What’s a Progressive When You’re in the Trenches?

Commentary By KAY MATTHEWS

La Jicarita has been referred to as that “radical rag,” a “muckraking journal,” and  “socialist crap.” I’ve been called a “commie,” a “propagandist,” and the “Amy Goodman of El Norte” (only in Bill Whaley’s imagination). I call myself (you can take your pick) a progressive/socialist/neo-Marxist (hence the photo of Mark at Marx’s grave site at Highgate Cemetery in London) and community activist. I voted for Bernie Sanders in the national Democratic primary. I rant about the Democratic National Committee (DNC), and particularly the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) as they continue to embrace neoliberalism policies and work to discredit candidates who embrace a progressive platform.

But then we get down in the trenches, meaning where national politics and community organizing intersect. Suddenly, in the mid-1990s, during the days of protecting the rights of community-based foresters and ranchers from national policies promulgated by environmental groups, La Jicarita was suddenly a “Wise Use” publication. During the heated arguments over the best way to protect Mora County from oil and gas development I was labeled a “shill for the industry.” And now, in the Aamodt Settlement,  questioning the judgement of  “progressives” getting involved in a contentious local election that further divides the Pueblo and Hispano communities, I’d probably be called a “reactionary.” Let’s take a closer look at each of these issues.

In the 1990s conflicts erupted in northern New Mexico between the land grant communities, the U.S. Forest Service, and urban environmentalists over access to forest resources. These forest communities, like other rural western communities, had long fought over Forest Service management of public lands that burdened them with bureaucracy and impacted their economic viability. Unlike other rural communities, however, these communities are inhabited by the heirs and extended families of Native and Hispano land grants deeded by the Spanish and Mexican governments, whose common lands had been stolen by colonial and corporate interests and eventually placed in the hands of the federal government. It was quite a shock, then, when the environmentalists showed up with agendas to shut down access to these public lands and labeled the community and environmental justice activists who fought back “Wise Use.” The Wise Use label refers to a politically reactionary movement in the west that advocates a balance between environmental protection and economic need but has essentially been a smokescreen for a corporate attack on environmental laws. The ones labeling us Wise Use—groups like Forest Guardians and the Sierra Club (except the Northern Group of the Sierra Club)—liked to label themselves as progressives, fighting to protect the environment for the American people who actually had no idea what was going on in northern New Mexico.

In 2013 Mora County passed the Mora County Community Water Rights and Local Self-Government Ordinance banning oil and gas development. This was the brain child of Thomas Linzey of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) based in Pennsylvania, an organization that works to ban factory farms and oil and gas development, particularly that of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. CELDF provided a “Bill of Rights” template for the Mora ordinance and consulted with the commission chair, John Olivas, on the entire wording included in the final version. CELDF works in a national arena and sees itself as taking the high road, a radical approach to social change that asserts the “rights” of communities and ecosystems and works towards “federal constitutional change.” In a speech at a Public Interest Environmental Law Conference at the University of Oregon at Eugene Linzey stated: “It all comes down to what our theory of social change is. Can we be obedient folks petitioning our legislatures to do the right thing for us, or is it time to take back our own control and do it ourselves, no matter what the cost.” The cost in Mora County was that it was sued by the oil and gas industry (twice), as Linzey knew it would be, and deeply divided as a community.

Paula Garcia, also a county commissioner at the time, voted against the ban and advocated instead for promulgating a strict regulatory ordinance, which the county had already been looking into, when Olivas pushed through the Community Rights Ordinance. She was called a “shill for the oil and gas industry” by proponents of the ban, as was I after writing several articles in La Jicarita questioning the disconnect between those who work on an issue that has global significance and those who work on the same issue within a specific location and constituency. After the county was sued, Olivas lost his seat on the commission, Garica became chair of the commission, the ban was declared unconstitutional by the court, the lawsuits were settled, the ban rescinded, and work resumed on drafting oil and gas regulation based on zoning and land use regulation. But Olivas seems to have retained his devotion to Linzey’s zealotry, as he recently wrote an editorial defending the community rights ordinance and lambasting Paula Garcia, who ran for state representative in her district (she lost). He neglected to say, of course, that his ordinance was declared unconstitutional.

The last example, the Democrat state representative primary contest in District 46, is equally disheartening. La Jicarita is a 501(c)(3) that doesn’t get involved in electoral politics, not only because of that IRS status: “Movements are supposed to be different from other modes of citizen engagement, less beholden to elections and hierarchies, more fluid and open to transformative ideas” (Beverly Gage). When they intersect with issues we follow, however, they become an integral part of the story, particularly when those stories involve Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Aamodt Adjudication Settlement. Thus Andrea Romero’s challenge of incumbent Carl Trujillo has been covered in several recent articles; she won the contest.

I wrote an article in March that detailed the controversy over Romero’s term as executive director of the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities (RCLC) and calls from the public for more transparency and accountability in the organization itself. She violated prohibited expenditures on a lobbying trip to Washington D.C. and ended up having to reimburse Los Alamos County, the fiscal sponsor, thousands of dollars; her contract was not renewed. At an April (RCLC) meeting in Española activists wanted verification that the organization is actually fulfilling its mission, which is to lobby the federal government for clean-up funding for the Lab, not for weapons production.

