Teresa Leger Fernandez takes on Valerie Plame in heated New Mexico race
The progressive Democratic candidate preaches a politics of love as her opponent has been dogged by accusations of antisemitism
Last April, Teresa Leger Fernandez took a class on the prophetic tradition at Temple Beth Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Santa Fe. It was a month before she would announce her run for Congress in New Mexico’s 3rd district, which includes the state’s northern section. The four-session course — taught by Rabbi Nahum Ward-Lev, Beth Shalom’s scholar in residence — was instructive for the 60-year-old lawyer about to launch her first political campaign.
The focus of the class was Ward-Lev’s recently published book, The Liberating Path of the Hebrew Prophets: Then and Now, and the rabbi found that Leger Fernandez was receptive to his belief that the prophets have been misconstrued as indignant old men blaming others for the world’s problems.
“What’s missing is that the prophets were deeply imbued with God’s love, and out of that experience found anything that thwarted human flourishing was intolerable,” Ward-Lev explained in an interview with Jewish Insider. “Out of that love they had the ability to transcend the moment for a better future.”
The idea was appealing to Leger Fernandez, according to the rabbi, who has developed a close spiritual bond with the Democratic congressional candidate. “Teresa was really interested in a politics centered in love and a politics fueled by imagination,” he said, adding: “She really gets how to bring a prophetic tradition into the politics of today.”
Leger Fernandez’s relationship with Ward-Lev underscores her broader connection with Santa Fe’s robust Jewish community — which includes a sizable if relatively small Sephardic population — at a moment when charges of antisemitism have trailed another Democratic candidate in the district: Valerie Plame, who, last May, entered the open seat race to succeed outgoing Rep. Ben Ray Luján, now running for Senate.
Plame, the 56-year-old C.I.A. officer turned spy novelist whose identity was notoriously leaked in 2003, has lived in Santa Fe since 2007 and is one of the most prominent congressional candidates in the nation.
But her campaign has come under increased scrutiny thanks to some unsavory aspects of her past. In 2017, Plame shared a link to an article, “America’s Jews Are Driving America’s Wars,” from a white nationalist website that has promoted antisemitic views. She later apologized for posting the story, but not before defending it as “very provocative, but thoughtful.” Plame has also taken campaign donations from former Republican Congressman Pete McCloskey, who has been accused of being a Holocaust denier.
Plame — who declined to comment for this article — has tried to rehabilitate her image. Though she was raised Lutheran, she says she is “of Jewish descent” and now claims to be a member of Beth Shalom.
The synagogue’s principal rabbi, Neil Amswych, declined to confirm Plame’s membership status, only telling JI that “for the last few years,” she “has been part of our community and has attended services at Temple Beth Shalom as part of her exploration of her relationship with Judaism.”
Despite her efforts, Jews in the 3rd district are still suspicious of the former spy. “Valerie Plame is trying to make amends with the Jewish community, and I’ve heard some positive things about her,” said Lance Bell, a third-generation Santa Fean who serves as the president of the Jewish Community Council of Northern New Mexico. “But I have concerns about her, personally, running for Congress — and she definitely won’t get my vote.”
Leger Fernandez, on the other hand, had earned his trust. “I love the fact that she’s rolled up her sleeves and is willing to find common ground and wants to partner with the Jewish community and be a real friend,” Bell said.
Leger Fernandez represents the progressive side of the Democratic ticket, supporting such policies as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. The working mother of three sons has racked up several key endorsements from a wide variety of organizations, including Emily’s List, NARAL Pro-Choice America, the Latino Victory Fund, Working Families Party and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Courage to Change political action committee.
From a campaigning perspective, there are few practical reasons why Leger Fernandez would need to ingratiate herself to the 3rd district’s Jewish community, which does not represent a significant voting bloc.
But Ron Duncan Hart, the former president of the Jewish Federation of New Mexico, told JI that of all the candidates in the primary race, Leger Fernandez is the one who has most consistently made an effort to commune with the Jewish community, attending a number of meetings with Jewish groups in Santa Fe and making it known that she is an ally.
“She’s making clear that she’s reaching out to the community and wants to understand the issues,” he said. “She feels that this is a natural base for her.”
For Leger Fernandez, that affinity comes from a personal place. Her father, the late New Mexico state Sen. Ray Leger, was — because he was Hispano — forbidden from joining fraternities at Highlands University when he returned to his home state after World War II. Jews, she said, were also locked out of fraternities at the school. “So what they did was they ended up forming their own fraternity,” she said.
Alliances such as the one between the Jews and the Latinos, according to Leger Fernandez, are common in New Mexico. The Stanford Law School graduate and former Bill Clinton White House Fellow who has represented Native American tribes developed her ecumenical sense, in part, when the Obama administration appointed her to serve as vice chair of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation in 2015.
“We have wonderful things around the revolution and antebellum South,” she acknowledged. “But we need to make sure that all of our histories are included. Is it Asian Pacific? Is it Latino? Is it the Jewish presence in New Mexico? When we start including all of this nation’s beautiful history, we recognize how interconnected we are and how diverse we are.”
