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Republican state Rep. Phelps Anderson is reserved, courteous and almost averse to publicity.
Tell him you made a bet you could get three words out of him, and Anderson might reply: You lose. Yet there he was last week, making waves by siding with Democrats to repeal a 1969 law that criminalizes abortion in New Mexico. Attacked from the right, Anderson stayed in character. He didn’t care to discuss his latest stand or all the attention he’s receiving because of it. “I think it’s going to be best if I leave that alone,” he said Sunday in a brief telephone interview.
Anderson was at his home in Roswell. He said he might not have returned my call if he had noticed the message was from someone trying to interview him. He displayed no rancor or even annoyance. He just didn’t want to talk about a decision that put him at odds with other Republicans and cast him in the harsh light of social media.
As a member of the House Health and Human Services Committee, Anderson voted to do away with the anti-abortion law. The statute is outdated and unenforceable, but most of the state’s Republican politicians claim it’s an important sign of respect for life. Even Anderson in 2019 voted to keep the archaic law on the books. Still to be seen is if his turnabout vote holds when the full House of Representatives considers House Bill 7, the proposal to repeal the anti-abortion statute.
New Mexico’s law became obsolete after the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973 legalized abortion in the landmark decision Roe v. Wade. Most Democrats in the state Legislature want to repeal New Mexico’s anti-abortion law in case the Republican-laden Supreme Court reverses course. Anderson, 69, was elected in 2018 to his second tour as a state lawmaker. He first won election to the New Mexico House of Representatives in 1976, when he was just 25 years old.
He made news in that stretch with an offbeat bill to repeal a territorial law from 1861 that required licensing of fandangos. Fandangos were defined in statute as both a dance and a social event. “I tell people my purpose is to demonstrate to members of the House and the Senate that we probably have laws in New Mexico which have outlived their useful purpose,” Anderson said at the time. If he feels the same way about the anti-abortion law, he said nothing so direct.
Anderson served two terms in his first stay in the Legislature, then declined to run for a third in 1980. He said his business interests needed more of his time.
He is the son of a legend of the oil industry, the late Robert O. Anderson. The senior Anderson went from nascent wildcatter in New Mexico to discovering oil in Alaska. He became the first CEO of the oil company Atlantic Richfield. The school of management at the University of New Mexico is named for Robert Anderson.
Phelps Anderson’s career choice was the obvious one of oilman. But he stuck with politics after his first tour in the statehouse ended, most notably by winning election as a Republican national committeeman in 1988.
He later ran for Congress in the Southern New Mexico district. Anderson lost in a five-way Republican primary in 2002.
The winning candidate, Steve Pearce, had a long stay in Congress. Pearce now is one of the old anti-abortion law’s biggest defenders as chairman of the state Republican Party.
Anderson’s vote against the law criminalizing abortion might be a sign that he won’t seek a third term in the state House of Representatives in 2022. If he continues to side with Democrats on the issue, he could bank on facing opposition in the primary election.
Anderson’s father had an independent streak. He was an oilman who supported environmental causes with his attention and his money. Phelps Anderson might be independent enough to argue against an anti-abortion law that does nothing except take up space in the code book.
So far, he’s the only Republican legislator to vote to repeal the law. Anderson is bound to be feeling a lot of pressure over his decision. The closed Republican caucuses would be fun to cover. Fellow members of the GOP might give Anderson an earful.
But even that might not be much of a controversy. No one delivers a no comment as quickly or politely as Anderson.
Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news.