On December 4, 2022 a gunman shot eight rounds into Bernalillo County Commissioner Adriann Barboa’s family home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Barboa, a grandmother who raised her adult kids as a single parent, serves as the policy director for Forward Together Action, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting the leadership of women of color, nonbinary people, and Indigenous people, in addition to serving as county commissioner. As policy director, she helps to build policies and power for marginalized communities, and is an advocate for reproductive justice and gender affirming care.
Barboa was not at home at the time of incident, but over the course of the next month, gunmen shot through the homes of a now former County commissioner and a current state Senator — both women — and the offices of a state senator and the New Mexico Attorney General. Of the five elected officials who were targeted, all are Democrats, three are women, and one is the son of immigrant parents.
Solomon Peña, a Republican election-denier who lost his bid for election to the New Mexico state legislature in November, was arrested in January following the string of shootings after — according to the accusations filed against him — he allegedly paid four different gunmen to target the elected officials. Peña was known for his anti-abortion stance, as well as his prolific online harassment of elected women in New Mexico.
The investigation is ongoing, but the shootings in New Mexico reflect national trends in the rise of violence towards elected officials in recent years, and the pervasive ways in which this violence continues to be directed predominantly at women. A study conducted by the Center for Democracy and Technology found that women of color experience disproportionate harassment and threats.
According to a report issued in October by the Anti-Defamation League and Princeton University’s Bridging Divides Initiative, women experience 3.4 times more threats and harassment than men. Notably, the study’s data does not reflect physical violence or assault, but it is one window into an understudied and increasing phenomenon in threats and harassment towards elected officials and health and education workers across the country.
No Stranger to Threats and Harassment
Barboa ran for the Bernalillo County Commission in 2020 and took office in 2021. She says she was motivated to run in part because she’s a strong believer in representative democracy and takes her constituents’ needs seriously.
“I’ve worked in the social justice environment, and have taken hundreds of people to our elected officials with really informed concerns to advocate from their real expertise and seeing that, depending on who the elected official is, whether it would make an impact or not,” says Barboa. “A lot of our elected officials can just outright ignore community conversations, and hopefully, that’s shown at the ballot box.”
Following the November midterm elections, Peña visited Barboa at her home. He had just lost his bid for election to the New Mexico legislature, and because the county commission certifies the county’s votes, he had arrived on her doorstep in an attempt to persuade her that the election was fraudulent and to not certify the votes in Bernalillo County.
Barboa lives in the family home in which she grew up. It’s the same home where she raised her now adult children.
“In New Mexico, everybody’s address is public and what I’ve always loved about New Mexico is that we actually have access to our elected officials,” Barboa says. “I remember calling legislative representatives, especially in rural communities, and you get their husbands or wives answering or their kids answering saying, ‘Let me go get my grandpa,’ and I love that about us. I want our elected officials to be accessible.”
Barboa is angry about the way the shootings and other incidents of violence, harassment, and threats work to make government less accessible, which she believes is exactly the goal of the people resorting to violence and harassment.
Prior to the shooting, Barboa was no stranger to threats and harassment. She has spent years advocating for reproductive justice and abortion access and remembers incidents where her and her colleagues’ vehicles were photographed outside of clinics. Barboa says she also raised her children with an awareness of the work she did, but now they are worried for her safety.
“I’m a single mom so both of my kids are superstar cheerleaders for me, but after this, my daughter —who has been involved since she was very young — she wanted me to stop service,” says Barboa. “That’s where they’re succeeding. Being able to intimidate women, immigrants, and LGBT communities from running for office — because do you want to put your life on the line?”
Barboa says the shootings are a textbook case of the types of violence many other women in politics are facing across the country, including Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer who was the target of an attempted kidnapping plot and the attack on Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s husband in which Pelosi was the intended target.
“Power never concedes without a demand, and there have been shifts in power that are visible through more women and more queer people being elected,” says Barboa. “And I think that’s the threat to those in power and it’s showing itself in violence.”
The violence women and queer people experience in the political arena comes in many forms. Although the national conversation around threats to women in politics is often centered on citizens outside of the political arena waging threats and attacks at politicians, not as much is being said about the violence that happens between politicians.
Pushed Out by People Wanting to Sweep the Problem Under the Rug
Peña, as a political hopeful, is one example of that, but the sexual harassment and assault women in politics experience can also be another deterrent that keeps women from running for office — even in a state with strong representation from women, like New Mexico.