As a native of New Mexico, Leger Fernandez also recognizes the “importance of homeland,” she said, which informs her views on Israel. “I’m from here and I’ve worked with people who have been here forever,” she told JI. “I think that this respect for home and homeland is something that is important for both Israelis and Palestinians.”
While she has never been to Israel, she told JI that she is interested in visiting so she could better understand the region. The Jewish state, she said, appears to have much in common with New Mexico, at least from a geographical perspective, as both are in semi-arid regions.
For Leger Fernandez — who speaks fluently on such issues as healthcare, education and poverty — developing a familiarity with Middle East politics has required something of a learning curve, according to Edward Borins, a vice president of Temple Beth Shalom who consults on her campaign.
“She’s getting there,” he told JI. “What I liked is she said, ‘I’m really not up on this, but I will bone up on this.’”
“I do not hold myself out as an expert in the Middle East,” Leger Fernandez said, and speaking with JI, her thoughts still appeared to be coalescing. But she does appear to have some defined views.
In a position paper, Fernandez writes, among other things, that she supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that the United States should play a key role in promoting peace.
“I firmly believe that we must pursue a peace process that recognizes the right of Israel to self-determination and to exist as a Jewish state,” she writes. “I also recognize that the Palestinian people are entitled to a future that includes their ability to build thriving healthy communities. In these times of both global uncertainty and the alarming rise of antisemitism, I will always work to ensure that the U.S. relationship with Israel remains strong and that we stand up to hate and division at home and abroad. In Congress, I will be a strong voice for peace, for the principle of finding common values and purpose, and for dignity for all.”
Leger Fernandez believes the U.S. should rejoin the Iranian nuclear deal and that President Donald Trump’s unilateral decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem was imprudent diplomacy.
She rejects the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, writing that if she were in Congress she would have supported last year’s anti-BDS House resolution. “I have always stood against movements that seek to foster division and contribute to antisemitism,” Leger Fernandez says in the paper.
It was Leger Fernandez’s humanitarian approach to politics — rooted in social justice — that appealed to Doris Francis, a retired anthropologist in Santa Fe who supports the candidate. Leger Fernandez’s beliefs, Francis averred, are in line with the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, or repairing the world.
By contrast, Valerie Plame’s presence in the race, Francis told JI, was deeply troubling in light of her past remarks.
In a position paper on Israel published last fall, Plame laid out her views, endorsing a two-state solution, supporting aid to Israel and opposing BDS while warning of the rise of antisemitism in the U.S.
Plame also addressed her own controversy. “I learned a deeply painful, personal lesson about the importance of being thoughtful in the language used in political discourse, especially in our accelerated social media interactions, in which careful deliberation is sometimes sacrificed,” she wrote. “I accept responsibility for an instance in which my communication caused pain in the Jewish community, and I am committed to doing my part going forward to encourage tolerance, respect, and sensitivity in our politics.”
While Jewish voters may not buy Plame’s contrition, whether their concerns will resonate with other voters remains to be seen. Lonna Rae Atkeson, a political scientist at the University of New Mexico who specializes in voting and elections, told JI that Plame shouldn’t be dismissed as a possible contender in the crowded primary, which is scheduled for June 2 and also includes Sandoval County treasurer Laura Montoya, New Mexico district attorney Marco Serna and former New Mexico Deputy Secretary of State John Blair.
Leger Fernandez is the party favorite: She raked in 42% of the delegate vote at the state’s Democratic pre-party convention in early March, the most of any candidate.
Plame, meanwhile, came in fifth at the convention, with just 5.2% of delegates. But Atkeson said that Plame’s high profile — coupled with her $1.1 million war chest — still puts her in a position to make it to the general election, particularly at a moment when the novel coronavirus pandemic threatens to impact voter turnout.
Leger Fernandez — who has raised nearly $685,000, according to the latest information from the Federal Election Commission — declined to comment directly on the accusations of antisemitism that have hovered over Plame’s campaign. “Racism and bigotry is a problem that we must address,” she said. “And I’ve done that.”
Serna, though, in a paper on Middle East policy, calls out Plame’s actions, though he does not use her name. “Recently, attacks have been made on the patriotism and power of American supporters of Israel,” he writes, adding that he’s referring to “a current Congressional candidate who promoted an article titled, ‘America’s Jews are Driving America’s war.’”
“It is this type of rhetoric that promotes hate crimes and antisemitism in our country, both of which have erupted at truly frightening rates throughout the United States in the last few years,” he charges.
Leger Fernandez, speaking more broadly about antisemitism and other acts of hate, said during her interview with JI that “we must defeat those who would demonize the other to gain political power.”
She brought up the class she took with Rabbi Nahum Ward-Lev at Temple Beth Shalom. During her time in the course, she didn’t tell the rabbi that she was planning to run for Congress.
But she found that one point he raised got to the root of the campaign she envisioned for herself. Imagine what policy would be like, he said, discussing the prophets, if it came from a place of love.
“I think that’s the key thing,” she said. “When we see that our communities are all interconnected, then we recognize how important that is and we recognize how we cannot allow this kind of hatred to go on and we must fight it at every level.”