In a year with only three statewide races on the ballot—for secretary of state and Supreme Court and Appeals Court judges—much of the focus of this year’s election is on the state legislature, where Democrats and Republicans are battling for control of both the House and the Senate during the final two years of Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration.
In the House, Republicans reversed more than 60 years of history to seize control two years ago and now dominate with 37 representatives against 33 for the Democrats. A shift of only two seats would create a tie in the 70-member House, something that the state Constitution makes no provision for.
In the Senate, on the other hand, Democrats have the upper hand, with 24 members against only 18 for the Republicans. A shift of three seats would create a tie that Lt. Gov. John Sanchez as president of the Senate would break in favor of Republicans.
Of the 70 House races, 42 have already been decided because there is only a single candidate. Democrats have 27 unchallenged candidates and Republicans have 15. Of the competitive seats, five are open with no incumbent running.
Of the 42 Senate seats, 27 have already been settled. Democrats have no competition in 18 districts and Republicans in nine.
The competitive races include four in the East Mountain Area and Estancia Valley—two for the state Senate and two for the state House.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the four area races is the coincidental links between candidates. Two retired Air Force pilots are running against each other. Three candidates have had connections to East Mountain High School. Two served previously in the Legislature and now are seeking to return.
In general, the candidates are uncertain how the unprecedented and emotional presidential contest—especially the explosion in the last 10 days of reports of sexual insults and assaults involving Donald Trump—will affect their own races and are cautiously seeking to keep their distance, focusing on their own constituencies rather than trying to ride presidential coattails, as has been more common in past election cycles.
Most of the candidates are playing down their party affiliation and at least one does not even identify his party affiliation in his campaign materials.
Although neither presidential candidate is campaigning actively in New Mexico, political action committees associated with both parties are deeply involved in the legislative races. The elephant in the room is Advance New Mexico Now, the most important PAC linked to the governor, which currently has a war chest of more than $1 million to finance Republican candidates during the final three weeks of the campaign.
While most of the candidates support the basic positions of their parties, there are exceptions, demonstrating how local issues cut across the partisan divide. On how to close the hundreds of millions of dollars in state budget deficits, for example, several Democrats are open to some expenditure cuts while some Republicans leave open the possibility of raising more revenue.
Candidates say campaigning in the Tricounty area is especially challenging for two reasons. One is geographical diversity. The area is a kind of frontier, divided by mountains, and with only a small population, it has had to be combined with large and distant cities. Some Tricounty legislative districts encompass parts of four, five or even six counties.
The other reason is demographic diversity, with some of the richest and some of the poorest addresses in New Mexico, with lots of military retirees, conservative ranchers and liberal activists, as well as Hispanic land grantees and Pueblo Indians.
Two candidates—incumbents in different House districts—have had sharply contrasting experiences with partisanship. Jim Smith, a Republican seeking re-election in House District 22, says he plays down partisanship during his campaigns in order to appeal to voters of both parties. But in Santa Fe he was pressured by Republican leaders to toe the party line rigidly. “As a candidate I’m trying to get votes from both parties,” he says, “but in Santa Fe you do what you are told to do, and I don’t do that.” He gave this example: As chair of the House Voters and Elections Committee, he backed a bill to move from closed to open primaries, a system in which voters can participate in any primary no matter what their party registration. The bill failed, but afterwards he received a critical letter from the Republican Party saying, “That is not the party’s position.”
Meanwhile, Democrat Matthew McQueen said he has had the “totally opposite” experience. While he has found campaigns to be strongly partisan, in Santa Fe, partisanship dissolves, at least among House Democrats. He gave as an example a Democratic caucus on whether to restore capital punishment: “The leaders said vote your conscience.”
Individual interviews with the eight candidates, supplemented by campaign websites, blogs, Facebook and other social media, newspaper and TV reports, and the voting guide of the Central New Mexico League of Women Voters all contributed to the following summaries of the candidates’ biographies and positions on major current issues.
Senate District 39
Elizabeth Stefanics, a Democrat completing her second term as Santa Fe County commissioner, is running in Senate District 39, against Ted Barela, a Republican who served as mayor of Estancia and was appointed to the Senate by Governor Martinez. With voter registration running 57 percent Democratic, the six-county district represents the Democrats’ best chance anywhere in the state to pick up an additional Senate seat.
The district has had an interesting history. Stefanics represented it for one term in the 1990s. Then she was defeated twice by Phil Griego, who served for 18 years before being forced to resign last year and getting indicted on corruption charges. His trial is pending. Governor Martinez appointed Barela to fill out Griego’s term.