New Mexico ranks 6th in the nation for the number of women in the state legislature, with 44.6 percent women in total and a majority in the House. Sixteen percent of these women are women of color, which also places New Mexico at 6th for the percentage of women of color in the state legislature. In addition, Democrats make up a super majority in the New Mexico state legislature and Michelle Luján Grisham —who was elected to a second term in November — is the country’s first Hispanic woman Democrat to serve as a state governor. She is one of just twelve women governors in the United States. While gender parity is within reach in New Mexico in the next few election cycles, the state ranks 22nd in representation of women at the municipal level, with just 31.5 percent of elected seats filled by women.
Whether gender parity will become a reality in the New Mexico political landscape may depend in part on how sexual harassment and assault is handled in municipal offices and the state legislature. Former Albuquerque City Councilor, Lan Sena, came forward in 2021 to report sexual harassment by then-state representative, Abbas Akhil. Sena had been working as his campaign staffer in 2019 when she says Akhil sexually harassed her.
Sena currently serves as the policy director for Center for Civic Policy and says she’s been deeply involved in politics since she was first legally able to vote when President Barack Obama ran in 2008. She first met Akhil when they both ran for the school board in Albuquerque and she says they were able to relate to each other because they both belonged to the very small Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (AANHPI) community in New Mexico.
After she alleged Akhil sexually harassed her in 2019, Sena pursued a restorative justice process to bring healing to herself and the small AANHPI community, and to seek accountability from Akhil. In her account she says that at first, Akhil agreed to the process. She claims he signed a letter of admission in front of eleven witnesses and attended one restorative justice session. Then, he retracted his statement, and Sena says his lawyer and some community members began to harass her.
Akhil’s lawyer told the Albuquerque Journal that the signature was obtained under duress.
“When I came forward and went public with my story, I was told this is going to be political suicide, that my political career would be done,” says Sena. “At that point, I was a city councilor, but I knew this was bigger than myself and bigger than any political position.”
At the end of 2021, Sena’s challenger for her city council seat won, and most recently, she was a finalist to be nominated to fill a vacancy in the state house but was not ultimately selected.
“It did impact me when I saw the appointment for a House District 16, when that vacancy came forward, and it would have been appointed by the County Commission. I didn’t get the position because I was so open about the harassment,” says Sena. “Frankly, I was pushing for systemic change and other folks who wanted to just sweep the story, and that really pushed me out.”
Sena reported the sexual harassment to the New Mexico State Ethics Commission, but they dismissed the case due to jurisdiction because the incident had occurred before the Commission had authority over the case.
“The process is deeply flawed, and it is not survivor focused. It’s not independent. It has to go through leadership, it has to go through what I call a ‘credibility committee,’ and so it never really got to have a thorough investigation done,” says Sena. “And to this day, even with nine women coming forward to report harassment by a state senator, there has still yet to be any form of accountability.”
Akhil did not run for re-election, but the senator Sena referred to, Daniel Ivey-Soto, has been accused by multiple women of sexual harassment, but remains in office and plans to run for re-election. The state legislature conducts internal reviews of harassment that consist of antiquated rules, including a gag rule that silences victims but allows perpetrators to speak freely. The internal review, conducted by Ivey-Soto’s peers, was dismissed before it could even be referred to the New Mexico State Ethics Commission.
Although 81 percent of women have experienced sexual harassment or assault in their lifetimes, the majority of perpetrators never face justice in the criminal system, or — as Sena has found — are subject to any kind of accountability at all.
“I’ve been battling cancer for the last 13 years and I have never been questioned whether or not I really had cancer,” says Sena. “It was another process to go through sexual harassment and be questioned for that. Having been questioned even by fellow women about what I truly experienced when I went through the sexual harassment, and through the political process, it is remarkable to say that I’ve had a better experience with cancer than I have with sexual harassment.”
At the end of the legislative session in mid-March, advocates, including Sena, saw one small victory with the passage of House Bill 169, which removes the gag rule enforced upon victims. But efforts to pass House Bill 5, which would have updated ethical and legal requirements of elected officials and their employees, didn’t make it out of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“Seeing other people, men, women, non-binary folks, go into the Roundhouse and still be met with the same injustice is disheartening,” says Sena. “We’ve been trying to push for this to be survivor focused and community-led, and yet any small change has been met with a lot of barriers. So yeah, it impacts democracy.”
Through her work at the Center for Civic Policy, Sena helped to create a safety plan for the 2023 legislative session to protect politicians, staff, and the general public from known perpetrators in the legislature. But she remains frustrated by the complacency of so many members of the legislature and the general public who find it easier to let things slide than to challenge abuse of power.
