The roadshow that is Donald Trump’s re-election campaign rumbled into Rio Rancho with a pitch to Hispanic voters to flip New Mexico into the Republican column.
“We got a lot of Hispanics,” the president said during a 95-minute speech, reported to be his second longest since taking office. “We love our Hispanics. Get out and vote.”
Trump also told the Rio Rancho crowd how thrilled he was to be in Albuquerque.
The Sept. 16 speech didn’t start until after 7 p.m., but by the time the doors to the Santa Ana Star Center opened at 4 p.m., the line of people bedecked in Trump campaign caps and T-shirts snaked around one side of the building, then back on itself and up and around the property. A fortunate few had Trump-branded and other umbrellas offering relief from a relentless sun.
One of those in the shaded part of the line was Kendall Terry, who made the 240-mile drive from southeast New Mexico where his business is involved with heavy equipment in oil country.
“The best president ever,” Terry said. “He stood up for America. He’s not a true politician, but he puts America first.”
Not far away, hemmed in by fence, Jersey barriers and state and local police, about 75 people gamely represented the opposition to Trump when the Sandoval Signpost visited the designated protest site. Later reports put the crowd growing to 200 or more.
Cathleen Schaller of Los Alamos said this was her first-ever protest as she held a homemade sign with Bible verses labeled “True Christians Support Refugees” The former resident and later visitor to Guatemala said she witnessed the effects of the violence that sent thousands on their quest for safety in the United States.
And as a foster parent she recognized the trauma of splitting children from their families when they cross the border, she added.
“We should not treat refugees as criminals,” Schaller said. “Using the smokescreen of human trafficking is not the way to do it.”
Schaller and her neighbor in protest, Alyssa Janney of Bernalillo, both said they were appalled by Trump’s lies and couldn’t understand why his supporters tolerate them.
With the protest organized largely through social media, conflicting messages discouraged making the trip to Rio Rancho due to probable violence, which didn’t occur. Other posts said the event had been canceled, which it wasn’t.
Meanwhile the larger protests occurred back-to-back at Tiguex Park in Old Town Albuquerque organized by the state Democratic Party and Progress Now New Mexico.
Inside the arena a pounding playlist of mostly boomer rock ‘n’ roll hits filled in around short speeches by state Republican chair Stevan Pearce, Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale and others. As the crowd waited for the main event, the music twice played through the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.”
The campaign chose the second day of Hispanic Heritage Month for the appearance at the Santa Ana Star Center. And while Trump praised the president of Mexico for intercepting refugees at the border, there was no mention of it also being 16 de Septiembre, Mexico’s Independence Day.
Also that day the campaign announced Leslie White, the executive director of the Arizona Republican Party, would serve as New Mexico campaign director. She previously was deputy Arizona director for Americans for Prosperity, the conservative-libertarian advocacy group founded by the late billionaire David Koch.
“(I)t’s been quite a while since a Republican won this state, but we’re going to win this state,” Trump said. “And I think we’re going to win this state easy.”
That, off course, remains to be seen given there’s more involved than rehashing how he bested pollsters in 2016. A lot has changed since then, and while he revved 8,000 or so fans into foot-stomping cheers and chants, the opposition is energized as well.
Beyond the pitch to Hispanic voters, and the stagecraft of people in white Latinos for Trump T-shirts arrayed behind him, the speech punched familiar buttons. He assailed the usual suspects repeatedly referencing “fake news” and generating boos directed at the national, regional and local news media in attendance.
He brought up Pocahontas, demonized Democrats, revisited past grievances and boasted of being an environmentalist while rolling back environmental regulations. He restated the unfounded claim that his trade-war tariffs are being paid by foreign nations, not U.S. businesses and consumers.
The North American Free Trade Agreement approved in 1994 “totally devastated” the New Mexico economy, Trump asserted, although trade with Mexico and industrial growth on the border in Doña Ana County remained bright spots during the last crash in oil prices.
Mexico and China, two Trump targets, also are New Mexico’s No. 1 and No. 2 trading partners accounting for nearly 70 percent of the state’s $3.6 billion in exports in 2018, according to federal statistics.
Trump also touted his tax cuts as saving a typical New Mexico family of four making $75,000 a year $2,000 and federal money for military bases and national labs boosting the economy. Employment and average wages have been growing, weighted toward the oil and gas industry, but the unemployment rate remains above the national average, according to Department of Labor statistics.
The campaign sees New Mexico in play in part because of the three-way split here in the 2016 election when Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton outpolled Trump by 65,568 votes out of nearly 800,000 cast. However, Libertarian Party candidate and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson won 74,541 votes in finishing third.
By the campaign’s figuring, Johnson pulled most of those votes from people who would have gone for Trump were Johnson not on the ballot.
The choice of the Star Center as the venue prompted a flood of curious and angry calls to the Santa Ana Pueblo tribal government. That prompted the tribe to release a statement from the office of Gov. Timothy Menchego saying it only has naming rights on the arena owned by the city of Rio Rancho and no control over events held there.
New Mexico’s Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham used the day to present the first Governor’s Humanitarian Award to the Luna County on the U.S.-Mexico border and its seat, the city of Deming. The award recognized their humanitarian spirit in caring for refugee adults and children “abandoned at the border” and left to fend for themselves by federal agencies.
Trump, after a protestor disrupted the crescendo of his speech, invoked God for the fifth time and promised the best is yet to come. With the rapturous crowd on its feet, Trump exited to the Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Outside an intense downpour and lightning strikes greeted alike Trump loyalists, his critics and journalists as they raced for their cars.
*** A version of this story appeared in the October 2019 edition of the Sandoval Signpost, the monthly newspaper published in Placitas, N.M., across the Rio Grande from Rio Rancho. The author is the Signpost news editor. ***