By Ryan Boetel
Two first-generation Americans from New Mexico are up against each other in the Democratic primary for the state’s 2nd Congressional District.
Gabe Vasquez, a Las Cruces city councilor, and Darshan Patel, a family medicine physician in Lovington, are running for the opportunity to take on Rep. Yvette Herrell, the state’s lone Republican member of Congress.
The southern New Mexico-based seat has seesawed the last three elections. It went Republican in 2016, Democratic in 2018 and back to Republican in 2020. After redistricting this year, the district is considered to lean more Democratic, as it reaches farther into Albuquerque’s West Side and the South Valley.
Vasquez, 37, was born in El Paso and during his childhood often traveled across the border to Mexico, where his grandparents and other family members lived. Many of them worked in his grandfather’s TV repair shop.
“His dream was that some day his grandkids would have an opportunity at American citizenship,” he said. “So I am the first in that family to have that opportunity. And I’m incredibly grateful for that.”
Growing up in a “mixed status” family on both sides of the border, he said, gives him a perspective that stands in stark contrast to Herrell. She has made border security and restrictions on immigration a focus of her first term.
“I think in this country, where we’ve gotten it wrong, is that we have made immigration such a partisan issue that we haven’t recognized fully the economic impact the value that immigrants create to our communities,” he said, adding that the representative from southern New Mexico should be a leading voice on the topic. “More so than most places in America, from our farm workers, to our students at New Mexico State University and New Mexico Tech, to people who are working in our hospitality industry, immigrant labor has built our communities.”
Patel, 35, was raised in an apartment complex in Albuquerque by parents who immigrated from northwest India. He worked as a teacher for three years before going to medical school.
He completed his residency at the University of New Mexico during the pandemic and decided to practice rural medicine, which is why he moved to Lovington.
Earlier this year, during the surge of the COVID-19 omicron variant, Patel made the choice to run for Congress while treating unvaccinated people.
“The county in which I work was one of the least vaccinated counties,” Patel said. “And it was because of misinformation and disinformation and mistruths that people were receiving from social media and from elected officials and right-wing forces that were sowing distrust in the public health system. And people were dying.”
There are currently 17 physicians in Congress. All but two are Republicans, according to the American Medical Association’s Patient Action Network, which lobbies on behalf of patients.
Both Patel and Vasquez got their start in politics volunteering and working for national and local Democrats.
Patel volunteered for presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004 and he canvassed for the Obama-Biden ticket in 2008 and 2012. He also interned for Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M.
Vasquez volunteered on Obama’s presidential campaigns and was active with College Democrats at New Mexico State University. He has worked as a field representative for Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M.
“My brain turned on at that point, and I said, ‘Wow, there’s a lot of solutions here,’” he said of his time working as a field representative. “That gave me the confidence to know that when you have good leaders and you have a plan and you have a vision, and you are willing to work collaboratively … we could actually get things done.”
Vasquez currently works as the director of strategy and partnerships for the National Wildlife Foundation. Vasquez hunts sheep, deer and quail, and his favorite animal to hunt is a javelina. He’s also an avid fisherman.
His bird dog, Suki, has appeared in several of his campaign materials.
“One of my earliest memories of New Mexico was fishing for catfish with my dad and my brother under the bridge in Hatch, New Mexico,” he said. “Seeing that beautiful canopy of stars, catching box turtles coming out of the grass, catching catfish.”
Vasquez said the most pressing issue facing the district is the economy.
“Inflation is unacceptably high. Our top priority should be bringing down the cost of living for New Mexicans,” he said. “We can create good-paying jobs by continuing to invest in clean energy infrastructure, by investing in the expansion of broadband in our rural and Native communities, by growing our outdoor recreation economy and continuing to protect our public lands.”
Patel said if elected, one of his top priorities will be working toward universal health care. He said he would support doing that through some sort of “Medicare for All” or other legislation.
“We need to make this step for the sake of our health system and for our population,” he said. “And it’s going to take a leader who has the courage to stand up to the opposition, which is mostly insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies, on behalf of New Mexicans, and I will be that leader.”
Vasquez said he also wants to reform health care insurance, but wants to maintain private insurance.
“I think we need to allow Medicare to negotiate for lower prescription drug costs. Absolutely. But I do support a public option,” Vasquez said. “I think we have to recognize … that some folks are happy with the health care that they have, and that a public option truly represents a non-mandatory way to offer affordable health care to everybody in this country.”
Patel said his candidacy would shatter a glass ceiling for New Mexico. He said he would be the first openly gay and person of Asian-American descent to represent the state in Congress.
“Day one, I’ll be able to work on issues regarding health care and rural health care and also education-related issues. And, there is the diversifying factor for our federal delegation,” he said. “Other members of our federal delegation don’t have that personal front-line experience.”
Patel is president of the Committee of Interns and Residents, a national organization that represents resident physicians.
Vasquez has a large fundraising advantage. In campaign finance reports for the first quarter of 2022, Vasquez’s campaign reported $363,151 in total contributions. He had $345,479 cash on hand at the end of the reporting period.
Patel announced his campaign this year. He reported raising about $65,000 during the first quarter and he had $15,800 cash on hand at the end of the reporting period.