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A Red Corner of a Blue State Fights to Reopen

  • Sep 29, 2022
  • Press and Articles
  • By admin

New York Times

To understand why Mayor Nate Duckett wants Farmington, N.M., to reopen while the governor wants it shut, it helps to know something about what he calls his city’s “death spiral.”

Perched in a rural corner of northwest New Mexico, Farmington watched its wealth vanish as its oil and gas industries went elsewhere. Its population is one of the fastest-shrinking in America. What keeps the lights on in Farmington is a coal-fired power plant whose fate remains uncertain.

And all of that was before the virus leveled what remained of Farmington’s economy.

So in April, Mr. Duckett went to his office in City Hall to write new orders for his town. They amounted to no less than an existential plea, warning of crime, hunger, violence and homelessness if the lockdown continued. Though his role is nonpartisan, he said he votes Republican — and in that moment in April he laid responsibility for what came next with New Mexico’s Democratic governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham.

“An economic disaster has been created,” Mr. Duckett, 42, said in a broadcast. Past proclamations by Farmington mayors had regulated fireworks and denoted an American Legion Day. The April proclamation declared an economic emergency and asked for a partial reopening of all shuttered businesses.

The mayor’s appeal reflects anxieties shared in small cities and towns across the West, which have far fewer cases of Covid-19 per capita than the eastern United States. In Farmington, few people know anyone who was ill from the coronavirus, but almost everyone knows someone unemployed by it.

Ms. Lujan Grisham, who is regularly cited as a possible vice-presidential choice for Joseph R. Biden Jr., has followed other Democratic governors in her approach. She extended the state’s restrictions through at least May 15 and even used a riot law to close one town entirely — a strategy experts say has made the state a leader in managing the pandemic, especially as the virus threatens devastation of its large Navajo community.

Yet the governor’s success on the health front may well risk a political backlash in communities like Farmington, where years of economic stagnation threaten the kind of wipeout that residents fear will be far longer lasting than those in bigger cities.

“It’s put a different spin on the America I grew up with,” Mr. Duckett said. “People are going to remember this when they go to the ballot box.”

Donald J. Trump, who praised the coal industry throughout his presidential campaign, won Farmington by two to one against Hillary Clinton in 2016, the highest margin by a Republican in decades.

But Bill Richardson, the Democratic former governor of New Mexico, represented Farmington in Congress for 14 years. He sees the challenge of this moment pushing rural voters even further away from Democrats.

“The welfare of the people over the economy has been a winning issue — but that’s now starting to fray,” Mr. Richardson said. “You can’t defy the law, but I can understand the pain of small towns. These are good people.”

Mr. Duckett says he’s long been open to the kinds of compromise that used to seem necessary — and possible — even in a bitterly partisan time

He points to a nearby coal-fired energy plant that powers Farmington and provides 1,500 jobs as an example: The city hopes to buy it a few more years through a carbon capture deal with the plant’s owners.

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