May 25, 2018

Independents look to buck history, win legislative seats

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Photo via Flickr by Erik (HASH) Hersman

Outside the New Mexico State Capitol on Thursday morning a small group of men and women gathered to spread the word that candidates should not need an R, D or L after their names to win a race. The group also hoped to reach the almost quarter of New Mexico voters not registered with a particular party and show them not everyone has to choose from established major-party candidates.

Buenos días de Dios. I’m Tweeti Blancett,” one of the candidates called to about a dozen people outside the Roundhouse, “I’m running for state representative for District 40 and I’m an independent.”

Blancett is a rancher from northern New Mexico and a former Republican legislator.

Blancett’s campaign announcement also helped launch Unite New Mexico, a local partner of Unite America. New Mexico is the fourth local partner of the national organization, which advocates for “people over party” and independent political candidates. For years, an increasing number of registered voters have shed their association with major political parties.

Unite New Mexico co-chair and former Democratic state legislator Bob Perls said political cynicism and the fact that many state legislative candidates are running unopposed in their primaries or the November general elections show a need for more candidates.

Perls, who served as a diplomat with the U.S Foreign Service and more recently founded the advocacy group, New Mexico Open Primaries, was known to vote against party lines as a legislator. He said on Thursday that influence from the Republican and Democratic parties and special interest groups have a major effect on candidates.

“As a candidate if you’re not 100 percent with the trial lawyers, or your not 100 percent with the unions, or you’re not 100 percent with the chambers of commerce or the extractive industries, you’re garbage and your tossed aside,” Perls said. “They don’t want compromise, they don’t want somebody that can build common ground.”

Unite New Mexico announced two of their endorsements for the legislature, both from northern New Mexico, about a month before the deadline for independents to file for the ballot. Blancett, a self proclaimed environmentalist, said she has clashed with the oil and gas industry as a Republican rancher. Now an independent, one of Blancett’s platforms is to stop letting  legislators vote on how their own districts are drawn.

“That’s like the fox guarding the henhouse,” Blancett said.

An independent redistricting commission has been proposed in the past, but never gained traction in the Roundhouse.

If Blancett turns in 270 valid nominating petition signatures by the end of June she will be the only general election opponent for the Democrat who wins the district’s primary next month.  The district’s current representative is Democrat Nick Salazar, who announced his retirement this year after serving for nearly half a century in the state House. Salazar’s district spans from Pecos to the Colorado border and includes towns like Wagon Mound and Angel Fire.

In House District 50, Jarratt Applewhite is running as in independent to represent the area that stretches from rural communities just south of Santa Fe to the Manzano Mountains.

Applewhite said he left the Democratic Party a decade ago when he saw both Democrats and Republicans “leaving their moderate members in the dust.”

Applewhite, also advocates for open primaries and an independent redistricting commission. According to his website, Applewhite is a “true fiscal conservative” gun owner who believes global warming is real and “mostly caused by human activity.”

“I am an alternative to the tired, two-party system that is degrading our democracy,” Applewhite said.

State law dictates different requirements for candidates to qualify for the ballot depending on their political registration. In District 40, for example, the three Democratic candidates had to collect 100 fewer signatures than Blancett. In Applewhite’s race, incumbent Democratic Rep. Matthew McQueen had to turn in only 75 signatures from registered Democrats who live in his district, while Applewhite needs 311 signatures from any registered voters, regardless of party affiliation.

According to Perls, no New Mexico legislator has ever been elected as an independent. Former representative Andy Nunez was originally elected as a Democrat and registered as independent while he was still in office. Nunez eventually registered as a Republican.

Perls said the current system discourages more candidates from running. When asked about avoiding an overly-long list of candidates in a local race, Perls responded by asking, “When’s the last time we had, four, five, six people running for the state House or the State Senate?”

Last year in Albuquerque, about a dozen candidates ran in the city’s nonpartisan mayoral race, which led to a second run-off election. A similar situation played out in Santa Fe this year, except the capital city used its newly approved rank-choice voting system instead of holding a second election.

Perls said more races should be like Albuquerque and Santa Fe’s municipal election, creating more competition and giving voters more choices.

Perls added that any requirement to get on the ballot should be “very minimal.”

“In my mind the right number for ballot signatures is zero,” Perls said.