Stefanics, who holds a doctorate from the University of Minnesota, held senior state positions dealing with healthcare during the Richardson administration—as Human Services Department deputy secretary and director of the New Mexico Health Policy Commission—before joining the Santa Fe County Commission. She is 68 years old and lives near the village of Cerrillos.
Barela’s trajectory has been quite different. A 50-year-old resident of Estancia, he has devoted his political career to his home town, where he served for 10 years as a town trustee before becoming mayor. He has been one of the foremost boosters of the annual Punkin Chunkin festival and entered four cannons this year. He has made his living in construction, with 26 years for the state Department of Transportation and currently as projects manager for Bohannan Huston, a civil engineering company.
Entering the Legislature in April 2015 was a bit of a shock to him. “How the game of strategy really is, the biggest game of strategy I’ve ever been involved in, I never expected that it’d be that intense,” he mused. For the most part, the two candidates follow the sharply diverging positions of their parties. Stefanics wants a substantial increase in the minimum wage because “no one who works full time should live in poverty,”while Barela says the minimum wage “was never intended to be a living wage” and is skeptical of the value of having any minimum wage at all.
Stefanics opposes resuming executions and Barela favors it.
To close the budget gap over the next couple of years, Stefanics would like to defer corporate tax cuts and close tax loopholes, while Barela wants to reduce regulations and cut state spending, with tax increases “only a last resort.” Stefanics adds, “I believe in progressive taxation … and economic fairness.”
On abortions, Stefanics is pro-choice, Barela pro-life.
Stefanics supports legalizing recreational marijuana while Barela opposes it.
But both agree on some other issues. They talk about the need to spur economic development in one of the poorer areas of one of the nation’s poorest states. Increasing broadband internet availability is one idea they both favor. Both support creating a state ethics commission. “My No. 1 priority is getting people to work in New Mexico, giving them opportunity,” Barela says, and Stefanics largely agrees.
Stefanics, who was New Mexico’s first gay legislator and was married in Santa Fe County’s first gay wedding, says she has been told that Barela is attacking her personal life in his mailings. “I’d never do that,” Barela responded, adding, “I made a reference to her wife having a conflict of interest.” Stefanics said in an interview, “If you refer to my private life, please emphasize that I intend to serve all the people.”
While Stefanics backs Hillary Clinton for president, Barela has soured on Republican Donald Trump. “I’m having a really hard time with what I’m seeing,” he said. “I’m having a hard time getting behind him.”
Senate District 19
Politically, Senate District 19 is exactly the opposite of Senate District 39. It is predominantly Republican, and has been so for many years. The incumbent, Republican James White from Albuquerque, was, like Barela, appointed to the post by Governor Martinez to fill out the remainder of a term. In this case the seat had been long held by Sue Wilson Beffort of Sandia Park. After Beffort resigned, the governor named White in September to fill out the final weeks of her term.
One of the difficulties the candidates mention is the problem of appealing to a diverse audience in a district that is 60 percent rural and 40 percent urban.
The Democratic candidate is Harold “Spike” Murphee, a Democrat from Sandia Park.
While this is Murphee’s first bid for public office, White served previously in the House but voluntarily left due to his wife’s illness.
One of the intriguing angles to this contest is that both candidates are retired U.S. Air Force pilots, a fact that Murphee said they discovered only recently. Murphee, who has a master’s degree in international relations, also taught political science at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. White has a master’s in systems management.
Murphee strongly opposes the current emphasis on teacher testing because “I don’t believe that teacher effort determines the result.” White, on the other hand, supports it.
White describes himself as “pro-business” and would like to cut corporate taxes and regulations, eliminate some higher-education campuses and simplify the gross receipts tax. He said his main interest in the Legislature is “the budget part. It’s what I really enjoy doing.”
Asked how the state should close its yawning budget gap, Murphee confesses, “I don’t have all the answers” but mentions money to be saved from ending testing. White wants to “reduce state spending.” To improve the state’s economy Murphee suggests expanding broadband internet access and improving education to bring more businesses into New Mexico.
They agree on allowing doctor-assisted suicide and creating a state ethics commission.
Consistent with their parties’ positions, they take opposite sides on legalizing recreational marijuana, reinstating capital punishment and raising the minimum wage.
Like Barela, White is uncomfortable with his party’s presidential nominee. Concerning the presidential race, he says, “I try to avoid that. … I don’t like either candidate.”
