One of the key districts New Mexico Republicans need to take the state Senate back sits just north of Albuquerque in Rio Rancho, where incumbent Democrat John Sapien faces GOP challenger Diego Espinoza.
Sapien, an insurance salesman who is running for his third term, won both the 2008 and 2012 elections on narrow margins—by just 121 votes and 161 votes respectively.
Sapien’s latest challenger, Espinoza, has so far outstripped him in fundraising, gathering roughly $153,000 as of press time compared to Sapien’s $126,000.
Both speak of job creation as the top priority of their candidacies. But each have different solutions.
Espinoza, a program director for CSI Aviation, cited his support for a “right-to-work” law and a promise to review existing regulations and see which ones work and which ones don’t as a means to make New Mexico a “business-friendly state.”
“Whether it’s the [gross receipts tax], unemployment or workers comp, these things are hampering us every day,” Espinoza said. “We need to figure out how we’re going to draw in on a broader tax base.”
On economic development, Sapien pointed to one project in progress: the expansion of the Paseo del Volcan highway in Rio Rancho and the west side of Albuquerque.
Sapien said the completion of the highway expansion will give “opportunity to bring in thousands of jobs” to the area.
“It gives Rio Rancho opportunity to actually have the egress of major highway,” he said. “Right now it’s very landlocked.”
Sapien also doesn’t support oil and gas drilling in his district until Rio Rancho has “a proper ordinance” in place that would ensure water and the surrounding environment are protected. He criticized Espinoza for taking “tens of thousands of dollars” from the oil and gas industry.
The topic became controversial in Rio Rancho when the state gave Oklahoma-based company a permit to drill exploratory wells near city lines last fall. The company, SandRidge Energy, pulled out earlier this year before Sandoval county commissioners voted on whether to award a zoning change to allow industrial activity, then announced its own bankruptcy.
In an interview, Espinoza chided Sapien opposing a “right to work” law, which would make so-called “fair share” payments to unions from nonunion employees as a condition of employment illegal. Republicans have pushed hard for right-to-work since Republicans took control of the state House of Representatives two years ago.
Fair share payments are meant to cover the cost of a union bargaining for employees covered under union benefits, whether they’re active union members or not.
Organized labor, which typically supports Democrats in elections, is adamantly opposed to right to work laws. Sapien noted that right to work bills have never come to any Senate committees he sits on, so he hasn’t had a chance to vote on the issue.
But he added that such laws create “winners and losers” in other states.
“I’m not convinced that it is the be-all and end-all of why New Mexico is not seeing economic development,” Sapien said.
Espinoza also criticized Sapien for currently voicing support for reinstatement of the death penalty after voting in 2009 to repeal the death penalty. Espinoza also noted that Sapien joined all Democratic senator in voting to adjourn the special legislative session earlier this month before taking action on a death penalty bill.
“He had his chance and he didn’t do it,” Espinoza, who supports bringing back the death penalty for people who kill children and law enforcement officers, said.
Sapien acknowledged his 2009 vote but said he’s since altered his stance “given the challenges we face with attacks on law enforcement and children.”
Sapien said he now supports the death penalty in those two instances.
“My constituents have been in support of reinstating,” he said, “so I would voice my constituents in a vote.”
As for voting to adjourn the recent special session before hearing a bill that would bring back the death penalty in these instances, Sapien said the special session was called to fix a nearly $600 million state budget deficit.
Sapien also cited the cost to taxpayers for holding a special session, which are estimated to be $50,000 a day when both the House of Representatives and the Senate are operating.
“It’s all about priorities,” Sapien said. “We’re facing a donut hole in budget that is equal to or potentially greater than we faced during the recession in 2009. The crime side is very important, but is better addressed in the regular session, which begins three months from now.”
Like many Republican candidate in New Mexico and across the country, Espinoza would not comment on whether he supports Donald Trump for president.
“I’m not here to endorse anyone for president,” Espinoza said. “Whoever I’m voting for, that is up to me,”
Espinoza also would not comment on recently leaked audio of Trump saying women let him “grab them by the pussy” because he is famous.
This didn’t stop Sapien from linking his opponent to the controversial Republican presidential nominee.
“I find it interesting that everywhere you see a Trump/Pence sign, you see a Diego Espinoza sign,” Sapien said. “The fact that he didn’t denounce Trump for his comments on Latinos and women is quite telling.”
Correction: A previous version of this story reported that the Sandoval County Commission was considering awarding a drilling permit to SandRidge. They in fact were considering awarding a zoning change to allow the drilling. We regret the error.