Milan Simonich: Stansbury's fast track: Statehouse to Congress in three years

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Jun. 11—At age 42, Melanie Stansbury is approaching the most eventful day of her life.

She plans to resign Monday from her seat in the New Mexico House of Representatives. Several hours later, at 4:30 p.m. Mountain time, she will be in Washington to be sworn in as the congresswoman representing the Albuquerque-based 1st District.

Stansbury, a Democrat, is riding a crest she couldn't have imagined when she first ran for public office three years ago.

"I did definitely come out of the blue, to be honest," she said in an interview.

She ran for the state House of Representatives in 2018 against a seven-term Republican incumbent, Jimmie Hall.

Hall's district in Albuquerque's Northeast Heights leaned to the right, but he wasn't charismatic or an especially aggressive campaigner.

Stansbury outworked him and won the election by a decisive margin, taking almost 54 percent of the vote.

She got off to a fast start at the Capitol. Two of her high-profile bills cleared the Legislature in her freshman year.

One measure, aimed at fighting poverty, covered expenses for 12,000 kids of modest means who did not qualify for free meals at school. Her other bill heightened penalties for crimes committed with guns.

Stansbury won reelection to the state Legislature in November 2020. Five weeks later, she was running for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Joe Biden, then the president-elect, chose Albuquerque Congresswoman Deb Haaland as his nominee to head the Interior Department.

With Haaland on a path to Biden's Cabinet, Stansbury never hid her ambition.

She said she was excited to run for a federal seat, having seen the limitations of the statehouse. The greater resources available to Congress would position her to do more at a faster clip.

She has three priorities. The first is providing economic relief and assisting in the recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

Another is working to lessen poverty. The third is finding solutions to drought and rising temperatures across the planet.

Stansbury, though raised in New Mexico, is a veteran of Washington politics. She served as a staff member of the White House Office of Management and Budget and the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

Her heroes on the committee were senators of both major parties, Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Democrat Maria Cantwell of Washington.

Rival politicians conceded that Stansbury knew Washington, but it was no guarantee she would be elected to Congress.

Seven other Democrats entered the race to replace Haaland. Tight deadlines to fill the seat meant voters wouldn't choose the nominee. Instead, 200 members of the Democratic State Central Committee would pick the candidate for a special congressional election.

Fear of failure is Stansbury's motivator.

"I always run every campaign like I'm going to lose. I truly believe every vote matters," she said.

That's how it turned out.

State Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez of Albuquerque jumped to a big lead on the first day of balloting by central committee members. Stansbury was a distant second. But because Sedillo Lopez hadn't received a majority of the votes, she had to face Stansbury in a runoff election.

To overtake Sedillo Lopez, Stansbury needed to take at least 70 percent of the votes that had gone to the six defeated candidates.

She did it. Stansbury bested Sedillo Lopez, 103 votes to 97.

"Even that comeback was a strategy we had been working on for weeks," Stansbury said of campaigning to reach every voter on the central committee.

With the primary won, Stansbury became the overwhelming favorite to defeat her main opponent, Republican Mark Moores, in the June 1 special election.

A Republican has not won the 1st Congressional District since 2006. Moores didn't help his chances by being evasive when asked if Biden had won the presidential election.

Stansbury trounced Moores by 24 percentage points, an even larger margin than Haaland's win in November.

Moores, a state senator, sent a gracious text message to Stansbury after they didn't connect by phone. He probably won't be her challenger next year. Republicans have such a shallow bench they might not mount much of a threat.

Stansbury will be voting on congressional bills by Monday night. She's already preparing, most notably on voting rights legislation.

The great issue of 1957 and 1964 is still in play after former President Donald Trump's claims of a stolen election led to voting strictures in red states.

"The fight continues for every generation," Stansbury said.

Only eight months ago, she didn't believe it would be her fight, at least not in Congress.

Now, Stansbury says, she will keep her primary residence as Albuquerque and commute to work in Washington. The long haul starts Monday.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican or 505-986-3080.

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