The idea that the political class has overrun the political process is not a new one. It is however a theme that American voters—especially those in New Mexico Congressional District 3—will have to reckon with as the 2020 general election finally comes into clearer focus after Labor Day 2019.
In this nation, we have a long tradition of welcoming young people into American political culture through a process that begins in high school when certain students discover an affinity for the tools of governance, from rhetoric to the law. Tracked into competitive programs that may be athletic or intellectual—from team sports to the debate team or the law club—such students are certainly bound for college and typically see their education as yet more and fancier tools to achieve their ultimate goal: To one day be elected to public office.
After earning their undergrad degree, such acolytes either head to law school or—having already engaged in political apparatuses like those available in student government and institutional internships—end up working entry level jobs on a wide variety of campaigns, the political party of their choice or in assistive positions for members of Congress, state legislators or the courts.
On a strictly corollary note, this may be why most of the young people—say ages 18 to 25—encountered at political rallies of all stripes are usually staffers or volunteers committed to the system.
The competitive nature of such activities—learned through years of participating in mock-ups of the real thing—ensures that only those with fortitude will survive and potentially rise through the ranks to become fit for public office.
It’s an old story, but one that’s recently been supplanted by the notion that our leaders do better when they don’t come from the political class. In and of itself, this can be a dangerous idea to float around a republic that’s ripe for change. The presidency of Donald Trump is an example of how this idea can be bent to influence the electorate in ways that are detrimental to the republic.
This isn’t to say that the idea or its manifestation is necessarily or innately bad for democracy. Throughout the history of our nation, political mavericks have appeared to make changes and sometimes hew improvements into our shared system of governance.
In the huge outpouring of resistance and opposition to the current Republican administration, many different viewpoints and strategies have emerged as the left prepares to do battle with an entrenched right-wing that built its castle on the premise that only outsiders could “drain the swamp.”
A microcosm of this intense battle for hearts and minds can be seen while one follows the election up north. In District 3, the contest to replace longtime Congressman Ben Ray Lujan has turned into a veritable battle royale with as many as 11 Democratic candidates struggling to get to the top of a heap where they will fight a war with a lackluster Republican candidate whose main claim to fame is her horse-riding while flag-waving skill.
The first Democratic candidate to enter this particular horse race, though, was Joseph Sanchez, a freshman Democrat state legislator whose previous professional experience is as an engineer and project director for a rural electrical cooperative. Sanchez is a native son, but he’s not an entrenched member of the political class. Rather he has followed his instincts as they led him from electric power into state and national politics.
Weekly Alibi sat down with Sanchez last week, to get a better idea of who he is and what he represents in a crowded field that demands attention as the June 2020 primary nears ever nearer.
Weekly Alibi: Thank you for joining us, State Representative Sanchez.
Joseph Sanchez: Thank you.
Tell our readers a little bit about yourself and your candidacy, please.
I was born and raised in El Norte, but I did live here in Albuquerque for five years. I have my bachelor’s and master’s [degrees] in electrical engineering from UNM.
Okay. Go Lobos! My bachelor’s is from there, too.
I also have my MBA from State [New Mexico State University].
My mom and dad were Aggies! It sounds like you’re a true-blue Nuevo Mexicano.
Exactly. I represent everything that New Mexico is about. Like I said. I went through the public school system in Española. My father was a contractor who raised eight kids, five boys and three girls. My mother was a dedicated homemaker. We were brought up ranching and farming. We still run cattle. But I’m also a scientist, an engineer. I ran Jemez Mountains Electric [Cooperative].
I read that in regard to the latter, you’ve been involved in some new developments in the utility field, ideas and practices on the new frontier of renewable energy, so to speak. Please discuss.
Jemez Mountains Electric [Cooperative] was forward-looking during my tenure. Per our purchase power agreement, we were able to do 5 percent renewables. Right off the bat, when I got there, I started planning to do the full amount of megawatts that we were allowed to generate and transmit via renewables. I planned that for a year. We signed the Request for Application, we went through that whole process. Unfortunately, right after I left, the Co-op decided to go in a different direction. But my background is energy. I offer something that no candidate for Congress is going to be able to offer.
And what is that that, exactly?
I’ll be a leader in energy policy. I understand public utilities. I understand the underlying infrastructure. That’s my academic and professional background. I would consider myself an expert—the expert if I’m elected to Congress. That’s what separates me from every other candidate that’s running now. I have to ask, “What are they bringing to the table to differentiate themselves from any other candidate or elected official?” I see myself as someone who can drive real policy. A lot of people are pushing renewables as if you can just flip a switch.