House District 22
Republican Jim Smith of Tijeras has held the House District 22 seat since 2010, and has led something of a charmed political life with little opposition in the intervening six years. This year he faces his toughest competition, from John Wallace of Placitas, who ran unsuccessfully against Smith two years ago.
Wallace says he has learned some lessons form his 2014 defeat and this time is pursuing a different strategy, focusing less on door knocking and more on phone calls and mailers. He describes the district as 42 percent Republican, 36 percent Democratic, and 22 percent of voters with no party affiliation. As in the Senate district, the Republican margin has been slipping as more voters become independent or support a third party. The two districts overlap geographically. The Sandia Mountains sever the district geographically and politically, with the Democratic candidate haling from the west side and the Republican from the east side.
The careers of both candidates have been linked to education, Smith’s as a teacher at Moriarty and East Mountain high schools, Wallace’s as a social studies school teacher and staff assistant for the Albuquerque Teachers Federation.
Wallace’s No. 1 priority is “funding education adequately.” This year the Legislature has made substantial cuts in both public schools and higher education. He advocates spending the hundreds of millions of dollars in unused capital funding to stimulate the economy. He is also “OK with raising taxes.”
Smith’s top priority is “charter school reform and accountability.” He also stresses the area’s need for better broadband connectivity and wants to work with universities to establish a statewide network modeled on one in Nebraska, a similarly rural state. Another priority is a law prohibiting texting while driving, something another candidate, Jeremy Tremko, a Republican running in House District 50, also feels passionately about.
Smith is in favor of resuming some executions, which Wallace opposes.
Using the identical words as Barela, Smith criticizes the minimum wage as “never intended to be a living wage.” Wallace, on the other hand supports raising the minimum wage.
On other hot-button social issues, the candidates are on opposite sides on legalizing recreational marijuana but both are open to possibly legalizing physician-assisted suicide.
Wallace tries to tie Smith to the Republican Party’s troubled presidential candidate: “My opponent is on record as supporting Trump.” He adds about the presidential race, “I’m not sure if it will have an impact on my race. I hope it does.”
However, Smith said, “I’m on the fence. I don’t like at all his [Trump’s] verbal attacks and the sex stuff, but I’m still nervous about Hillary.”
House District 50
Matthew McQueen, a Santa Fe attorney and resident of Galisteo, is the Democratic incumbent seeking re-election in House District 50. He is opposed by newcomer Jeremy Tremko, a Republican who operates the Tremko Karate Club in Moriarty.
Tremko only squeaked onto the ballot by the narrowest of margins. After a challenge by McQueen, a number of his petition signatures for the Republican primary were disallowed and he was initially ruled ineligible. Two identical signatures on different petition pages were both thrown out, leaving him one signature shy of the minimum. On appeal, a judge allowed one of the signatures, giving Tremko the bare minimum he needed.
First elected in 2014, McQueen has found his legislative debut difficult. “You have to vote on everything,” he says, “everything from education to the death penalty, things I hadn’t been involved in or thought about.”
He has focused on conservation, serving on the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Interim Water Committee.
Unlike many Republicans, Tremko is not anti-union and wants the state to help unions train construction workers.
Like Stefanics, McQueen wants to “return progressivity” to the tax code by increasing upper income taxes and also to reverse corporate tax cuts that are still being gradually implemented.
The two candidates strongly disagree on capital punishment. McQueen opposes it but Tremko said,“I
agree with it 100 percent.”
McQueen says it is “just crazy” that office holders who are convicted felons like the recently convicted secretary of state can receive pensions. He proposes that candidates for secretary of state—like Supreme Court and Appeals Court judges and Public Regulation commissioners—be eligible for public campaign financing.
The minimum wage, he says, should be increased to at lest $10 an hour because “a full-time job shouldn’t leave you in poverty.”
The candidates seem to have some common ground on legalizing recreational marijuana. Tremko said, “I need to see more facts” before making up his mind. McQueen is “open” to the possibility but first needs to have questions answered about how to keep it away from children and what to do about impaired driving.
The most intense position of Tremko, a motorcyclist who knew fellow cyclists killed by inattentive motorists, is to get the state to ban texting while driving.
The candidates have passionately diverging views of Trump. “I’m appalled. He’s a horrible person,” McQueen said.
But Tremko said, “I’ve always supported him. I supported him since I was in Iraq in the military.”
Tremko spent nine years in the military, including 15 months in Iraq as a member of a quick reaction force that saw a lot of combat. He wasn’t aware of Trump’s criticism that veterans got PTSD because they were “frail” people. When told of the remark, Tremko responded, “I have PTSD myself. Nobody can know what you’ve been through.”