When Angelica Rubio was a little girl growing up near the border between New Mexico and Mexico, she had a dream that was both grand and circumscribed: She wanted to be governor of her state. “I grew up thinking about political power and what it meant — every year my family would watch the president’s State of the Union address and I would translate it for my parents,” Rubio said. “Most kids were probably dreaming about being president but for some reason, being governor of New Mexico seemed like the right amount of power for me.”
Rubio, who identifies as Chicanx, hasn’t made it to the governor’s mansion — yet. She was elected to the state legislature in 2016, and said she’ll be running for a third term this year. But Rubio’s childhood goal, as lofty as it seems, might be more achievable for a woman of color from New Mexico than any other state in the union. According to Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics, two of the three women of color who have ever been elected governor are from New Mexico, including the current governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham. (You can hear more about Lujan Grisham’s thoughts about what it’s like to run for office as a woman in FiveThirtyEight’s “When Women Run” project.)
Likewise, nearly one-third of the women of color who have served in any statewide executive office — a category that includes lieutenant governor, secretary of state and other posts that frequently serve as stepping stones to the governorship — are from New Mexico. It also has a relatively high percentage of women of color in the state legislature, compared to other states: 16 percent of statehouse seats are held by non-white women, a share topped by only five other states.
These disparities might seem like a fluke — a strange political accident that made New Mexico into an especially friendly place for women of color who want to run the state. But experts and New Mexico politicians alike told me that there’s no secret recipe. Instead, there are four main factors that built on each other to help boost the electoral prospects of women of color:
- A long history of women of color serving in lower-level statewide offices;
- Large shares of Latinos and Native Americans in the state electorate;
- Shifting political winds that have turned the state bluer;
- A recent concerted effort to get more women of color to run for office.
There are 20 states — including some of the nation’s biggest, like California and New York — that have never been led by a female governor. Twenty-seven states, meanwhile, have never had a woman of color serve in any statewide office, and New Mexico is one of only 11 states in which women of color have held multiple statewide offices.
But when it comes to political leadership by women of color, New Mexico has pretty much always been a pioneer. Women of color have been serving in elected office in New Mexico for almost as long as the state has existed, starting with Soledad Chávez Chacón, who was elected secretary of state in 1922 — only a decade after New Mexico was admitted as the country’s 47th state. Before Chacon’s election, New Mexico had been among the more politically conservative states in the West when it came to women’s suffrage, refusing to extend women the right to vote until after the passage of the 19th Amendment. But after Chacón was elected, New Mexican women — including women of color — continued to ascend into political leadership. The position of secretary of state was held by a Latina throughout the 1930s, and 17 women were elected to the state legislature between 1922 and 1934.
That kind of long history can help women in several different ways: It provides political role models for women thinking about running for office, and makes the idea of women holding positions that are traditionally associated with masculine characteristics feel more normal. Studies have shown that voters more readily elect women to serve in roles that are inherently collaborative, like legislator, perhaps because it fits more neatly with gendered stereotypes about women’s strengths and weaknesses. The traits that tend to be prized in executive leadership roles like governor — like assertiveness or decisiveness — run directly counter to gendered expectations about women, which can make it even harder for women to be taken seriously as candidates when they run for those positions. “It’s powerful if you can just get voters used to seeing women’s names on the ballot for statewide leadership roles,” said Jason Windett, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte who studies gender and state politics.
For many years, though, women of color were elected only to one statewide role in New Mexico — secretary of state. That didn’t change until more than 70 years after Chacón was elected. Christine Sierra, a professor emeritus at the University of New Mexico who studies gender, race and politics, doesn’t think it’s an accident that for decades the de facto position for female leaders was a role that includes the word “secretary” in the title. “We might have had women in leadership for a long time, but there was one specific place that was clearly acceptable for them,” she said.
But in recent years there has been a breakthrough, Sierra and others told me, fueled by the fact that New Mexico is a state dominated by racial minorities — in particular, Latinos and Native Americans. According to the Census Bureau, nearly half of New Mexico’s population is Latino or Hispanic and an additional 11 percent is American Indian or Alaska Native, making it one of the few states in which a majority of its residents are non-white. The Latino population in particular has grown over the past few decades, meaning a Chicanx or Latina candidate like Rubio or Stephanie Garcia Richard, who was elected as the first female state land commissioner in 2018, share a similar ethnic background as a decent chunk of the state. In her 2018 campaign, Garcia Richard said, she deliberately emphasized her family history as a way of showing her connections to different local communities. “I’m half Hispanic, half Anglo, from a ranching family with ties to southwestern and eastern parts of the state,” she said. “I wanted voters to understand all of the ways my candidacy reflects New Mexico as a place.”
New Mexico politics has also become increasingly dominated by Democrats, which may have helped some women of color, as women of color are disproportionately likely to run — and win — on the Democratic side of the ticket. But recruiting women of color has also become a higher priority for groups that aim to propel more women into elected office, like Emerge, a national Democratic organization that opened an office in New Mexico in 2005. Ashley Sanderson, Emerge New Mexico’s executive director, says that over the past 14 years, 350 women — including Rubio and Garcia Richard — have gone through their six-month training program. Of those, over half have run for office. And according to Sanderson, over half of the program members are also women of color.
And according to research by Sierra and others, simply getting women of color to throw their hat in the ring is a crucial step, because when they do run, they win at higher rates than either white women or minority men. “It was something of a surprising finding because women and people of color are both at the margins in politics,” she said. “So you might expect women of color to have two strikes against them. Instead, we found that in many cases, that dual identity is actually an advantage.”
Windett said that he wouldn’t be surprised if the trend toward electing more women of color in New Mexico accelerates in 2020 and beyond — particularly now that two Latina women have served back-to-back as governor. “Unlike a member of Congress, the governor is an extremely visible and powerful figure who is also in the state seven days a week,” Windett said. “That means if the governor is a woman who wants to encourage more women to participate, she can have an outsize influence on candidate recruitment, fundraising, building networks of women in politics.”
None of this means that New Mexico is a political utopia for women of color. “I’m reminded of my gender every time I walk past a wall of pictures of people who have held my office, because it’s just one long row of men,” Garcia Richard said. When she started her job last year, Garcia Richard said that she took pains to fill her leadership team with women, but added, “Our expertise is constantly questioned — mine and theirs.”
But she thinks that despite these challenges, voters in her state and others want more leaders like her — which means she hopes that New Mexico will continue to elect more women of color, but also eventually cease to be an outlier. “Voters really want to see people who look like them, who share their experiences, in positions of power,” she said. “We may be ahead of the curve here in New Mexico, but we don’t have a monopoly on that hunger.”
Want more coverage of women in politics? Explore our oral history project, “When Women Run.”