An Ex-Spy Who Wants to Represent New Mexico Can’t Hide From Criticism
SANTA FE, N.M. — When Valerie Plame declared her run for Congress by boasting of her past as a C.I.A. agent, money poured into her campaign from donors around the country charmed by her vow to take on President Trump.
But now, the view that Ms. Plame is a shoo-in to win the coveted seat in northern New Mexico seems based on faulty intelligence.
Instead, the ex-spy’s entry into the race is flaring tempers among fellow Democrats, reflecting how the party is grappling with an array of internal divisions — in New Mexico and around the country — in a pivotal election year.
Some voters in the district, which is considered the cradle of New Mexico’s centuries-old Hispanic culture and is home to 15 Pueblo tribes, the Navajo Nation and the Jicarilla Apache Nation, are expressing skepticism over her bid as an Anglo newcomer who moved to the state in 2007. Hispanics account for 41 percent of the district’s population, while Native Americans make up 19 percent.
Representative Ben Ray Luján has held the seat since 2009, rising to become the highest-ranking Hispanic in the House. He is vacating it to run for the United States Senate, drawing prominent Hispanic candidates into the primary race.
Ms. Plame is seen by many as an outsider. She and her former husband, Joseph C. Wilson, left Washington for Santa Fe when Ms. Plame’s identity was leaked after Mr. Wilson undercut the Bush administration’s 2003 claim that Iraq was trying to build nuclear weapons.
Ms. Plame went on to write two spy novels and a memoir, which served as part of the basis of a feature film about her and Mr. Wilson in 2010.
Her campaign has come under the spotlight thanks largely to a James Bond-style video — touting her background as a C.I.A. operative — in which she powers a Chevy Camaro backward down a dusty desert road. Ms. Plame has begun campaigning around northern New Mexico, contending she is the right person to represent the district in Washington because she knows her way around the capital’s colossal bureaucracies.
One of the biggest issues in the campaign got its start in 2017, when Ms. Plame raised an uproar for a tweet linking to an article, “America’s Jews Are Driving America’s Wars,” in a publication that has been criticized for publishing anti-Semitic material. Ms. Plame continues to get questions about her shifting response to the controversy.
She progressively backtracked on what she had initially called a “provocative, but thoughtful” article, saying finally that she had “messed up” by not reading it carefully enough. “Just FYI, I am of Jewish descent,” she offered on Twitter.
Recently Ms. Plame, raised a Lutheran, said she had joined Temple Beth Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Santa Fe.
But some members of the congregation have raised questions about her claim.
“I’m concerned about her truthfulness,” said Daniel Yohalem, 71, a civil rights lawyer who has served on Temple Beth Shalom’s board. “At first she deemed the tweet wasn’t a problem, then she adopted a series of stories about what happened.”
Mr. Yohalem said he had reviewed the synagogue’s membership list and could not find Ms. Plame. He made his findings public this month in The Albuquerque Journal, placing Ms. Plame on the defensive.
“Lately she’s discovered an ancestor who was Jewish,” Mr. Yohalem said. “I’m not questioning her spiritual journey, but I am concerned about her truthfulness and qualifications. The mere fact that she’s a former C.I.A. agent doesn’t qualify her to represent this district.”
Sam Pick, a former Santa Fe mayor who is from one of the city’s pioneering Jewish families, said Ms. Plame was trying to deflect attention from her original tweet by highlighting her Jewish ancestry. “An apology is not enough, especially since Plame has a history of sharing articles from the same source,” Mr. Pick said.
In an interview, Ms. Plame said her grandfather was from a Ukrainian Jewish family “right out of ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’” an ancestral connection she only began exploring as an adult. She said that she began attending events at the synagogue in the “aftermath” of the outcry over her tweet, but disputed that this decision involved political expediency.
“One’s spiritual journey is private,” Ms. Plame said.
Neil Amswych, the principal rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom, said in a statement that the synagogue had a policy of not disclosing membership details. But he acknowledged that Ms. Plame had recently been frequenting services “as part of her exploration of her relationship with Judaism.”
All the attention on Ms. Plame has been vexing for some of her rivals in the staunchly Democratic district. She easily outstripped them in fund-raising during the most recent reporting period, building a war chest of $685,923.
