Democrats call on New Mexico GOP to disavow 'racist' mailer

Sep. 23—Democratic lawmakers and others called on the Republican Party of New Mexico on Thursday to disavow a political mailer the Democrats condemned as racist.

The mailer paid for by the state GOP and targeting Democrats in at least nine competitive House districts uses a stock photo that was altered to darken the skin tone of the hands of a person who represents a sex offender cutting a boy's hair.

"These images leave scars," the Rev. Charles E. Becknell, a longtime civil rights leader and president of the New Mexico chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said during a news conference in Albuquerque.

"I say to my fellow New Mexicans: It is time that we put an end to this kind of crap. Excuse my French. But we're better than this, and we need to demonstrate to our fellow New Mexicans this is not acceptable," he said.

In a statement issued earlier in the day, Becknell said "digitally darkening the skin tone of the person in this ad, while suggesting they are a sexual predator, is blatantly racist and completely inexcusable."

House Republican Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, called the accusation of racism "ridiculous" and "just stupid" and said Democrats were trying to deflect from what he characterized as their soft-on-crime agenda.

Montoya said the stock photo was edited to make the person cutting the boy's hair a shadowy gray figure.

"These progressives in the Legislature just continue to choose the rights of convicted criminals over victims and over public safety," he said. "That's the issue, so they're trying to make this about racism when the person is obviously gray. The hands look more like Gollum from Lord of the Rings."

Montoya noted Democrats targeted in the ads were also cast in a gray tint.

"All of the Democrat legislators on the other side of the ad, they were all darkened," he said. "But it wasn't darkened in the way of making it black. The page was darkened to make it look gloomy."

The mailer cites two bills pertaining to occupational licenses.

One of the bills, introduced in 2019, sought to "prohibit the exclusion from processional licensure of persons convicted of certain felonies" unless "the conviction was for a crime related to the profession for which the individual seeks licensure." That bill also called for a board that grants professional licensure to "explicitly list the specific criminal convictions that could disqualify an applicant from receiving a license."

The bill passed both chambers, including with support from every Republican in the chamber when it went up for a vote, but was vetoed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

The other bill, introduced last year, dealt specifically with the licensing and regulation of barbers and cosmetologists and eliminated the term "conviction of a crime involving moral turpitude" as grounds for refusal to issue a license, among other things.

Even though the bill had Republican support, the mailers the state GOP sent to voters accuse Democratic lawmakers of voting to "allow convicted sex offenders to receive professional licenses for activities such as cutting hair or working as a nail technician — leaving unsuspecting women and children vulnerable to predators."

During a floor debate on the bill, Rep. Stefani Lord, R-Sandia Park, introduced an amendment to exclude convicted sex offenders from eligibility. Although the amendment failed, the bill still passed the House floor, including with support from seven Republicans.

"The reason why I voted for that bill is I believe once you've served your full debt to society, I think we need to do everything we can to rehabilitate you," Rep. T. Ryan Lane, R-Aztec, one of the Republicans who supported the bill, said in a telephone interview.

At Thursday's news conference, House Majority Leader Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, said the GOP mailer may have been sent to thousands of voters across the state.

"I've been in politics a long time, both as an elected official [and] as an advocate probably more than 20 years," he said. "This is one of the most vile examples of racist dog whistles that I have ever seen. ... Luckily, New Mexicans are way too smart to fall for these hateful tricks."

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.