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Las Cruces City Councilor Johana Bencomo has begun a new job with the national Women’s Democracy Lab (WDL). Bencomo became program director of WDL’s Future President Project (FPP) in early December.
The “intentionally” part-time job will allow Bencomo to focus even more on her role as a city council member, she said. Bencomo was elected to a four-year term on the council in 2019.
Bencomo said her new job will involve some travel but can mostly be done remotely as she continues to live full-time in Las Cruces. Bencomo was with New Mexico CAFé (Communities in Action & Faith, Comunidades en Accion y de Fe), a Las Cruces-based nonprofit that works to shape public policy, for eight years before accepting the job with WDL. At CAFé, she served as an intern, then as a full-time organizer and the last two years as executive director.
Bencomo said WDL was started in 2020 “by three really powerful women” who have been training women in political strategy – how to run for and win elected office. Founders Anathea Chino, Sayu Bhojwani and Mũthoni Wambu Kraal identified a gap in post-election support for women who win, Bencomo said, especially indigenous women and women of color, and that’s why they started WDL.
Bencomo is part of the nonprofit’s first ever FPP cohort, which includes “fierce elected leaders from across the country,” she said on Facebook. Bencomo is among mayors, city councilors and state representatives in that group who are committed to creating a safe space for women to discuss and overcome the unique challenges and barriers they face during elected service, including the desire to seek higher office, she said.
Electing the first woman U.S. president is a major goal for FPP.
“We are going to support women so they can achieve their highest aspirations for their personal and professional lives,” Bencomo said. “For me, it’s about opening doors and leaving them open so that more women that are coming after us have better and easier access.”
Women, especially women of color, face unique challenges in elected public service, including “a lot of expectations … that men just don’t have,” Bencomo said, like raising families and taking care of homes. Some must find a balance between being full-time mothers and transformational leaders.
As an example, she said, women have been “significantly impacted” because of the pandemic, with many forced to leave their jobs because of a lack of childcare and family-friendly business policies.
WDL provides “a safe space and a community of women who are going through the same thing,” Bencomo said, including self-doubts that some may be experiencing about being worthy to serve.
“Women of color in elected office are really hungry for a space where they can feel supported and lifted up and seen,” she said.
“It’s not just about policy,” Bencomo said. “We’re battling a lot of micro-aggressions, outright discrimination. On top of all of that, we’re also navigating a lot of our own internal dealings.”
One of WDL’s biggest benefits, Bencomo said, is that it is a “huge network of women across the country wanting to support you and wanting to see you succeed.”
For the first time in city history, all six members of the Las Cruces City Council will be women when councilors-elect Becki Graham and Becky Corran join Bencomo, Yvonne Flores, Tessa Abeyta-Stuve and Mayor Pro Tempore Kassandra Gandara in January. Graham and Corran were elected in November to succeed Gabriel Vasquez and Gill Sorg, neither of whom sought re-election in November. Flores was re-elected to a second term in 2021. Gandara was first elected in 2015 and re-elected in 2019. Abeyta-Stuve was first elected in 2019. Ken Miyagishima continues into his 15th year as Las Cruces mayor, an office no woman has ever held.
“There have been all-male governing bodies for decades and decades and no one has ever batted an eye about it,” Bencomo said. Women, she said “have systematically been left out” of political office and corporate leadership for a long time.
“Women are saying, ‘Absolutely, we belong. We have great ideas. We want to serve our communities.’ Communities are responding to that in a very positive manner,” she said.
Bencomo was born in Colonia Aldama, a small town in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico, according to her City of Las Cruces biography. She migrated to the United States with her family when she was 8 years old and has lived in Las Cruces since age 18, when she moved here to attend New Mexico State University. At NMSU, Bencomo earned a bachelor’s in government and a master’s in social work.
WDL’s Chino is a political strategist, fundraiser and operative from Acoma Pueblo, located in Cibola County, about 60 miles west of Albuquerque; author Bhojwani was born in India and raised in Belize and served as New York City’s first commissioner of immigrant affairs; Kraal is a political strategist and organizer who served as national political and organizing director for the Democratic National Committee and lives in Washington, D.C.