Challengers come out swinging in races against established state senators
By Marisa Demarco and Simon McCormack
State legislative seats aren't always as hotly contested in the primaries as they are this year. Campaigns are spending a lot of money, and a host of challengers have jumped in, guns blazing, to contest longtime state senators.
Four Albuquerque Democrats are calling out Democratic seat-holders and, in one case in the Duke City, a Republican is bringing the fight to a Republican senator. After June 3, the usual battles between the two parties will resume. But in the meantime, plenty of money and energy will be spent by these candidates vying to become their parties' lead horses.
Josh Geise, executive director of New Mexico's Democratic Party, says the increased intensity points to a high level of interest from candidates and activists, which corresponds with the public sentiment that the country's way off track. Geise says he's confident the Democrats will at least maintain the majority in both legislative bodies.
Plenty of the Democratic races in Albuquerque have strayed toward the ugly. "I get disappointed when I hear personal attacks unrelated to issues," Geise says. "I would urge all of them to have a healthy debate on where they have policy differences." Still, Geise says, competition is fine, and he's sure the party will reunite once the primaries are over. Strong primary contests raise awareness of legislative seats, he adds. "People don't know a lot about their legislative candidates or their Legislature when they don't have to go through competitive races," Geise says.
Scott Darnell, spokesperson for the Republican Party of New Mexico, says it's a tremendous priority for the party to pick up a few legislative seats before 2011, when the Legislature will redraw district lines. "We don't anticipate that the Democrats are going to redistrict things nicely or fairly."
That may not happen in the Albuquerque area. In seven Bernalillo County districts, there is no Republican in the race. "We were very aggressive in recruiting candidates, yet we were also very realistic," Darnell says. Part of the problem is that New Mexico's is a citizen Legislature. "You're asking people to make a very strong commitment to serve and to go through a tough campaign generally in order to get there," he says. Republican strongholds in southern and eastern New Mexico are easier places to find people to man posts, he says. "One thing's for sure," Darnell asserts, "we will make ground in this election cycle and pick up a number of seats."
Darnell and Geise agree that the Legislature often makes decisions that directly affect the lives of New Mexicans—sometimes even more so than federal offices like the presidency. "That's another exciting thing about legislative races," Darnell says. "You get to be very close to the people and hear their concerns most directly."
Sen. John. C. Ryan vs. Robert Kevin Sikes
District 10—Republican Primary
Sikes describes his rival, Sen. Ryan, as a lobbyist and as a politician who lacks true conservative values. The latter part of the accusation comes because of Ryan’s vote in favor of embryonic stem cell research in the last two legislative sessions. We called Ryan multiple times for his response and to find out about his policy positions, but he never got back to us.
As for labeling his opponent a lobbyist, Sikes points out that Ryan worked for Real Turf and Putting Greens as a consultant charged with securing federal contracts for the company. Ryan left Real Turf after two months, but he sponsored a bill that gave $500,000 to the company for athletic fields. At the time he proposed the bill, Ryan was no longer working for Real Turf.
District 10 includes the upper North Valley, including Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, as well as parts of Rio Rancho. Sikes says he’d like to see another bridge built across the Rio Grande. “There are more river crossings in Española than there are in Albuquerque, and that doesn’t make sense,” Sikes says. “Paseo del Norte was shut down in March, and it put a stranglehold on our district.”
Sikes would also like to see the Rio Puerco restored. “The river has a bunch of seasonal streams that a hundred years ago ran year round,” Sikes says. “If we eliminate invasive species, work together with state and local governments and take a holistic approach, we can create a vibrant landscape.”
Sikes says another big reason he’s in the race is because he’s disappointed with Ryan’s performance. “It doesn’t make sense to have a lobbyist who’s also a senator,” Sikes says. “I’m just not real happy with the guy we have representing us.”
