Supposedly, Bernalillo County Democrats are flaming mad about the current state of affairs in Washington, D.C., and are geared up, actually more than years past, to defeat Republican Heather Wilson this November. After all, she is a special case, because unlike most incumbents, she's vulnerable. They say Wilson is a phony like George W. Bush—she says she's for jobs, health care, environmental protection, education and supporting the Bill of Rights, and blah, blah, blah, but when you look at the record, all that rhetoric is just a sham. In reality, she's more like a sycophant in Dick Cheney's court than an independent, genuine New Mexican. And enough is enough!
Except, while this ire might actually exist and even be well placed, there is a problem. Wilson has whupped the Democrat challenger four times in a row, going back to the special election in 1998, when our well-respected, moderate Republican congressman Steve Schiff died of skin cancer.
To make matters worse, there are 1.5 registered Democrats in Albuquerque to every registered Republican. Somehow, remarkably, the Dems' losing record makes this seem like a disadvantage. But as the old Will Rogers saying goes: "I don't belong to an organized political party, I'm a Democrat." And if that sounds funny, that must be because it's true.
But in the spirit of America, on Tuesday, June 1, the Democrats have yet another chance to pick a possible winner. Will it be Richard Romero or Miles Nelson? The answer, perhaps, will rest in the partisan voters' perception of who is best positioned to beat Wilson. In fact, while core Democratic issues such as expanding health care, improving education, strengthening Medicare, protecting the environment, consuming yourself with anxiety that lunatics are running the asylum, so to speak, in Washington and Heather Wilson is Nurse Ratchett, and so on, resonate from both candidates, they are an obvious contrast in style, perhaps simplified as: money (Romero) versus message (Nelson).
June of 2002 marked the education of Richard Romero as a congressional candidate. Back then he had recently announced he would challenge Wilson in the coming months. He had just completed 10 years in the New Mexico Senate, building a solid progressive voting record on practically every issue. In a well-publicized political battle, and with aid from Republicans, Romero supplanted Manny Aragon as floor leader. He served as principal and assistant superintendent at Albuquerque Public schools for 30 years after being raised in downtown Albuquerque. He figured he was well known as a pragmatic, experienced centrist, would be popular among veterans since he served in Korea with the U.S. Air Force and would draw a broad range of support across the city. And, he's Hispanic, just like more than 60 percent of registered Dems in the city.
Then two things happened: Just six months before the 2002 election, a poll showed his name identity among likely voters at a dismal 27 percent, compared to Wilson's 90 percent. On top of that, while at the same time he had $54,000 in his campaign chest, George W. Bush came to town and pulled in 400 people at a $1,000 a plate fundraiser for Wilson. Overnight, she had $400,000 in the bank. Six months later, Romero out-polled Wilson on election day, but lost in a landslide when the absentee ballots were factored in. The lesson here, Romero said, was that he lost when the first absentee ballot was cast 40 days before election day; however, once people knew him, he gained momentum and support that he is going to capitalize on this time around.
"It doesn't do any good if you have the world's best message, but don't have the money to deliver it," said Romero in an interview with the Alibi last week. "It sounds crass, but unless you have the money, you can't do it," adding: "I can tell you, people certainly recognize me now."
So, not surprisingly, Romero has been forthright that he is raising money diligently, and campaigning as much as he can in between during this year's primary season. If that really was his greatest weakness two years ago when Wilson won by nearly 19,000 votes, he is now hell-bent to rectify the problem.
In 2002, Romero said the sting of 9-11 and the perception of President Bush as a strong leader in combating terrorist threats drowned out any discussion on domestic and local issues. Today things are different, because the issues are still defined by the White House, but the advantage is now to the opposition, he said.
"I'm not a fan of what Bush has done," Romero said. "They've screwed up the war in Iraq—the whole thing is a mess. Ask yourself what has gone well for the Republicans in the last three years. Nothing at all."
So Romero rattles off the bulging federal deficit, says the Medicare bill "will bankrupt us," and No Child Left Behind is good legislation but under-funded. He says Wilson "has screwed up" dealing with veterans benefits and criticized her for voting against a Christmas bonus for troops in Iraq, two days before voting to give herself a $5,400 salary increase. "Accountability is certainly something the public wants," he adds.
But clearly it's a winning financial strategy that prevails in Romero's mind, more than talking the issues, because he says 12 years in public office define him on every topic, including helping to pass Gov. Richardson's tax cut, which he says would not have made it through the state Legislature without his leadership.
He has also won among party officials, with endorsements from Richardson, Attorney General Patricia Madrid and Lt. Gov. Diane Denish as well as labor unions that include the teachers' federation, which translates into a fundraising edge against Nelson. Interestingly, local pro-choice groups like Planned Parenthood and NARAL New Mexico have also endorsed Romero, putting their own brand of political wisdom behind the idea that Romero is better positioned to oust Wilson than is Dr. Nelson.
Miles Nelson, on the other hand, is all about message. Nelson champions his work as an emergency room doctor, his community activism as the co-founder of the local advocacy group Citizen Action that works to clean up nuclear waste at the labs and the energy efficient, straw bale home he built with his wife in the East Mountains.
During the only publicly broadcast debate, on 89.9 FM KUNM earlier this month, his ability to articulate progressive positions on health care, foreign policy, the environment and education was roundly praised by attendees. Romero, it seemed, did not appear as passionate and inspirational, and at times, seemed scripted.
"I'm speaking up about what I believe in," said Nelson in an interview with the Alibi last week. "It's everybody's responsibility to do something about the Republicans' harsh view of the world. Heather Wilson is part of the problem, she is vulnerable and she needs to be taken out."
