Justin Schatz is The Paper's daily news reporter. He has reported on New Mexico for KRQE News, Searchlight NM and the Santa Fe Reporter.

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Generation Z has officially entered New Mexico politics. 23-year-old Mayor Pro Tem Danny Bernal Jr. is one of the youngest politicians in New Mexico history and in the nation. Elected in 2019 to City Council, Bernal hasn’t let his relatively young age define his tenure there. First running on a campaign to fix neglected roads, poor morale among law enforcement and archaic infrastructure codes, Bernal feels he has delivered on every one of his promises and sees Belen as a burgeoning Central New Mexico city and bastion for the arts.

Bernal became Mayor Pro Tem after the former Mayor Pro Tem’s term ended and the city decided to reorganize. He was elected unanimously by the Council to fill the interim position.

The Paper. sat down with Bernal to discuss his journey into New Mexico politics, the importance of bipartisan cooperation and what the future holds for his place in New Mexico politics.

Bernal told The Paper. that he had his first taste of politics when he job shadowed for former New Mexico Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez after he graduated high school. Bernal must have left an impression on Sanchez because soon his campaign organizers reached out and asked Bernal to join the staff as a field organizer. The experience not only taught Bernal about the political landscape in New Mexico but how to run a campaign, too.

After that experience, Bernal soon became involved with Belen’s city council meetings and invested himself wholeheartedly into his hometown’s politics.

“I decided to kind of get involved. I started going to City Council meetings. This little 17-year-old or 18-year-old was walking into the council chambers and all the councilors and the mayor were like, ‘Who the heck is this? Like? Why is he here? He’s not coming up to say anything. He’s just listening and watching.’ And so then, you know, I began to understand the politics of Belen, understand who’s on the side that I agree with and who’s not on the side I agree with. And that’s when I decided to throw my hat in for the 2018 Council race, which I ended up losing. And I think it was mainly just because I was inexperienced in running a municipal campaign. And I just wasn’t really well known. So once I lost, I didn’t take it as, you know, all this city hates me or anything like that. I was like, ‘No, this is my opportunity to continue to work for my city, even if I wasn’t elected.’ So I continued to work,” Bernal said.

Bernal noted, even in his first campaign, that neither his opponents nor his constituents cared too much about his age.

“A lot of people actually are very enthusiastic when they find out my age. And they are excited that I’m so young. I’m getting involved at such a young age, and especially on my first race. People never really said, ‘Oh, he’s too young.’ People were just so happy to see someone young getting involved, someone who had energy,” Bernal said.

Bernal identifies as a Democrat, but the young mayor reflected that his constituents care more about the candidate than party affiliation, even in an age of hyper-partisan national politics.

“They’re the ones who believe in me and want that change. You know, there’s this stigma that young people aren’t wanted in their communities because of their new ideas and they’re radical, right? But in reality, if you just sit down and talk to someone, and see what their issues are to them and what’s important to them, then they’re willing to vote for you. They’re willing to continue that conversation maybe later on. And maybe in the future.”

Bernal is also gay, which stands out in a small community like Belen. When asked about his sexual orientation and if that has had an effect on his position as a city councilor in a historically conservative community, Bernal reflected that his constituents care more about what their elected officials will do for them.

“It really is about the person who you are as a person. Yeah, I might be gay, but people don’t really care. They’re like, okay, yeah, you’re gay, cool. What are you gonna do for my road? You know, I have a pothole in front of my house. So what are you gonna do about that? I use my position as a councilor to be able to ensure that people within my community feel accepted and feel like there’s a place for them within our community.”

When Bernal isn’t attending city council meetings and on the campaign trail, the young city councilor enjoys his solitude. “I may be a politician, but I like to kind of just be on my own time and be myself for a bit because my life is just so open. I’m exposed to the public constantly. So it’s nice to just be alone.”

Still, Bernal noted that his passion for New Mexico politics and policymaking has yet to waver and continues to grow. “I’m having the most fun when I’m sitting there working on policy and stuff. Now, there’s always the other side, you know, when you’re being criticized, and there’s a lot of political drama going on. Now, that’s not always fun. But I really do enjoy just the whole thing. In general, it’s always nice to know that you’re doing something good for your community and that you’re truly just following what you believe in your heart is the best thing for your community.”

Bernal has recently announced that he will be running for state representative in Valencia County for the Democratic Party.