A Red Corner of a Blue State Fights to Reopen


To understand why Mayor Nate Duckett wants Farmington, N.M., to reopen while the governor wants it shut, it helps to know something about what he calls his city’s “death spiral.”

Perched in a rural corner of northwest New Mexico, Farmington watched its wealth vanish as its oil and gas industries went elsewhere. Its population is one of the fastest-shrinking in America. What keeps the lights on in Farmington is a coal-fired power plant whose fate remains uncertain.

And all of that was before the virus leveled what remained of Farmington’s economy.

So in April, Mr. Duckett went to his office in City Hall to write new orders for his town. They amounted to no less than an existential plea, warning of crime, hunger, violence and homelessness if the lockdown continued. Though his role is nonpartisan, he said he votes Republican — and in that moment in April he laid responsibility for what came next with New Mexico’s Democratic governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham.

“An economic disaster has been created,” Mr. Duckett, 42, said in a broadcast. Past proclamations by Farmington mayors had regulated fireworks and denoted an American Legion Day. The April proclamation declared an economic emergency and asked for a partial reopening of all shuttered businesses.

The mayor’s appeal reflects anxieties shared in small cities and towns across the West, which have far fewer cases of Covid-19 per capita than the eastern United States. In Farmington, few people know anyone who was ill from the coronavirus, but almost everyone knows someone unemployed by it.

Ms. Lujan Grisham, who is regularly cited as a possible vice-presidential choice for Joseph R. Biden Jr., has followed other Democratic governors in her approach. She extended the state’s restrictions through at least May 15 and even used a riot law to close one town entirely — a strategy experts say has made the state a leader in managing the pandemic, especially as the virus threatens devastation of its large Navajo community.

Yet the governor’s success on the health front may well risk a political backlash in communities like Farmington, where years of economic stagnation threaten the kind of wipeout that residents fear will be far longer lasting than those in bigger cities.

“It’s put a different spin on the America I grew up with,” Mr. Duckett said. “People are going to remember this when they go to the ballot box.”

Donald J. Trump, who praised the coal industry throughout his presidential campaign, won Farmington by two to one against Hillary Clinton in 2016, the highest margin by a Republican in decades.

But Bill Richardson, the Democratic former governor of New Mexico, represented Farmington in Congress for 14 years. He sees the challenge of this moment pushing rural voters even further away from Democrats.

“The welfare of the people over the economy has been a winning issue — but that’s now starting to fray,” Mr. Richardson said. “You can’t defy the law, but I can understand the pain of small towns. These are good people.”

Mr. Duckett says he’s long been open to the kinds of compromise that used to seem necessary — and possible — even in a bitterly partisan time.

He points to a nearby coal-fired energy plant that powers Farmington and provides 1,500 jobs as an example: The city hopes to buy it a few more years through a carbon capture deal with the plant’s owners.

But turn on the radio in Farmington, and one soon hears echoes of President Trump’s polarizing refrain that the cure is worse than the problem.

“Maybe this will sound morbid, but there will be more people who die from unemployment than will die from the virus,” Thomas Hawkins, a Farmington car dealer, said on a recent local broadcast.

In a statement, Ms. Lujan Grisham said she was concerned about the economic impact of the shutdowns on both rural and urban areas and promised relief for workers. But she warned that the infection rate in San Juan County was still too high to risk reopening.

“Folks inevitably want to get back out there to some form of ‘new normal,’ thinking the worst is over,” she said. “The risk of transmission, however, remains as high as it ever was.”

After Farmington’s emergency declaration, another New Mexico mayor in the town of Grants vowed to defy the governor outright, saying businesses could reopen. Such actions irk Mr. Duckett, who worries the virus has become what he calls a “political football.”

He said he fears this new landscape, where the government seems to be picking winners and losers of the crisis.

The good will is wearing thin in Farmington, he said. Because it’s clear to many who the losers are.

Before New Mexico’s lockdown orders left his wife, Lauren, and him without jobs in April, Derrick Hendry worked in directional drilling, at times spending weeks living near oil rigs as far as Wyoming and West Virginia.

Those jobs all used to be near Farmington. The town of 40,000 sits in a county the size of Connecticut, a landscape of mesas, canyons and ancient kiva ruins. Below the surface is natural gas, which sustained both Farmington and nearby Indian reservations for generations.

The energy industry largely lasted until around 2008, when the financial crisis led to a drop in prices. Then, as fracking expanded, large companies went elsewhere when natural gas prices fell for good and Mr. Hendry, 36, realized he’d be crossing long distances for work.

“I’ve been close to middle class for 10 or 15 years, and for my area, that’s high,” he said.

To Mr. Duckett, the problem was a familiar one. For years he worked a brick-and-mortar retail job for a company that sold books and music, and he watched the sector vanish as customers went to online shopping. Mr. Duckett left and started an insurance agency. Now he hoped to engineer a transition at a wider scale in Farmington.

