Hector Balderas Finds Niche in State Legislature
Hector Balderas was running his own criminal defense practice in Albuquerque when he moved home to Wagon Mound and began running for something more far-reaching: the state Legislature.
“It was exciting to think about representing the community that raised me and helping with the challenges of the people,” he says.
He also knew the odds were against him; his rival in the Democratic primary had held the seat in the House of Representatives for four years and was from a large political family in Mora County.
Nonetheless, Balderas set about telling people in the far-flung district that stretches from Santa Rosa to Raton to Taos about himself. At 11, he moved to Wagon Mound when his mother returned home to be near her family after a divorce. Balderas worked at the local gas sta- tion and as a ranch hand as a youngster. He developed an early love for basketball and helped lead the Wagon Mound Trojans to the state tournament in 1989 and 1991.
His mother had never attended college and his father had taken some classes, but Balderas’ high school teachers and counselors made it clear that education was his only chance to escape poverty. The aver- age annual income today in Mora County is about $12,000. Accept- ing their advice, he attended Highlands University, and then became a budget analyst for the United States Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C.
But he knew he wanted to continue his education, and although he didn’t know any lawyers, he suspected that a legal education would provide him with choices. At the UNM law school, he found the social fear to be as tough as the academic challenges during his first year.
“In the first few months of law school I was not sure if I belonged there,” says Balderas. But a commitment to diversity and sensitivity to native New Mexicans from his professors helped ease the transition. “They made me feel like I was a valued piece of the puzzle,” he says.
After graduating in 2001, Balderas spent 10 months as an assistant district attorney in the Second Judicial District, before opening up his own criminal defense practice in Albuquerque. In 2004, he returned home to run for the Legislature.
For six months, he knocked on doors, disregarding the advice of people who tried to tell him his rural district was not conducive to a walking campaign. He raised campaign funds statewide, spoke to the voters as an equal and targeted his message to the importance of values, leadership and a connection to community.
In the June Primary, Balderas received nearly twice as many votes as the incumbent, and went on to easily win the seat in the general election.
“I think people felt a sense of pride in me, a small-town kid who does well and comes home to help,” he says. “And they were excited to have someone aggressive and educated who could articulate their needs.”
22 UNMLAW Hector Balderas
Now embroiled in the second half of his first legislative term, already Balderas has seen how the critical thinking he learned in law school has helped him analyze the social, legal, political and economic ram- ifications of legislation. Rather than spend his first session finding where the bathrooms are and mostly listening, he gained the respect of his colleagues and sponsored some hard-hitting bills.
One of those, which passed and was signed by the governor, provides for tougher management of sex offenders across the state, no matter the size of the community. “We had different standards in different jurisdictions and it was creating a big problem for everyone,” he says. “By closing some loopholes of Megan’s Law, now offenders can’t hide in smaller towns after being kicked out of the larger cities.”
Balderas was named Rookie Legislator of the Year by the Greater Al- buquerque Chamber of Commerce. “I take this type of recognition in stride,” he says. “I am only doing what is right for my district and the State of New Mexico.”
During the current 30-day session, he is working on improving fund- ing for schools and providing money to renovate and build rural wa- ter systems, some of which date to the early 1900s.
Considering he serves on three interim legislative committees, Bal- deras has become a year-round policy maker. He still practices law, assisting on cases in northern New Mexico for the Albuquerque firm of Robles, Rael, & Anaya. As a lawmaker, he has discovered an ability to interact well with people and a knack for taking into account dif- ferent perspectives.
“I have found a niche in this,” he says. “Whether it lasts one year or 20 years, it is a huge honor and privilege that I don’t take lightly.” He knows it is up to the voters to decide his future, but he is flattered that some people have suggested he would be a good candidate to represent New Mexico in Congress some day.
Balderas is now raising three young children with his wife, Denise Cruz Baca, a reading specialist with the West Las Vegas School District. To stay in shape, he is back practicing with the Wagon Mound Trojans, his former basketball team.
“It’s ironic that I spent so many years trying to get out of Mora County and one year trying to get accepted back,” he says. “Right now, I feel like the sky’s the limit.”
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