This story has been updated to clarify that Torri Jacobus is the former head of the City of Albuquerque's civil rights office.
LAS CRUCES – Fewer than seven weeks until the Nov. 8 elections, this is the season for political ads by candidates, political committees and party organizations. It is hard to miss them in print, online or in one's mailbox.
One of the major themes in advertisements paid for by the Republican Party of New Mexico is crime, hitting Democratic candidates, including Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and their party, for past votes on measures which the GOP argues were too soft on crime, hindered law enforcement or "coddled" people convicted of serious offenses.
One negative advertisement, in particular, drew denunciations Thursday for appearing to darken one of two figures in a stock photograph in a manner one community leader called "blatantly racist."
The ads follow a similar provocative style, using somber colors and stark fonts among tinted or filtered images from prison booking photos or featuring obscured and menacing figures. The ad copy alludes to pieces of legislation supported in past sessions by local representatives, often presenting them as favoring criminals over other citizens.
A postcard targeting Democratic lawmakers in several districts, including some in Albuquerque, Las Cruces and Silver City, shows a light-skinned child in a barber's chair getting a haircut. Only the barber's hands are in view, large in comparison to the child's head and with dark skin.
The text over the image conveys menace, claiming the lawmaker "voted 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."
The claim is based on a 2022 amendment to New Mexico's statute governing licenses for barbers and cosmetologists. The change removed "habitual drunkenness or habitual addiction to the use of habit-forming drugs" and "conviction of a crime involving moral turpitude" from a list of reasons to deny or revoke a professional license under the act.
Photo tinted, hands darkened
The image of the boy getting a haircut is an image licensed for use via Getty Images' iStock service for a fee. In the original image, the hands of the barber appear to be those of a white man. The hands are significantly darker in the Republican Party's advertisement while the child remains light-skinned.
"This doctored ad is a shameful attempt to stoke fear and division," the Rev. Charles E. Becknell, state president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said in a statement. "Digitally darkening the skin tone of the person in this ad, while suggesting they are a sexual predator, is blatantly racist and completely inexcusable."
Torri Jacobus, former head of the City of Albuquerque's civil rights office and now a community advocate, said, "This ad relies on centuries-old racist stereotypes in an attempt to instill fear in New Mexicans and divide us."
Alison Riley, a spokesperson for the state House Democratic Campaign Committee, likened it to historical use of blackface in performances and cartoons as a way of mocking the appearance of people of color.
State House Majority Leader Javier Martínez, an Albuquerque Democrat, called it "one of the worst dirty tricks I have ever seen from a political campaign."
GOP says image supposed to resemble Grim Reaper
In turn, Republicans accused Democrats of "crying racist" and deflecting from their voting record. The House Republican Whip, Rod Montoya of Farmington, said the figure in the ad was gray, not Black, and called any racial inference "ridiculous."
"What this mailer does depict is the danger in which Democrats voted to put our children," he continued, citing a floor amendment to the measure that had been submitted by state Rep. Stefani Lord, R-Sandia Park. Lord's amendment, which died on the floor, would have restricted sex offenders from obtaining professional licenses.
"Charges of racism are simply a smokescreen to distract attention from progressives' voting records which put the interests of convicted criminal over the safety of law-abiding New Mexicans," Montoya continued in a statement, returning to the thesis of the ad campaign.
Yet the party admitted to altering the colors of the image and darkening the hands. State GOP spokesperson Mike Curtis wrote in a text message: "It was darkened to a gray to resemble a Grim Reaper so as NOT to be interpreted as any race. A true menace."
The Grim Reaper is a centuries-old figure of death, dating to the Black Death in Europe and traditionally portrayed as a skeletal figure in a cowl and carrying a scythe.
Riley said complaints from voters in several districts, allegedly characterizing the flyers as racist themselves, first drew the ad to their attention. "We're talking about what came from our constituents who received this mailer, and that's the problem," she said.
Ralph Arellanes, chairman of the Hispano Round Table of New Mexico, wrote in a statement that "this ad is different because it goes far beyond disagreements on particular issues or questioning the character of a candidate — it's an attack on all New Mexicans of color."
SB 385 had wide Republican support in 2019
The state House Democratic Campaign Committee also pointed out that some of the flyers using the image and scary language about sexual predators trimming hair or painting nails cited a bill from the 2019 legislative session, SB 385, which also would have stricken language from statute making "a crime involving moral turpitude" grounds for denying a professional license.
It was sponsored by Republican state Sen. Mark Moores along with two Democrats: State Sen. Bill O'Neill and state Rep. Andrea Romero, all from Albuquerque.
The discovery was not quite a slam dunk, however: SB 385 simply barred the use of vague language as a basis for denying licenses. The bill would have allowed for disqualifications based on specific felony convictions set during the rulemaking process.
Lujan Grisham vetoed the bill, which passed the state Senate 34-2 and unanimously in the House, meaning every Republican who cast their vote supported the bill.
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This article originally appeared on Las Cruces Sun-News: New Mexico GOP ad denounced as racist for darkening figure in stock photo