And suddenly the state and ultimately the West will be using a new sustainable energy grid.
Exactly. That’s not how it works. There has to be a transition.
Honestly—I know the Governor and our current Congressional delegation have been very optimistic about that happening—but isn’t that transition going to take a lot of time and effort? Isn’t it a long-term project?
Yes. The big issue right now is storage. And that’s one of the things I really want to advance if elected. Developing new technologies and implementing them. I would like to really push the Department of Energy to really focus on those two areas.
And by storage, do you mean actually finding a way to store the electricity generated by wind and solar processes?
It’s not just about batteries. We have kinetic energy—flywheel technology—we have renewables that are capable of generating a lot of energy. But a lot of that energy is not used and ends up being wasted. If that energy could be stored. This is why at the generation and transmission level, we need to begin to build large-scale storage facilities. One of my ideas that myself and the people I work with have come up with involves using the San Juan Generating Station facility to create a storage area. That would sustain or create a lot of jobs. San Juan could be the premier storage facility in the Southwest.
And this is by way of transitioning from coal to wind and solar, right?
Exactly. This would happen as we transition to renewables to create a carbon-free system. I will bring that knowledge to the table.
Voters want to hear concrete plans. How are we going to accomplish this energy agenda?
We have a lot of data and ideas about that. A lot of pollution on this planet comes from Asia and from India. What if we worked to wean them off of coal with the objective of transitioning them to natural gas? That’s much cleaner. We’d eliminate about 50 percent of the pollution by doing that. This is a concrete solution to the carbon problem. It would be nice to flip a switch but that’s not possible. We have to take practical steps to reduce the carbon in the atmosphere now. I want to get us there.
What are your thoughts on the massive amount of state revenue that’s coming from oil and natural gas? Both of which, I remind our readers are non-renewable fossil fuels.
Here’s the big thing: We have to count on oil and gas right now, but we need a plan—and our governor is pushing for it—to transition our state out of that relationship. But the reality is that we really need that industry right now in New Mexico. The focus needs to be on doing it [using fossil fuels] as cleanly as possible, making especially certain that such operations don’t harm our water sources or our cultural sites.
What about oil leases on public or sacred land?
We must protect Chaco [Canyon] first and foremost. We shouldn’t be damaging any of our cultural sites for oil and gas [revenue]. But the reality is, right now, the oil and gas industry funds our state economy. Without that revenue, we might not be able to pay teachers what they deserve. So we have to create a parallel path.
Some of the candidates running in this race only have bare bones platforms, so far. What other policies, initiatives and political positions are going to be important to you and the other candidates in District 3?
Another huge thing for me is infrastructure. In the rural areas of New Mexico, we don’t have broadband [internet]. I have a plan for that. We have electrical cooperatives that serve a lot of rural areas in New Mexico. We need to support these cooperatives to push out broadband into those geographic areas. They already have an infrastructure and billing systems.
Are you calling for additional federal funding for rural electrical co-ops?
Yes, exactly. Let’s get the federal government to support the co-ops in their efforts to make broadband part of the services they provide to rural New Mexicans. Some co-ops in the state are already moving forward with this plan, but they’re doing it alone without federal assistance. The government should make an initiative to get broadband into rural areas. That is something that will also spark local economies. Jobs will be created to bring these communities broadband service.
What other initiatives would you like to lead?
We need better water infrastructure [in District 3]. I was talking to one of my neighbors who complained he can’t drink the well water. There’s too much arsenic in the water.
I’m aware that’s a problem in much of rural New Mexico. A friend of ours out in Chilili can’t drink from his well—too many minerals.
And they say Flint, [Mich.] has a problem! But this is happening in New Mexico, and it’s not a national news story. There are parts of the Navajo Nation that don’t have running water or electricity. Infrastructure issues like these should be of national importance. I want to do something about that. I was born here and I want to lift our state up.
I get it. Why should people vote for you in the primary election next spring?
I think I stand out because on day one I’m going to be an expert—with a trained scientific mind—on energy and infrastructure issues. When I was running the co-op, it killed me when one of our customers was threatened with disconnection because I’m a native son, a man of the people who has lived and experienced the same issues as the people in El Norte. I’ve experienced a lot of that firsthand and there’s no one who wants to help this state and its citizens as much as I do.