Sikes describes himself as a religious conservative, and he admits there’s not a lot of money behind his campaign. He refinanced his house to cover $7,500 worth of campaign expenses and has received slightly more than $500 in contributions.
Sen. Linda M. Lopez vs. Michael Padilla
District 11—Democratic Primary
This South Valley-based battle finds Sen. Lopez up against political newcomer Padilla. Lopez has held her district’s senate seat since 1997. Padilla grew up in the South Valley and was the founding director of the call center for Albuquerque's 311 information line.
Lopez has drawn Padilla's ire for what he calls "her absolute failure as a senator." Much of his criticism stems from Lopez' chief sponsorship of a $629 million tax incentive bill for SunCal, the company that purchased the 57,000-acre Atrisco Land Grant on the West Mesa. The bill, which did not pass during this year's legislative session, would have helped SunCal build up parts of the South Valley. "SunCal has had several lawsuits brought against it because of money it owes to other cities," Padilla says. "This was a developer tax giveaway bill."
Lopez defends her sponsorship on the grounds that the bill will bring sorely needed jobs to the area. She also says SunCal has promised to build infrastructure first, which is something both Lopez and Padilla say their community needs. "By agreeing to be a sponsor of the bill, it has given me access and a place at the table to talk with the developers," Lopez says. "Because of this, I can better understand what's being planned and how it will affect my community."
Lopez says she would make sure there was adequate funding for teachers and staff of neighborhood schools. She would also vote for more money and greater accountability for various substance abuse programs. To help accomplish her goal of making neighborhoods safer for children and the elderly, Lopez says she would provide more after-school activities and fund programs that give care to the elderly in their homes. That way, Lopez says, many senior citizens wouldn't have to travel to seek medical attention.
Padilla says he wants to look at the tax structure to see if South Valley residents are paying their fair share to Uncle Sam. He would consider pushing for lower taxes if he felt his constituents were being asked to give too much to the state.
Padilla also wants to put pressure on developers to set aside areas where retail stores can open. "We have to drive substantial distances to purchase things like groceries and clothing," Padilla says. "That drives up the cost of living."
Lopez says she's raised about $43,000 for her campaign, and Padilla reports having accumulated roughly $10,000 from contributors.
Sen. James G. Taylor vs. Eric Griego
District 14—Democratic Primary
Sen. Taylor spent the last four years in the state Senate and the prior 10 in the state House of Representatives. Eric Griego is a former city councilor who ran for mayor against Martin Chavez in 2005 and lost. He's the executive director of N.M. Voices for Children.
Taylor says this district is a particularly diverse one, including portions of Albuquerque, the South Valley, Valencia County, Isleta Pueblo and the East Mountains. He says he wasn't surprised by Griego's challenge for his seat. "I figured he's politically ambitious and he wants to get his name back in the ring," Taylor says. "I don't want to be mayor of Albuquerque. I want to be the senator representing District 14."
Griego says he was born in the district and that Sen. Taylor has spent his time in the state Legislature supporting corporate development like SunCal. "I think he's been incredibly effective on behalf of big corporations," Griego says. "But I don't think that's who he should be working for."
Taylor says his top three issues include: continuing infrastructure projects; finding a solution to health care in New Mexico; and improving the quality of education in his district. His biggest public service achievement, he says, is that he's been accessible to his constituency.
Griego's top priorities are: ethics reform in the Legislature, including campaign contribution limits for candidates and an independent ethics commission; health care reform; and education, including increased teacher pay. He's most proud of his work as a councilor on the public financing of elections in Albuquerque.
The race hasn't really been heated, says Griego, though he expects it will begin to simmer this week. Taylor says he would just like people to vote, period.
So far, Griego says he's spent $60,000 on his campaign, with much of that money coming from small donations of $50 or less. He expects to have spent somewhere closer to $75,000 before the race is over. Taylor says he's spent $40,000.
