Following more than a year on the campaign trail, the schedule of Gabe Vasquez has only become more intense since he won a seat in Congress.
He will officially take the oath of office on Tuesday, but since then the 38-year-old former Democratic Las Cruces City counselor’s life is in transition, locked in that awkward phase before he takes office but after a campaign has concluded. He cannot yet legislate, but the time for campaign rallies has ended. Now, Vasquez is bracing himself for life as a lawmaker.
“I’ve had to get up to Washington DC for training on how to open an office, how to be a congressperson, but it has been really successful,” Vasquez said in a recent interview with the Roswell Daily Record.
A glimpse of his campaign Facebook page shows how eventful his daily life has become, whether it be in the form of screenshots of press releases announcing the hiring of a chief of staff; photos of Vasquez posing with soon-to-be congressional colleagues; or musings about meetings back home with town officials in Mesilla and members of the Otero Soil & Water Conservation District.
In Washington DC, Vasquez is working to forge alliances, being tapped as a vice chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and aligning with his party’s more moderate faction by joining the New Democrat Coalition.
Vasquez has worked for a US Senator, held posts with advocacy groups and served in local government, but he concedes preparing to be a member of the 118th Congress is different and brings with it a steep learning curve. “It has definitely been like hitting the brakes at 100 miles an hour and starting a brand new career,” he said.
Vasquez was elected to represent New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District, after narrowly defeating Republican US Rep. Yvette Herrell in her bid for re-election.
From the start, the race was on the radar of political observers, like the Cook Political Report, which listed it among a handful of tossup contests whose outcome would determine the balance of power in the US House of Representatives.
In the end, Republicans managed to pick up nine seats, four more than the number needed to seize the House majority, and wrest the speaker’s gavel away from Democrats. But Vasquez was one of the few Democrats this cycle to actually pick up a seat for his party that at the time was held by a Republican. In the past Democrats have occasionally won the seat, but overall the 2nd Congressional District has typically favored Republicans.
Comprised of much of the lower half of New Mexico, the district has stretched from southern Albuquerque down to communities along the US-Mexican border, encompassing everything from oil patch communities in the southeastern part of the state to ranches in the southwest.
Following the latest round of redistricting last year, the boundaries of the sprawling district were altered, swapping out parts of some of the more conservative communities in the southeast for more democratic-leaning areas like west Albuquerque and the South Valley.
Among the changes, Chaves County once located solely in the 2nd District, is now split between each of the state’s three congressional districts. Now only one precinct within the county, home to 96 registered voters, remains in the 2nd District.
That has reduced what had been the Republican advantage in the district, something conservatives say is the only reason Vasquez won. But Vasquez himself has a different take, citing the small size of his margin of victory. “This was still an incredibly competitive race that could have gone either way,” he said.
Instead, Vasquez credits the outcome to hard work and intensive outreach by his team. “I believe that I ran a campaign that reached out to every corner of our district, put thousands of miles on my car. [That I] showed up in places where folks didn’t think I was going to show up and I made sure to listen,” he said.
Although born in El Paso, Texas, Vasquez is a first-generation immigrant. He spent much of his childhood on the other side of the border in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, where his maternal grandfather supported the family through the ownership of a TV repair shop. When he was nine years old, Vasquez returned to the US with his mother after she obtained a work visa.
“I was given the opportunity, the first in my family to pursue the American dream. I’ve always felt the weight of my family’s sacrifices on my shoulders,” he explained.
Following his graduation in 2008 from New Mexico State University with a bachelor’s degree in English and a concentration in journalism, Vasquez worked a series of jobs including business editor of the Las Cruces Bulletin, executive director of the Hispano Chamber of Commerce de Las Cruces and vice President of Public Relations for a start-up company.
He waded into the world of public policy in 2013, when he became field representative for New Mexico US Sen. Martin Heinrich.
Two years later, he began working a series of jobs for advocacy groups including the Wilderness Society. His name first appeared on a ballot in 2017 when he ran for and won a seat on the Las Cruces City Council.
Vasquez said he ultimately decided to run for Congress after speaking with people in his community.
“I felt we really needed leadership that really encompassed and represented the entirety of this district, and I felt that we didn’t have that leadership in Congress,” he said.
With the campaign now over, Vasquez said his concentration has shifted.
“Now it’s about governing. Now it’s about doing the job New Mexicans have entrusted me to do,” he explained. Vasquez says that he hopes to work with various constituents, including those who did not vote for him, to improve New Mexico. He added that he will strive to ensure that both the metropolitan areas and rural parts of the district are represented.
“We will hire staff and set up an office operation that truly encompasses all of the different views and all of the different communities of this district and that includes the southeast,” he said.
As far as his agenda, Vasquez said he will take what he describes as a “workers and economy first” approach to Congress.
“My focus will be less on national politics and what is happening in the Beltway politics of what is happening in Washington DC and more about what is happening in our district, and where we can make gains and bring prosperity to our district,” he said .
But some of those issues at the center of national politics are also pressing matters for the district. The 2nd Congressional District for example includes 180 miles along the US-Mexican border, where communities are being forced to deal with record numbers of illegal border crossings and a large influx of asylum seekers. One of the practices of immigrants rights groups have criticized is the continued use of Title 42, a Trump-era policy implemented at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The policy, meant to reduce the spread of COVID-19, allows US Customs and Border Protection to expel migrants who enter the US illegally and turn away asylum seekers without a court hearing. It was a move meant to help limit the spread of COVID-19.
The US Supreme Court recently moved to block the lifting of the policy while challenges to it make their way through the legal process. Border security advocates, conservatives and some Democrats argue rescinding the rule could cause the number of asylum seekers and migrant crossings to swell. Vasquez argues that the policy does not address the nation’s broken immigration system.
“I think Title 42 was meant to be a short-term response to a global pandemic that should not be used as a de facto immigration control or reform legislation,” he said.
The real long-term answer, Vasquez said, is comprehensive immigration reform that secures the border, streamlines the nation’s legal immigration process, and establishes a pathway to citizenship.
“For too long people on both sides of the aisle have used immigration as a talking point in their campaigns but never meaningfully come to the table to work on comprehensive immigration reform,” he said.
In the meantime, Vasquez said more money needs to be allocated for additional immigration judges and to support nonprofit groups and local governments who are meant to deal with providing humanitarian relief.
“We need to make sure those asylum seekers have their day in court, not in two days, not in three years, but in a matter of months, at least so those outcomes are predictable, that they are humane and they are based on the rule of law,” Vasquez stated.
New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District also includes part of the Permian Basin, the nation’s most abundant sources of domestic oil.
The fossil fuel industry serves as a vital source of employment, as well as state and local budget revenue. But debates over global climate change and concerns about public health, and the price of gas have made energy production a political and cultural dividing line. Vasquez says in Congress he will take a balanced approach to the industry.
“These fossil fuel jobs are not going anywhere anytime soon. I want to support the workers, I want to hold the polluters accountable. I want to make sure folks are making the wages they deserve, and that we are protecting the environment and the health of our communities for generations to come,” he stated.
With the profits the fossil fuel industry takes in, which Vasquez said are large, they can afford to invest more in carbon capture technology.
As far as job creation, Vasquez said he wants a dual-track approach that can support job creation and sustain workers in both the fossil fuel and renewable energy sectors.
“We could be adding jobs in the renewable energy industry, but we need to have a champion in Congress who supports the growth, who believes in science, who understands that we need to legislate not just for now but for tomorrow, for future generations, he said.