Primary may shake up state Senate leadership in New Mexico

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico’s primary election is testing the political fortitude of several influential Democratic legislators who have resisted progressive initiatives ranging from recreational marijuana legalization to shoring up abortion rights and greater spending from a state education trust.

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In the election culminating on Tuesday, candidates backed by a coalition of liberal advocacy groups are challenging Democrats in key Senate leaderships posts, including chamber President Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces, Senate finance committee leader John Arthur Smith of Deming, Clemente Sanchez of Grants, George Muñoz of Gallup, and Gabriel Ramos of Silver City.

Those Senators broke ranks with a majority of Democrats in 2019 to uphold the state’s dormant criminal ban on abortion, as New Mexico warily watches efforts to overturn the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that made the procedure legal nationwide.

The primary insurgence is about more than women’s reproductive rights, said Eric Griego of the Working Families Party that is funneling support to progressive candidates in five Senate races.

He blames “corporate Democrats” in the Senate for watering down a House-approved version of the state’s 2019 minimum wage hike, narrowing a tax credit for working families and abandoning a bill this year to boost state health insurance subsidies to people on the cusp of poverty.

“They’re rationing funding on core social safety-net services,” Griego said.

The primary coincides with the state’s first major steps toward reopening the economy amid the coronavirus pandemic, as a special legislative session looms on budget and economic recovery matters on June 18. The pandemic response is expected to quickly wipe out state reserves despite more than $1.2 billion in related federal assistance.

Muñoz is a third-term Democratic senator and Gallup-based contractor who backed successful public pension solvency reforms this year. He said he helped preserve the state’s $18 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund so it can be used now to blunt the economic shock of the virus contagion.

“Right now, when we really need to have the money ... when the flood has come, we have an ark to get into,” Muñoz said. “I am more than willing to tap that permanent fund for specific uses.”

He's defending his seat from Democrat Noreen Kelly of Church Rock, a more progressive candidate and longtime advocate for improved public nutrition and food supplies who describes herself as a tribal elder on the Navajo Nation.

In other races, Senate President Papen was competing for the Democratic nomination for a sixth term against Carrie Hamblen and Tracy Perry, both of Las Cruces. Hamblen, CEO of the Las Cruces Green Chamber of Commerce, won praise from U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich on environmental conservation issues and as an advocate for LGBTQ rights.

Neomi Martinez-Parra of Lordsburg, a special education teacher and former vice chairwoman of the state Democratic Party, was challenging Smith, a longtime fixture in the Legislature and steadfast opponent of greater withdrawals from the state’s permanent funds and recreational marijuana.

Retired teacher Pamela Cordova of Belen was running under the banner “unbought and unbeholden” against Sanchez, chairman of a committee on corporate affairs, in a district that overlaps four rural counties west and south of Albuquerque.

Ramos, appointed in 2019 to fill a vacant seat left by Lieutenant Gov. Howie Morales, was fighting for political survival against Siah Correa Hemphill, who was endorsed by the governor and Heinrich. Ramos notably opposed red-flag gun legislation signed by the governor in the wake of the August 2019 shooting in El Paso, Texas.

In other races, Sen. Richard Martinez of Ojo Caliente, a former magistrate judge, was seeking a sixth term and an uncertain political future after being convicted and jailed for drunken driving after rear-ending a stationary car at a red stoplight in Española last year. Primary competitor Leo Jaramillo, a Rio Arriba County Commissioner and Española resident, has acknowledged a drunken driving conviction more than 20 years ago. The winner will take on Republican Diamantina Storment of Chama in the heavily Democratic district.

Democrats hold a 46-24 majority in the state House and a 26-16 advantage in the Senate.

Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce says his party is positioning itself ahead of the general election to challenge Democrats in Albuquerque swing seats and on new fronts in the city’s South Valley, Las Cruces and beyond.

He described support from the Republican National Committee in statehouse contests during the final election cycle before political redistricting decisions are made in 2021.

Physician and Republican state Rep. Gregg Schmedes of Tijeras is challenging incumbent state Sen. James White of Albuquerque in a district that extends eastward from Albuquerque into rural portions of Santa Fe, Torrance and Sandoval counties.