Commentary: During the seven terms that Steve Pearce represented our district in Congress, he campaigned every two years as a moderate, then voted as a strict conservative. A former member of the Freedom Caucus, Pearce was ranked by GovTrack as the 25th most conservative of the 435 House members in the last Congress.
Xochitl Torres Small, a Democrat who won the seat Pearce vacated in 2018, campaigned as a moderate; and she has also voted as one.
Torres Small cast split votes on the two gun safety bills passed by the House this session. She supported legislation to require background checks on sales online and at gun shows, but was one of seven Democrats to vote against a bill that would have expanded the time allowed for background checks from three days to 10.
The bill was introduced by Rep. James Clyburn in response to the massacre of nine worshipers during a prayer service at the Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The 21-year-old white supremacist who committed the murders was able to purchase his gun before the FBI could complete its background check within the current three-day window.
Both bills passed in the House, and are now waiting to die in the Senate. The same is true for legislation to reform elections, address the gender pay gap, reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, meet our obligations under the Paris climate agreement, defend those with pre-existing health conditions, update the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, prohibit discrimination against the LGBTQ community and protect Dreamers, all of which Torres Small supported.
As an avid hunter, it is probably no surprise that gun laws would be the first issue where Torres Small would break from her fellow Democrats. But it is hard to understand why she thinks the FBI shouldn’t be given the time it needs to complete its checks, especially in light of the Charleston tragedy
She released a statement explaining why she voted for the first bill, but has not explained why she voted against the second.
As one of 59 new members of a Democratic caucus that has the majority for the first time in eight years, Torres Small has tried to stake out moderate positions on other issues as well. During the government shutdown, she was urging negotiations when her fellow Democrats were taking a harder line. As the chorus for impeachment grows louder and stronger, Torres Small has remained silent.
None of which is to suggest that Republicans in the district, who had come to see their control of the seat as something of a birthright following lengthy runs by Joe Skeen and then Pearce, aren’t outraged anyway. Their indignation began the first day, when Torres Small supported her party’s choice for speaker.
Yvette Herrell, the Republican who lost to Torres Small in 2018, never issued a concession speech. Instead, she announced her candidacy for 2020 as soon as the loss was certified.
I’ve often wondered how the history of the district might have been different had Harold Runnells lived a few years longer. His death prior to a 1980 election where Republicans didn’t even have a candidate on the ballot opened the door for Skeen’s 24-year hold on the seat just as New Mexico was expanding from two districts to three.
The power of incumbency then helped Pearce hold the seat for 14 years, even though his views were out of step with much of the district.
Torres Small may have the chance to build that same kind of advantage over time if she can gain the support of centrists in both parties who value solutions over conquest.
Walter Rubel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.