The Journey to QI Reform in NM
My journey to helping eliminate qualified immunity began the second or third day of All-Staff in Columbus Ohio. It was my very first day as a Grassroots Engagement Director for Americans for Prosperity New Mexico. I was sitting out in the audience listening to our CEO talk about the successes of chapters around the country. I was watching as folks were called up on stage to receive awards for the policy reforms they had achieved. There was a going trend among many of these victories… They were all Criminal Justice Reform legislation. The other trend between these victories – many of them were achieved with the help of the ACLU. I had volunteered with the New Mexico Chapter for two years before I came on as staff. Never once had I seen the ACLU even talk to us never mind work with us on legislation. On the last day of All Staff the NM State Director Burly Cain and I were talking, and I asked him why we weren’t working with the ACLU on CJR in New Mexico. He told me that he didn’t know that he tried to reach out multiple times and they just won’t talk to him.
Being the stubborn, headstrong individual, I am I made it my mission to work with the ACLU-NM on Criminal Justice Reform in New Mexico. I told Burly that when I got back, I was going to work with the ACLU on CJR before the end of the year. Once my feet hit the ground again in NM, I began trying to find ways to connect with them. I eventually found their Senior Policy Analyst, Paul Haidle, on LinkedIn. I sent him a message on LinkedIn and when I didn’t hear back, I then messaged him on Twitter, sent him an email, tried reaching out to him by phone and leaving a message. I continued to try to reach out with no avail. I was beginning to think that Burly might be right, but I wasn’t about to give up. After a few months of consistently trying to connect with them I saw that they were hosting a CJR Symposium as the Marriott Hotel here in Albuquerque and that Paul Haidle was going to be a moderator on the panel.
I registered to attend the event and myself and several members of our staff attended the event. I was taking pictures of the panel and posting them to Twitter tagging Paul in them. Shortly after posting to Twitter Paul reached out in a text to ask if I wanted to meet that coming week, I of course agreed and that next week Burly and I met with Paul Haidle and Barron Jones from the ACLU-NM. Our relationship started off slow with us working on a single bill together in the next legislative session, my first. It was an Occupational Licensing for Felons bill. We worked to get that bill through during that next session, lobbied on it, testified on it, and it ended up dying on the floor. However, what it did do was build trust. Following that session Paul left the ACLU to pursue a different path. Barron took his spot after he left, and Barron and I began talking about more CJR we could work on moving forward.
Not long after that a National incident sparked uproar and riots around the country… A Minneapolis Police Officer killed George Floyd on camera for the entire country to see. The nation watched in horror as this officer kneeled on the man’s neck for over 9 minutes. This sparked a nationwide demand for police reform. The iron was hot, and the time was right for us to bring forward Qualified Immunity Reform. Barron, me, and our Community Engagement Director, Brenda Boatman began talking. Barron asked if we would get behind trying to end qualified immunity in the coming legislative session. I told him I was all in and Brenda did as well. I began putting together a Grassroots Strategy while Barron & Brenda set out to find coalition partners. Heading towards the legislative session something unexpected happened. COVID-19 and a worldwide pandemic hit. Everything was going to be virtual, and it was going to make for an interesting path to the bill being signed. At the very same time, an important Senate election went into a runoff. I headed to Georgia to know doors for two months while also managing building and implementing both our Grassroots Engagement and Digital Engagement for the Qualified Immunity effort back in NM. The pressure was on and the opposition began to come out while I was on the ground in Georgia. We rolled out our Grassroots efforts with a joint op-ed with Barron and me and we sent out 59,750 text messages encouraging New Mexicans to contact their legislator telling them to support QI reform.
The pressure didn’t stop there! We rolled out an entire statewide digital campaign with emails, ads, videos of individuals who were denied justice when their rights were violated as a result of qualified immunity. We ran these videos in ads all over the state, ran radio ads, and put out a huge push for this legislation. As this was going on, we were hosting virtual press conferences, digital Facebook lives, and Zoom events. We made over 3,000 phone calls to support the bill all across the state, and we drove over 4,000 letters to legislators. It was a huge Grassroots lift but our team, our coalition, and our volunteers pulled through.
As the bill was finding its way through session, we needed a little extra pressure following a close committee vote and our volunteers pulled through yet again by sending out another 59,750 texts on the bill. Our activists were simply amazing. They were making calls and sending texts three or four days a week 5-6 hours a day. They were absolutely incredible.
While the Grassroots engines were running so was our lobbying and coalition building. Together Brenda, Barron, and me built a 5-organization coalition around ending qualified immunity. We were meeting every week on Zoom and we stayed driven and focused on the outcome. In the interim session we were able to get a vote to have the New Mexico Civil Rights Commission put together to look at possible QI Reform. We were able to get some awesome people appointed to that commission. That commission came out before the General session recommending our bill be passed by the state legislature ending qualified immunity in New Mexico. It was at that point the opposition came out. It was the police unions, the association of counties, and several elected county officials who came out against the legislation. There was certainly strong opposition and they put out a strong narrative that began to pull the legislature away from the reforms. That was until the videos came out.
Our friend and Coalition partner from the New Mexico Trial Lawyers Association, Katie Wray, had some incredible clients with personal stories who were impacted by qualified immunity that were willing to share their stories with the public. Katie sent us the videos with the clients consent and we turned them over to our comms team. They along with a local vendor put together some amazing short videos designed specifically for social media. We launched a large statewide ad campaign with the videos driving a huge social media campaign around the issue. We had three posts a day going out with petitions, videos, contact your official letters, and more. We were sharing them in well over 40 groups a day on Facebook, we were coordinating our social media with The Campaign to End Qualified Immunity and the End Qualified Immunity Project, we were working with our coalition partners; the ACLU-NM, The Innocence Project, The Institute for Justice, The New Mexico Trial Lawyers Association, LEAP, R-Street, and several individual CJR advocates on lobbying state legislators, and tons of online events. All of these efforts culminated in a press conference with me and Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream founders Ben Cohen & Jerry Greenfield on Qualified Immunity Reform.
The press conference was published in over 100 media publications nationwide and it drove a ton of attention to the state and the issue at hand. If we were to get the legislation through the state legislature, we would become only the second state in the country to pass this historic piece of criminal justice reform legislation. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The bill began plowing through the committees, flew through the floor vote after a little Twitter Pressure, and then flew through the Senate and a Senate floor vote. It got amended a few times along the way but ultimately the legislation made it through the State legislature and onto the Governor’s desk. It was on April 8th that New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed the bill HB 4: New Mexico Civil Rights Act into law. We did it!
It was an absolutely incredible journey, and we were able to do it in only a year and a half with a completely new coalition partner and the very first time it was introduced. I made some amazing friends along the way. Barron Jones from the ACLU is awesome and a strong passionate advocate in the Land of Enchantment for criminal justice reform and the rights of New Mexicans. Laurie Roberts from the Innocence Project is an absolute Rockstar and played a huge role in this victory, Katie Wray from the New Mexico Trial Lawyers Association, Keith Neely from the Institute for Justice, Brenda Boatman our community engagement director, Corina Paolisso from The Campaign to End Qualified Immunity, Katherine Martinez from the End Qualified Immunity Project, all of our activists, and many others were absolutely awesome on this campaign. I’m honored to have worked beside all of these individuals to bring forward this important legislation and to bring forward an equal application of the rule of law. This coalition truly worked together to protect the rights of all New Mexicans by coming across ideological lines for a shared interest in securing rights.
I’m proud of what we accomplished here and I’m happy to have made some incredible new friends!