By Jake Stern Powell
The military tends to hold an odd place in both major American political parties. Republicans, who often speak in glowing terms about America’s might tend, not to support legislation that helps actual active duty and veteran military members. Democrats, on the other hand, are often viewed as doves roosting in a nest made of olive branches. Yet, the more liberal party is the one that enacts legislation needed to help keep veterans off the streets and out of jails.
This eternal contradiction is where Claudia Risner, chair of the Veterans and Military Families Caucus of the Democratic Party of New Mexico and a former candidate for the New Mexico State Senate, finds herself.
“The GOP claims they’re the party of the military,” she says. “I think they’re the party of the military-industrial complex.”
Risner’s views are well-informed. After spending 29 years in the Navy, 19 of which were overseas, she earned a Ph.D. in International Studies. She has commanded a Naval base in Italy, sold weapons systems to the Dutch Navy, and, in the mid-90s, fell in love with New Mexico after being second in charge of a recruiting command station here.
Beyond her vast experience, Risner also has data to back her up. The caucus she chairs created a report card for every state legislator listing how they voted on caucus-supported bills. Of those 17 pieces of legislation, only three Republican legislators supported all of them while every Democratic legislator met that mark. And Republicans also filled the entire list of AWOL members, which is described as legislators who voted yes on less than 70% of the endorsed bills. (Included on the list of AWOL members is State Senator Mark Moores, the current Republican nominee for CD-1.)
Risner sent each legislator their report card, thanking those who supported the bills and inviting those who didn’t to work together in the future to overcome what their issues may be. Not a single Republican responded.
“[Their votes are] about the defense contractors making a lot of money,” she explains. “And the money goes to shareholders and that’s the rich people that really are the Republican Party.”
Besides grading state legislators, the caucus has three key priorities: advocating for veterans, helping military families, and creating or expanding new initiatives that support both groups.
One such initiative is expanding the use of the Veterans Court throughout the state. Created from a partnership between the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court System, the Albuquerque VA Medical Center, and the Department of Veterans Affairs, this court helps identify defendants who currently or previously served in the military and works to provide them with a specialized path that takes them away from repeat offenses.
The program has been a success. Those given access to the Veterans Court have a recidivism rate of 17%, according to Risner, far below the average of those going through the traditional court experience. Currently, though, only one other county besides Bernalillo has created a similar partnership.
With over 330 members, around a quarter of which are active duty, the Veterans and Military Family Caucus also hopes to support members by finding, encouraging, and supporting Veterans to run with an end goal of having no Republican in the state with an uncontested path to their seat.
“Representation matters. I’ve lived the life. My husband has lived the life. We know what’s important to other veterans,” Risner says. “So, if we can get a lot more [veterans] to run for office, we’re going to turn [New Mexico] into one of the most desirable states of the union for veterans to live.”
When asked how she plans to continue to promote legislation that lifts up active-duty military, veterans, and their families, Risner offers a crisp, clear answer that shows why military veterans are such valuable members of the Democratic Party.
“I’m really a problem solver. I like to find the problems out there and the issues that are important and fix them,” she answers. “I don’t want to just talk about that stuff. I don’t have time for that.”