When asked about the importance of fundraising, Nelson said his campaign has funds for television and radio advertising and a pervasive, citywide yard sign campaign. He has augmented his advertising with an active personal outreach campaign that he says includes one of the best political websites you'll ever see and several hundred active volunteers. His website was designed by a volunteer for free and his campaign headquarters near Coal and I-25, a 2,700 square feet location, also came as a donation.
When asked if he had done any polling in the district to see if the outreach is working, Nelson said: "I don't need a poll to tell me I need to work harder. The poll will be on June 1, and that's the only one I care about."
Nelson's appeal, like his campaign strategy, is decidedly grassroots, although he plans to spend $20,000 on television ads in the last week of the campaign. For a political neophyte, it seems, Nelson matches his seriousness with homework on how to make the campaign competitive. "Name I.D. is something you buy," he concedes. Interestingly, late last week, Romero decided to drop $60,000 on TV ads that attack Wilson and Bush, but don't mention Nelson. Nonetheless, it's a clear sign that Romero isn't taking Nelson's efforts lightly and has given up the idea that he can squirrel away money for the general election.
When it comes to the issues, Nelson's positions are intimately detailed on his website (www.nelsonfornewmexico.com), which will serve him well if the estimated turnout of 35-40,000 voters is using the Internet to aid their decision. In addition to a feature called "Heather Wilson's Rap Sheet" that itemizes a list of the congresswoman's legislative "dirty deeds," Nelson calls for universal health care coverage for all Americans, repeal of the Patriot Act, transforming Sandia Labs into a source for renewable energy development, promoting peace around the world, protecting civil liberties, repealing the death penalty, repealing the Bush administration tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, repealing the No Child Left Behind act, allowing senior citizens access to prescription drugs from Canada, and so on. In contrast, Romero's website (www.richardromeroforcongress.com) has no rap sheet on Wilson, just a banner ad saying "Defeat Heather Wilson and Her Rubber Stamp." Nor does Romero's Internet presence offer a list of his positions on any issues. It does, however, provide his fundraising numbers and list of endorsements—and that's about all.
"I'm not bending over backwards trying not to offend somebody," said Nelson. "I'm speaking up about what I believe in. Comparing Richard Romero's website and mine is like comparing him and me. It talks about his connections and money he's raised and that's about it."
Meanwhile he says the "Goodbye Heather, Hello Miles," slogan might not come with a laundry list of policy positions, but it's capturing the anti-Wilson zeitgeist among prospective voters. "You can't underestimate how badly people want her to go away," he said. "That's powerful."
Eli Lee heads the consulting firm Soltari Inc. and is considered to be one of the more (or perhaps only) savvy local political advisors working with progressives.
Although Lee said he is not working for either candidate and admits to giving a campaign contribution to Romero, his perspective on the electorate is revealing. Voters in the Democratic primary, a meager 20-25 percent of registered Democrats in the district, will be mostly over the age of 50, he said. The candidate who utilizes the best scientific methods available, such as polling data and focus groups, to capture the interests of these voters will have the best chance of winning he said, and, chances are, these Democratic primary voters are as likely to get their news from KKOB 770 AM as they are from KUNM. Lee surmised that the only publicly broadcast debate will not have much affect on the outcome. "Don't forget," he said, “’Wheel of Fortune' is the most popular show in America."
Doug Turner, an Albuquerque Republican who ran Gary Johnson's gubernatorial campaign in 1998, said Romero's name recognition and strong support from the Democratic machine give him an almost insurmountable advantage. All in all, Turner said, if this truly is a hotly contested seat, it has attracted comparatively little public attention.
"I think this primary is a dud," said Turner. "I haven't seen or heard anything aside from occasional yard signs. Romero's gotta come out of the primary big. If he doesn't, then he's toast (in the general election)."
When asked who he thought Wilson would prefer to run against, Turner said, "probably Romero," because she can recycle at least part of the research and winning strategy used two years ago.
As for all this fiery opposition to Wilson, "I don't know what gives them that impression," Turner said. "I don't see it. I don't think at the end of the day people are going to blame the economy and war on Iraq on her."
Former Republican Gov. Dave Cargo said he's been watching the race closely and noted the political dynamics coming from Santa Fe are giving Romero behind the scenes assistance. Namely, because Manny Aragon is now a finalist for the soon-to-be newly appointed president of Highlands University and Gov. Richardson holds sway over the final decision and has endorsed Romero, it's not likely you will see Aragon working against Romero in the South Valley, where Romero hopes to pick up strong support from Hispanic voters. This Cargo said spells a big advantage for Romero.
"With two equally qualified guys, the Hispanic is going to win, especially here in Albuquerque," said Cargo. "Nelson is getting signs out and he's an attractive candidate, but he's got too much against him."
Cargo also said Wilson would "probably" prefer Romero as her challenger, because he's a familiar foe, but he didn't think Wilson would have an easy time in the general election either way. "She has the disadvantage of being closely aligned with Bush and Cheney in Iraq, and you don't know what's going to happen in Iraq."
Nor does anybody truly know what is going to happen on June 1, especially considering Nelson is a spirited, energetic newcomer, while Romero has yet to carry himself with the swagger of a winner, and above all else—it's the wayward Bernalillo County Democrats we're talking about—anything is always possible.
Besides, Eli Lee concedes that political consultants are no more than well-researched speculators, at best qualified to make an educated guess to what the voters think. "The longer we are in this business," he said half-jokingly, "the more we learn that we have no idea what the electorate is thinking."