It was probably the last normal Friday that citizens will experience for a while. Just before major announcements changed the ways that Americans live their lives and do their business here on Earth, representatives of the Democratic Party of New Mexico stopped by Alibi HQ to discuss all things political.
The subjects detailed that day by DPNM Chair Marg Elliston and new Executive Director Chelsey Evans ranged from the party’s pre-primary convention, held the previous weekend on March 7, to growing concerns about the state of the nation in the face of an oncoming pandemic.
More importantly, the interview marked a conscious effort by Weekly Alibi to further document the important women leaders and creatives in our midst. We felt that doing so during Women’s History Month would be an honorable way of celebrating the positive political power of women at the local level.
We were also very curious about the path that the Democratic party would take in the upcoming June primary, an election where New Mexicans registered as Democrats will make their choices for president known. Importantly, citizens will also be casting votes to send Ben Ray Lujan to the Senate to succeed Tom Udall.
Weekly Alibi has also been very curious about how the race for Congress is shaping up in District 3. Since this large congressional district in the north of New Mexico includes parts of Rio Rancho and Corrales, we’ve been keeping an eye on that race and wanted an update on the official side of things in the state Democratic Party before we endorse in this contest next month.
Evans and Elliston joined us just as the world was about to change, irrevocably and almost instantly, later that day. Here is a summary of what we talked about with the leadership cadre of the Democratic Party of New Mexico as elections loomed and a viral threat emerged here at home.
“We just had our pre-primary nominating convention,” Elliston said, as she began her discourse into what is current at DPNM headquarters. “To put that together required every county in the state to have their own meeting beforehand to provide delegates for the main meeting. Then we all came together, 1200 delegates met up in Santa Fe at Buffalo Thunder.”
When asked what she thought one of the most important highlights of that political gathering was and which act (actual or symbolic) best represented the ideals of the Democratic Party of New Mexico, Elliston was to the point, telling Weekly Alibi, “We had our outstanding leaders—that we elected in 2018—as the visible evidence of an enthusiastic Democratic Party.”
“Upon reflection, the type of effective leadership demonstrated lately by the state’s governor and congressional representatives in the face of our current national crisis was already on display during the convention, which now seems like the eye of a hurricane.”
Commenting on the governor’s and other Democratic leaders’ presence and capabilities, Elliston continued with her tale of the conference, adding, “She talked about many of the gains we’ve been making because of this year’s legislative session. Then we heard from Congressman Ben Ray Lujan. He was nominated to be the candidate for Senate by an enthusiastic throng of supporters.”
The Democratic Pre-Primary Convention is a tool that the state party uses to make an initial determination about which Democrats are going to be on the primary ballot in June. In an effort to simplify the process for Alibi readers—even if they may now be riding out the COVID-19 storm at home—we asked Evans to clarify the process. We hope that such will lead to more informed choices—whether you have to vote by mail or in person come this summer, when experts hope the pandemic will have subsided.
On that note, Evans told Weekly Alibi, “The way this works now is that they [candidates] had to file with the Secretary of State by Feb. 4 in order to take part in the pre-primary process. After that process is complete, we place those people on the pre-primary ballot. Delegates to the pre-primary convention, chosen at county Democratic meetings, then vote on those candidates to determine who will be on the ballot. There’s a 20 percent threshold.”
Before discussing the particulars of the outcome of voting at the pre-primary, the conversation briefly shifted back to what the Republicans were doing in their bid to take the Senate back from Team Blue.
Elliston reminded those present that, among contenders looking to face Lujan and then replace retiring Democratic Senator Udall, the Republicans had a couple folks looking at candidates.
“They have a couple of candidates that are running in their primary,” Elliston noted, before Evans filled in the details: “They have Elisa Martinez and Mark Ronchetti.”
“Ronchetti is a television weatherman,” Elliston concluded, before moving on decisively in the dialogue and describing the reasons why the state’s pre-primary is so important in shaping what to come politically.
Elliston said, “The pre-primary process is a statutory requirement in this state. And each political party is tasked with deciding who is going to be on the primary ballot. It’s kind of insider’s baseball, but it’s not, too, because we see a lot of involvement from communities all over the state.”
The convention also provides party leaders with the opportunity to observe and investigate the dynamics of the various candidates and their campaign organizations.
“We get an idea about prevailing trends,” said Elliston. “And the candidates who are seeking office do, too. We also get to see how organized they are, how capable of turning out they vote they are. The candidates that this process covers include congressional offices and statewide offices. This time around, the lead office was the Senate seat [being vacated by Senator Tom Udall] and then the US Congressional races.”
With that, the conversation turned to the Democratic race for Congress across three distinct districts in New Mexico.
“In both Congressional District 1 and in Congressional District 2,” Elliston recalled, “we have the incumbents, Deb Haaland from District 1 and Xochitl Torres Small in District 2.” Neither candidate will face opposition in the June primary, Elliston told Weekly Alibi.
But the case is very different in New Mexico’s northern Congressional District. District 3 has been a Democratic stronghold for many years. The current officeholder, Ben Ray Lujan, has held the post for more than 10 years (that’s five terms, folks!). Lujan, as one may recall, is seeking to take the seat in the Senate being given up by retiring New Mexico stalwart Tom Udall.
The result of Lujan’s proposed voter transfer to the upper house in DC caused a record number of Democratic candidates to seek out a place on this year’s primary ballot.
There were seven, to be exact. But only one, according to officials at the DPNM, made the ballot initially. Then our reporter reminded Elliston and Evans that one candidate, Teresa Fernandez Leger, received far more support than all the other candidates combined, garnering almost 42 percent of delegate votes at the convention.
Only one of the other candidates even hit the 20 percent mark. Laura Montoya, the Sandoval County Treasurer, garnered 20.47 percent of the vote in a filed where the rest of the field underperformed. But that doesn’t mean that candidates like celebrity Valerie Plame—who came in fifth, with just 5 percent of the vote—will be excluded from the June ballot. There’s an alternative method to get one’s name in print for the vote, it turns out.
Evans explained, telling Weekly Alibi that, “They can go out and get signatures from a petition drive. They need to have 4 percent of registered Democrats who voted in the last Democratic Primary and I think most of them have that already. There is a second piece to this, in that, if you don’t get 20 percent, you can go on if you get signatures from an additional 4 percent of registered Democratic voters in your congressional district who voted in the last primary election.”
The conversation then wound around to party politics, the presidential race and the current crisis. Elliston made it clear that COVID-19 is a real game-changer. With a solid sense of foreshadowing, this is what the leader of the state Democratic party had to tell us about what was then still solidly in the future: “This is going to challenge our methodology because we’re into building a grassroots base to power through the election. Having big events to focus on voter registration and to get folks excited has always been part of our plan.”
When asked if they have a contingency plan, should it come to that, Evans told our reporter, “I think we’re really excited about some of the online options. That’s not nearly as exciting as meeting in person, but we’re in really good spot. The Secretary of State in New Mexico has online voter registration. Plus it’s a real opportunity for us to test out social media platforms to engage with folks. For instance, we have a high school intern now, a 17-year-old who is really interested in getting other 17-year-olds (who will be 18 before the general election) registered to vote. We’re really engaging that population.”