Her top fund-raising rival in the primary is Teresa Leger Fernandez, a Yale-educated lawyer from northern New Mexico who raised $398,219 in the same period. Even though she lagged behind, nearly 70 percent of Ms. Leger Fernandez’s donations came from within New Mexico, compared with 27 percent of Ms. Plame’s.
“It’s not just that I’m from the community and speak fluent New Mexican Spanish,” said Ms. Leger Fernandez, who has specialized in representing Native American tribes. “I’ve been involved for decades in issues of importance to the district.”
So far, Ms. Leger Fernandez has won important endorsements from the political arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus; the Latino Victory Fund, a political action committee that works to elect progressive Hispanic leaders; and Emily’s List, a political action committee helping to elect female Democratic candidates who support abortion rights. Native American tribes, including Taos Pueblo and the Jicarilla Apache Nation, have also endorsed her.
Another Democratic contender, Marco Serna, the Santa Fe district attorney, has gone on the attack against Ms. Plame. In a campaign ad featuring Mr. Serna on horseback, the candidate accused her of misunderstanding local values and exaggerating her C.I.A. exploits.
While polling in the race has yet to be done ahead of the June primary, Ms. Plame said she had been exploring and getting to know the district she hoped to represent. It takes in the cities of Santa Fe and Los Alamos, rural Hispanic enclaves and some of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the United States, including Taos Pueblo, where people are thought to have lived for more than 1,000 years.
Ms. Plame said she spoke Greek, German and French, linguistic skills she honed in the C.I.A. But after living in New Mexico for more than a decade, some voters complain that she still cannot speak much Spanish, nor pronounce Spanish surnames and place names the way many longtime New Mexicans do, whether they are Hispanic, Anglo or Native.
Nevertheless, Ms. Plame cited other Democrats without deep roots in northern New Mexico who managed to win the congressional seat before Mr. Luján.
“Prior to that it was Bill Richardson, who’s only half Hispanic, and Tom Udall, who I’m pretty sure has nothing but good Mormon blood,” she said, referring to Mr. Richardson, a former governor of New Mexico, and Mr. Udall, a United States senator who is from a dynasty active in politics around the West.
Ms. Plame said she embraced the multiculturalism and largely liberal politics of northern New Mexico as part of her evolving worldview. She said she had grown up the daughter of “Rockefeller Republicans” and voted for Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
“I didn’t know better at the time,” she said.
Even though Ms. Plame has yet to win endorsements from prominent Norteños, as Hispanics are often called in northern New Mexico, it is not for lack of trying.
“Valerie is a gracious person who asked for my support,” said Roger Montoya, 58, a community leader and co-founder of a youth center in Española, north of Santa Fe. “But we have centuries and centuries of lineage and culture that have informed us in a unique way.”
Mr. Montoya said he was supporting Ms. Leger Fernandez in the race, adding of Ms. Plame: “She’s obviously an outsider who doesn’t know our culture firsthand.”
Still, though the district has long been viewed as a Hispanic bastion, it actually has fewer Hispanics on a proportional basis than the relatively conservative district stretching across southern New Mexico, which flipped from red to blue in 2018.
Gabriel Sanchez, a pollster with Latino Decisions and executive director of the University of New Mexico’s Center for Social Policy, said one factor that may bode well for Ms. Plame is the relatively large number of Hispanics in the race, which could split the Hispanic vote in a primary in which Anglo turnout is expected to be relatively strong.
But Mr. Sanchez said Ms. Plame’s strategy of playing up her expertise in the realms of foreign policy and espionage could also flop among voters seeking a candidate with deep knowledge of the region and attention to local issues.
“Plame got a lot of recognition for her ad,” Mr. Sanchez said, referring to the Chevy Camaro campaign video. “But that could backfire with Norteño voters who view her as an outsider.”
And even in liberal Santa Fe, Ms. Plame is aware of the challenges she faces. At the end of the interview, a campaign worker showed up at her headquarters after trying to find supporters to provide their signatures so Ms. Plame could get on the primary ballot.
The campaign worker told Ms. Plame he had been at a mall in Santa Fe when he came across the actor Ali MacGraw, one of many liberal celebrities who make their home in the Santa Fe area. But when he asked Ms. MacGraw for her signature, she declined, he said, telling him she was supporting Ms. Leger Fernandez instead.
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