“It’s 2023 and yet we have to have safety monitors to protect the general public from its members,” says Sena. “If that’s not indicative of a sign for change, then I don’t know what else can be.”
Women are Still Running and Primary Elections are Key
Like in many other areas of the U.S., women in New Mexico ran for office in far greater numbers in 2018 — a trend that has continued through the most recent election cycles. While only 29 women served in the state legislature in 2016, 50 women served this year.
Andrea Serrano, executive director of OLÉ, says that despite having a Democratic supermajority in the legislature, Democrats are not a monolith and it’s vital to run candidates who are rooted in the community and aligned with their constituents’ needs.
“I think that women in general have just done a really big lift in this state in terms of running for office and really challenging some of the most powerful folks in office,” says Serrano. “In 2020, OLÉ belonged to the No Corporate Democrats Coalition and we supported five candidates to challenge five of the most powerful Democratic senators in the state in a Democratic primary.”
The powerful incumbents, backed by oil and gas money, had consistently blocked efforts to pass legislation on early childhood education and to get rid of an old, draconian abortion ban, among other progressive legislation. The five progressive candidates — four women and one man — succeeded in unseating the incumbents and although they didn’t all go on to win their elections, Serrano says the races changed the landscape of the senate and what legislation was possible to push through. That includes the recent The New Mexico Voting Rights Act bill, the Reproduction and Gender Affirming Health Care bill, and a bill limiting the storage of nuclear waste in New Mexico, among other victories
“All of a sudden, we could actually move some really meaningful legislation, and we did,” says Serrano. “And it’s one of those things where if you don’t take a nuanced view you can say New Mexico is great. But it isn’t just numbers that erases patriarchy. Just like New Mexico is a 63 percent people of color majority state, that doesn’t mean we’ve erased any racism or white supremacy because those are rooted systems.”
Because New Mexico does have a Democratic supermajority, Serrano sees a lot of power in primary elections. “Even if you don’t win every single election, if you’re not challenging folks, they get very, very comfortable and they feel like they’re safe in their seats. That sort of complacency is really where you start to see a lot of the problems can come from,” says Serrano.
In addition to the problems of violence against women in politics serving as a deterrent to run, both Serrano and Barboa point to the fact that New Mexico is the only unpaid legislature in the country as yet another deterrent that keeps working class people from running for office.
A lack of pay for legislators also disproportionately affects women from running, as they are often the caregivers of their families and make up the bulk of the 44 percent of families in New Mexico that are headed up by a single parent. A bill to implement legislative salaries died in the Senate Finance Committee this year, but Serrano says they’re going to keep pushing it forward.
“The fact that there are so many women, especially in the House, and women of color, who are serving, I think really is outstanding, given the circumstances,” says Serrano. “And I also know that there can still be so much more.”
Barboa says women, and particularly women of color, weren’t considered at all when American democracy was formed.
“We’re consistently trying to build something better and to expose what’s not working,” says Barboa. “But I also understand people’s frustrations and it does a lot to democracy when folks are intimidated. But we always need change and new ideas and innovation and we need to be challenged in order to advance. So this kind of violence only harms what our representation looks like. That’s the thing that makes me the maddest about this.”
Barboa says she sees so much gun violence and violence against women in her community that her own experience with gun violence drives her to continue her political work on behalf of the trauma so many of her constituents are also experiencing.
“Whether it’s politically targeted, or because our systems are broken, or we don’t have access to behavioral health, our communities are living through the response of trauma,” says Barboa. “I want to do something better.”
Sena says that while she will always support changing the legislative body and pushing perpetrators out of office, she wants to see systemic cultural changes at the Roundhouse. She is calling for a transparent, independent process that is survivor-led and focused on healing to be implemented to address violence against women in politics in New Mexico.
“What I always fear is that as much as we can push and support women, or trans and non-binary individuals to run for office, we’re also going to put them into a system that was built to harm them,” says Sena. “We’re putting them in these harmful systems if we’re not pushing for the culture change.”
As a survivor, Sena is disheartened by how much of the burden of change is placed on survivors’ shoulders, despite the fact that survivors are so infrequently believed to begin with.
“I have asked folks how many more people need to come forward because they’ve been harassed or assaulted, and how many will remain silent, because they see no form of justice or accountability,” says Sena. “It’s incredibly heartbreaking. The culture still remains where the legislators are engaging in terrible behavior with their staff members and nothing has been done. So, it’s really on the general public to demand that change.”