I’ve written several articles about the Aamodt Settlement in which Trujillo has been mentioned or quoted as he’s been a longtime advocate for the people in the Pojoaque Valley who have been dragged into this adjudication settlement without adequate representation and whose terms have set up a  bureaucratic nightmare. The pueblos involved—Pojoaque, Tesuque, San Ildefonso, and Nambe—have been awarded their first priority surface and groundwater rights and future use rights. The non-pueblo water users were forced to accept a water delivery system many of them didn’t want and in the original version of the settlement agreement were told they had to give up their wells and become a member of the system. After a huge backlash of opposition the terms were changed to voluntary membership, with a reduced usage amount, and Santa Fe County, which will administer the system, has delayed transferring the water rights from Top of the World in Taos County because so few people have thus far signed on. Many suspect that the water rights will eventually be moved to Santa Fe, which originally purchased them for the Buckman Well Field in the 1990s, which also met with a huge backlash—and protest—as an abrogation of the Rio Grande Compact. At town hall meetings and in one on one conversations Trujillo kept folks up to date on the adjudication process and helped them understand what it all means.

Romero’s candidacy was supported by “progressive” PAC money from state organizations and large donations from the pueblos. This exacerbated an already contentious Hispano/Pueblo divide and a rural/urban one as well. District 46 encompasses the Pojoaque Valley and a big chunk of Santa Fe as well. Trujillo’s supporters claimed she was part of House Speaker Brian Egolf’s campaign to turn el norte further left, aiming to oust Trujillo, along with Rio Arriba County’s State Representative Debbie Rodella, as too conservative. I don’t know if he was the main force behind her candidacy, although the inimitable Joe Monahan alluded to this several times in his political blog, New Mexico Politics With Joe Monahan. If it’s true, Egolf certainly could have picked someone who at least has some political experience and who isn’t being investigated by the state auditor for her financial mismanagement as director of the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities. And I doubt she would have had a chance of winning had not the bomb dropped on Trujillo. He has been accused of sexual harassment by Laura Bonar, a lobbyist for Animal Protection Voters that occurred in 2014. He has denied the allegation. A legislative committee will continue to investigate the allegations against him despite his loss in the primary. This will be the first time this newly established committee in the House of Representatives will conduct an investigation.

Back to my Beverly Gage quote: ““Movements are supposed to be different from other modes of citizen engagement, less beholden to elections and hierarchies, more fluid and open to transformative ideas.” Each of these examples I’ve given have been reliant on the movement of people organizing to enact change or protect their communities from what they perceive as a threat. And that threat can be in the form of someone or thing that believes it’s actually the savior. The environmental justice movement that came to life in el norte in the 1990s was a powerful force that brought together the Hispano, Pueblo, and Anglo communities that valued living and working on the land. A groundswell of people in Mora and San Miguel counties came together to educate the public, form relationships with elected officials and county staff, and partner with other county organizations who were working on the same issues to try to pass tougher oil and gas regulations. Folks in the Pojoaque Valley formed the Pojoaque Basin Water Alliance and Northern New Mexicans Protecting Water, Land and Rights to advocate for their rural values and fight corruption in their bureaucratic institutions. And that’s happening now as community activists in Santa Fe and Española work together to deconstruct a myth that commemorates Spanish colonialism at the “Fiestas” and “Entrada.”  Community organizers and politicians come and go, but the “transformative ideas” they bring to life continue to manifest, even in 2018, when they are desperately needed.






  1. The phenomenon of more-global or wider-reach organizations trying to effect progressive change at local levels is everywhere. I saw it in the Coast Guard, where high-level officers failed to understand what people at operational units actually were doing, and inadvertently – with the best intentions – made our jobs harder or impossible. Clearly, it is important, as an activist, to deeply understand local culture and history before diving in to “help” people.

  2. Kay, I have sent this to Paul Gibson at Retake Our Democracy. I had many frustrating conversations and emails with him this election cycle. Thank you for saying it much more eloquently than I was able. My rage made me say things like, ‘you say you are listening to us, but you still think we are too stupid to know what is good for us’. The never-ending patronization from the left to our community has left me, for a moment, completely broken. The HD46 race really has broken a lot of us. I only wish the person that “won” was mature or humble enough to put it back together. Alas, she was happy to retaliate against two of her own constituents, who she now has blocked on Facebook. Thanks, “progressives”.

  3. As a former Norteno who was involved in many forest issues-carbaryl spraying, wilderness designation, grazing and logging-I resent the ongoing, simplistic characterization of these conflicts as the national urban environmentalist group verses the community based people and the equally simplistic characterization of the make up of those groups. Neither group is so uniformly pure in its intentions not its history; however, aligning yourself with one over the other based on vague historical claims of political correctness seems opportunistic, which reveals itself in your dilemma over the Aamodt settlement. I’ll continue reading your blogging because it is informative but I read it with an understanding of your intentions.

    And, if you think these issues are based on a patronizing attitude then you are part of the problem which is probably why the HD46 race had that outcome.

    • Whaddaya know. I’m being simplistic? I thought I was cautioning people who come in with an agenda that things are complicated, that you need to do your homework, and work with the community. I have no idea what you’re talking about regarding my so-called “dilemma” over the Aamodt settlement or my “intentions.” If you want to clarify I’d be happy to respond.

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