“When I told people I was running for office, they said: ‘Why? Your town is in a death spiral,’” he recalled when he first ran for City Council. Mr. Duckett would joke that Farmington’s continued growth was essential for his wife, a labor and delivery nurse.

“If people don’t have babies, she’s out of a job,” he said.

In 2018, when Mr. Duckett became mayor, the city brought on Warren Unsicker, an economist from Alaska who had worked on similar turnaround projects in Oklahoma’s oil country. Mr. Unsicker outlined a diversification of Farmington’s economy to include outdoor recreation, retail and retirement communities. Others drew up plans to refurbish an old airport and to lobby for construction of a railway line.

There were few objections, Mr. Duckett said, but there was one downside to what would come next.

“There would never be a one-to-one match with new jobs,” Mr. Unsicker said. “You weren’t going to have the same level of wage in retail, or working as an outdoor guide as you did in the energy industry.”

When the first stay-at-home orders were issued in late March, Monica Schultz understood. Ms. Schultz, 44, owned a New Mexican restaurant called Chile Pod in downtown Farmington and residents in the county were starting to test positive for the coronavirus.

Ms. Schultz had grown up in a nearby town, Cuba, and had been part of the transition out of the energy sector the mayor was pushing for. Her husband worked as a supervisor at the company that owned the coal plant, but sensed there was little future there. The couple started a small trucking business instead, and after their red chile — the preferred New Mexican spelling of the dish — won first place at the town cook-off, they opened the restaurant and put it on the menu.

But before long, the realities of the lockdown were becoming apparent to Ms. Schultz: There was no hiding from this crisis, no matter what industry you were in.

When the governor extended the orders through April 30, Ms. Schultz called in 17 of her 21 workers to the restaurant. She gave each their last check and a letter to take to the unemployment office to collect benefits. Those who might have trouble supporting their families got 20 pounds of meat from the kitchen.

“I gave away whatever I had — beef, beans and chile,” Ms. Schultz said. “Everyone knew what was coming and that they had nowhere to go.”

Mr. Duckett’s life was also changing. City Hall stayed running but staff members kept their distance; Covid-19 patients began to arrive to the hospital where Mr. Duckett’s wife worked. When the schools closed, the mayor took to streaming story readings for children online with a puppet named Chester.

And new orders from the governor’s office kept coming. A 57-hour curfew in nearby Navajo Nation was declared. Corporate chains like Sam’s Club and Albertson’s, listed as essential for selling food, appeared to thrive as many of the town’s small businesses, ordered closed, were getting pushed into bankruptcy.

Mr. Hendry, the oil worker, lost his job not long after his wife lost hers at a jewelry store.

“We’re going to be losing our house, we already know that,” said Mr. Hendry, who said his $1,200 stimulus check wasn’t enough to cover his monthly house payment and other expenses. “What we’re trying to do is keep our vehicles so when things pick up we can get back to work.”

And as the shutdown wore on, he said his frustration was building with the governor.

“It’s her responsibility to get us going,” he said. “You’re talking about the right to live.”

On April 18, three days after he issued his emergency declaration, Mr. Duckett recorded a radio show called Money Belt on which he and a co-host discussed pocketbook issues in rural America.

The frustration in Mr. Duckett’s voice was audible from the start, but the mayor tried to steer clear from the politics of the lockdowns or the resentment in parts of rural America against them. He said he wasn’t advocating disobeying the governor. He said his town simply needed to see “a light at the end of the tunnel.”

The co-host pushed the mayor on the damage that driving Farmington deeper into poverty might leave: He cited suicide rates after the 2008 recession, and described what he saw as liberal governors “trying to out-shackle their populations.”

Finally Mr. Duckett broke in.

“We’ve been watching it creep and creep and creep, further left or further and further into the socialist mind-set in politics for years,” he said. “And is this not just the perfect moment for freedoms to be grabbed and taken away?”

Last week, Ms. Lujan Grisham announced some easing of the restrictions. But because of the number of Covid-19 cases in Farmington’s San Juan County, they would not apply to the city, she said; and a town south of Farmington called Gallup would be entirely locked down.

After the announcement, Mr. Duckett sat at City Hall and reflected on his efforts to revive the city before the virus, which felt derailed now.

“There were guys who stepped out of high school and stepped into a mine here, and for a time they were able to have high quality of life,” he said. “Now we asked them to replace it with a $30,000-a-year retail job.”

And now that job, too, was gone.

Mr. Duckett recalled a recent conference call with other mayors in the state. One person warned everyone listening that they soon might have a family member sick with the virus. Another interrupted to say that one of his chief worries was economic: a constituent who told him after 60 years of running a local business that because of the shutdown, “my livelihood is done.”

“You have these competing views now,” Mr. Duckett said. “But they shouldn’t be competing.”



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