pickup truck to engage in a conversation about energy and the Teague-Pearce contest. “We can’t even predict the weather. How can we predict how carbon dioxide is affecting the Earth?”

“Carbon dioxide makes trees grow better,” he says, pointing to twin mulberry trees flourishing in his front yard framed with a cinder block wall. “And besides,” he continues, gesturing beyond a slightly tattered American flag flapping in the breeze to a resplendent blue sky spritzed with white, puffy clouds, “do you see any dirt up there, any sign of global warming?”

Sullivan says he respects Teague for having the guts to defend his vote for the climate legislation co-authored by Democratic Reps. Henry Waxman of California and Ed Markey of Massachusetts. But the admiration ends there.

“Harry Teague says he’s an oil man, but he doesn’t act like one,” he emphasizes. “We’d be bankrupt in this state if it weren’t for oil. Steve Pearce would never vote for a bill that hurts the oil industry.”

Pearce, first elected to the House in 2002, gave up his seat to make an unsuccessful run for the Senate in 2008.

Pearce’s "Over-Taxed, Over-Regulated" Message Resonates

Sullivan echoes Pearce’s campaign mantra that the government is over-taxing and over-regulating everybody and everything. The Republican’s ideas about undertaking more drilling to slash unemployment and boost energy independence resonate with Sullivan in a state where the oil and gas industry employs about 15,000 workers.

Wind and solar technology aren’t advanced enough and are too pricey for major investments now, Sullivan says.

With conservative talk show host Sean Hannity burbling on the radio in the background, Sullivan explains with a sly smile that he was born to Democratic parents in what he describes as the “socialist capital city” of Santa Fe. Though he doesn’t consider himself a member of the Tea Party, he recently attended a rally organized by the Tea Party Express in Las Cruces, a city not far from the Mexican border, because he’s enamored with the group’s “common-sense ideas.”

“I listen to talk radio because it makes me think,” he explains. “I’m an issues person. I believe in looking at the facts and making up my own mind.”

Sullivan settled permanently in Truth or Consequences 23 years ago partly because his ancestors first put down roots in the region in the 1860s. It’s where he has coached youth sports, served as a city commissioner and souped up race cars with his son.

This little speck of a settlement—originally named Hot Springs—literally put itself on the map 60 years ago when radio and television producer Ralph Edwards offered free publicity to any town that would rename itself after his game show. Each May, Edwards trotted out a slew of Hollywood stars at the Truth or Consequences Fiesta.

No matter what its name is, Sullivan says he plans on staying put in a place that he sees as small enough for his voice and his vote to make a difference.

However, unlike the early-voting senior citizens at the luncheon across the street, Sullivan eschews the idea of entering the voting booth before Nov. 2.

“I always wait for Election Day,” he says. “I like all of the excitement.”

Image: kthread via flickr Creative Commons license

See Also:

Oil Magnate's Clean Energy Platform Draws Greens in N.M.

Sparks Fly in Big-Dollar New Mexico Shootout 

Latest "Dirty Dozen" Inductees in Good Position to Win Senate Seats

Renewable Electricity Promotion Act of 2010 Introduced into Senate

Governors See Jobs on the Path to Clean Energy, Efficiency

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