Sen. Dede Feldman vs. Carlos Cordova
District 13—Democratic Primary
Sen. Feldman has represented North Valley residents in the Legislature since 1997. Her challenger, Cordova, is a retiree who spent 20 years as a computer specialist with Indian Health Services.
Cordova levels harsh criticism at Feldman when asked what he thinks of his opponent. "I'm not sure what she's done," Cordova says. "Energy prices are still high. Housing prices are climbing. She hasn't done anything for me."
For her part, Feldman stands by her legislative record and says she doesn't know much about Cordova. "He hasn't put forth his platform or issues," she says.
One of Feldman's top priorities as a legislator has been health care reform. The senator says she's worked to limit the ability of insurance companies to turn down people with pre-existing conditions and has helped to provide access to health care through a free nurse advice phone line. "I will continue to protect safety net services for low-income people through programs like Medicaid," Feldman says. "A more comprehensive health care program that brings together public and private efforts, cuts costs, consolidates programs and eliminates wasteful administration is my holy grail."
Cordova says his biggest issue is lowering property taxes. He would do this by implementing a law that would tax owners 1 percent of their property's value. "The tax would be based on what you originally paid for your property," Cordova says. "It wouldn't keep increasing every year like it does now."
Both candidates list alternative energy sources as an important component of New Mexico's future. In 2006, Feldman passed a solar tax credit for home owners, and in 2000, she supported a bill that required new state vehicles to be capable of using alternative fuels. “We need to do more to promote alternative energy so that we can remove dependence on foreign oil and create a more sustainable future.”
Cordova says, in addition to supporting funding for new forms of energy, he would like to investigate how PNM determines its gas and electric prices. "These costs are unjustified," Cordova says. "It's just me and my wife in the house, and we're still paying an outrageous bill."
Feldman's third priority is campaign finance reform, which she says is key to limiting special interests and creating a level playing field. She was a sponsor of the voluntary public financing system for the Public Regulatory Commission and the state courts. Feldman says that system should be expanded to all state campaigns.
Cordova, meanwhile, wants to focus on ensuring personal freedoms at the state level. "With the Patriot Act being passed, a lot of our rights are being eroded," he says. "I want to look into ways that we can make sure our present and future generations can be free from harassment."
There is a huge fundraising gap between the two candidates. Cordova says he's amassed less than $500, and Feldman reports she's raised $69,185.40 over the last year.
Sen. Shannon Robinson vs. Tim Keller
District 17—Democratic Primary
Robinson has sat in the seat representing Albuquerque's Southeast Heights for 20 years. The last time he was challenged in the primary by a Democrat was 1992. His challenger, Tim Keller, is heavily involved in neighborhood nonprofits and served as a ward chair for the Democratic Party of Bernalillo County.
Robinson says the main issue of this election is whether Democrats will be able to control the Senate during the redrawing of district lines. "I'm a loyal Democrat," he says. "Keller has switched parties recently, and loyalty's not his strong suit."
Keller says when he was 18 and in high school 10 years ago, he was a Republican. In 2000, he became an Independent, and he re-registered as a Democrat when he came back to Albuquerque two years ago. He was changed by experiences in Cambodia, he says, when he worked to help land mine victims get job training in technology.
Keller's priority issues are: revitalizing the East Central corridor from San Mateo to Tramway; improving health care for low-income individuals and immigrants; and improving education in his district.
Robinson also responded to reports in the Journal that said he failed to report 38 misdemeanors on his questionnaire. He says all the violations are parking tickets. He's also come under fire for using a legislative appropriation this year to pay for the UNM rugby program he oversees as an unpaid volunteer coach. "Kids, especially women, graduate from high school, and they could be all-stars in their sport. When they get to college, unless they're NCAA college athletes, they have nothing to do." He says rugby gives young females an opportunity to further their athletic careers.
Both candidates say the race has been especially brutal. Robinson says he will spend $50,000 before the race is over, and that's the most he's ever spent on a campaign. Keller says he's spent $60,000 so far.