It was over in 10 seconds.
A few quick pen strokes from Gov. Bill Richardson and decades of contentious debate in New Mexico came to an end. The second-term governor and Democratic presidential candidate had done something no other politician in New Mexico's history had accomplished. "This is a historic day," Richardson said solemnly. "Today, New Mexico bans cockfighting."
Richardson received a standing ovation when he signed Senate Bill 10 into law just after noon today amid popping camera shutters and shouts of support from a standing-room only crowd jammed into the cabinet room on the fourth floor of the state capitol building in Santa Fe.
It isn't universal health care or same-sex marriage, but cockfighting has been a hot button issue in New Mexico for years. Opponents of the sport—which is now only legal in Louisiana—called cockfighting the severest form of animal cruelty. Supporters call it an important cultural tradition in this heavily Latino state. Despite polls that cited more than 80 percent of residents in favor of a ban, state legislators launched several previous attempts to pass a ban, to no avail.
"This has been one of our dirty secrets for a long time, and quite frankly, this [ban] has been a long time coming," said Democratic State Rep. Peter Wirth. "I'm thrilled that we're finally putting Louisiana in the rear-view mirror on this issue."
It's been a long road. State Sen. Mary Jane Garcia—a Democrat from southern New Mexico who sponsored SB 10—first introduced the ban when she arrived in the legislature 18 years ago. Back then, Garcia was ridiculed on the senate floor with crude jokes and innuendo from her male colleagues. In recent years, the ban had passed the state's House of Representatives, but had always fallen slightly short in the senate. This year, the combination of Richardson's support and Garcia's willingness to soften the penalties for breaking the law swayed the handful of state senators needed to pass the bill.
The gravity of the moment could be felt when a reverent hush fell over the cabinet room as Richardson was ushered in through a side entrance and took a seat at a large round conference table flanked by Wirth, Garcia and Santa Fe actress-activist Ali MacGraw.
"I am so glad we can finally put this aside," MacGraw said. "I'm glad that we have finally joined the vast majority of people in this country who acknowledge that cruelty to animals for recreational enjoyment is not OK."
Lisa Jennings, executive director of Animal Protection Voters New Mexico, presented the governor with a few tokens of appreciation, including an "Ante Up for Animals" poker set and a WILL THE FIGHT GO ON? T-Shirt depicting a faux boxing match between two cartoon roosters named Rocky "Not So" Cocky and Joey "The Chicken" Rooster. "What a difference one man can make," Jennings gushed. "Mr. Governor, you were the difference, and we're all deeply grateful for your participation."
Richardson was indeed the catalyst for finally passing the ban. But the governor had refused to take a stance on the issue throughout his entire first term before finally expressing his support for it last December. The delay, Richardson explained, was due largely to his focus being previously diverted toward issues like improving education and the economy. "I always felt it was wrong, personally, but it was a process issue," Richardson says. "This is a very emotional issue and I think you have to wait to pass it when the support and votes are there. Now, I feel the time is right. Timing is very important."
Indeed. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Richardson is now an Oval Office candidate eager to keep something like rooster-on-rooster combat from providing critical fodder on the campaign trail. Not surprisingly, though, Richardson denied it when asked if there was a connection between his sudden appreciation for poultry and his aspirations for Campaign 2008. "None," the governor replied flatly, before quipping, "I don't think this is a major issue in the [presidential] race."
Maybe not, but the ban's opponents say Richardson's support was political. "Flat out, the governor told them to pass it and that was the difference," says Jim Nance, a rancher from Magdalena who testified against the ban at a state Senate hearing last month, even though he himself has never watched a cockfight. "He wants to be president and you know how politicians are, they're always trying to get as many people to vote for them as they can."
Whatever the governor's motivations, supporters and opponents of the ban agree that it was unlikely to have passed without his political heft placed squarely behind it. Nonetheless, Garcia was still forced to dilute the criminal penalties (changing a first offense from a felony to a petty misdemeanor) of the bill in order to ensure its safe passage. "This is at least a beginning," Garcia says. "The most important part was getting the ban in place. It's been a long, tough road, but we've finally persevered."
The battle may not yet be over; game-fowl breeders have threatened to challenge the ban in court. And if it does become law on June 15, it will be as much a symbolic gesture as a practical one, considering that more than a dozen counties and nearly 30 municipalities in New Mexico already ban the sport. Some speculate that the new law will do little to dissuade cockfighting--instead just pushing it further underground. "Most criminal activity is already underground," Jennings said. "That doesn't mean those activities shouldn't be outlawed. We have a lot of support from the law-enforcement community and, just like with any other criminal activity, it will be up to them and the citizens to remain vigilant about showing that New Mexico will not tolerate this kind of violence." If passing the ban was tough, making it stick could be even tougher.