March 11, 2016

Controversial ranch owner running for state rep

The New Mexico State Capitol, or Roundhouse Wikicommons.

The owner of a controversial ranch for troubled youth filed this week to run for state representative in southern New Mexico.

The New Mexico State Capitol, or Roundhouse, via Wikicommons.

The New Mexico State Capitol, or Roundhouse, via Wikicommons.

Scott Chandler, who runs Tierra Blanca Ranch in Hillsboro, is running as a Republican to replace retiring state Rep. Dona Irwin, D-Deming. Chandler’s name has come in the news often for the past few years, starting with an Amber alert New Mexico State Police made after raiding his ranch in 2013 after allegations of abuse and found nine missing teenagers.

“You can look at that and see what came out of that,” Chandler told NM Political Report. “We had tons of scrutiny and were thrust under the spotlight and nothing came out of it.”

At the time, Chandler said the nine children were on a hike and soon delivered back to their parents. Critics called the state police’s conduct a knee-jerk reaction that unfairly ruined La Tierra’s reputation. But Chandler and La Tierra have since been both hit with lawsuits alleging abuse and even torture multiple times over the years. At least two lawsuits against the ranch are pending, while a third was dismissed.

In an interview, Chandler pointed to the lawsuits he has filed in the aftermath of scrutiny, including a successful one against the state Children, Youth and Families Department.

“We sued them for violating parents’ rights,” he said. “They came in and broke all the china.”

Part of that settlement, Chandler explained, involved an operating plan allowing CYFD to monitor the ranch. Chandler said Tierra Blanca honored the agreement and CYFD chose not to renew it.

On the issues

Chandler described himself as a conservative, but added that he “strongly believes you need to really help people get up, get moving.”

He mentioned poverty in southern New Mexico, specifically the multiple generations of people in his district on welfare.

“You need to figure out a way for them to transition to work,” Chandler said. “You can’t just say, ‘Hey, go get a job.’”

Chandler had been at odds with Gov. Susana Martinez, whose state police raided his ranch amid the allegations of dangerous conditions at Tierra Blanca, which led to the Amber alert. He said he hopes their past clashes don’t get in the way.

“As far as I’m concerned I would be happy to bury the hatchet and move forward,” Chandler said.

He said his top issue is the economy and lack of jobs in the area. He maintained that agriculture is “the hub and strength of our area” and that the Legislature has to look at give more incentives to business in the area.

Chandler also said the federal government needs “step up to the plate on the border down here” and fix the “illegal immigrant problems,” mentioning that he was on his way to a ranch that “just got abducted down here.”

“We’ve got to solve those problems and encourage good immigration,” Chandler said.

In 2014, Chandler donated $200 to and hosted a meet and greet for state Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, who at the time was running for the Democratic nomination for governor.

That same year, Chandler also helped defeat legislation that would have put Tierra Blanca Ranch under state oversight.

Three other candidates also filed to run in the Deming district. They are Republican Vicki Chavez and Democrats Candie Sweetser and Frederick Sherman.

Tierra Blanca controversy

Last fall, Rolling Stone ran an investigation into the death of a teen enrolled at the ranch. The article describes mandatory exercise involving making the boys repeatedly run up and down hills carrying heavy rocks and Chandler sometimes cutting food rations as a means of discipline.

Bruce Staeger, a 16-year-old enrollee at the ranch, died in a car accident while coming back to the ranch one night from Chandler’s parents house. Though his death was an accident—another ranch resident was driving the truck and rolled it over after hitting a dirt road while Staeger sat in the open air back—the incident prompted the raid from state police that led to the Amber alert.

The article also details how kids allegedly would take matters into their own hands by beating Staeger when he was accused of stealing a wallet, which Chandler denied:

When beatings alone didn’t work, the boys grew more inventive. They hung Bruce from the horse trailer from his handcuffs; lassoed him and dragged him across the dirt; and put him in a sleeping bag stuffed with cow shit and kneeled on his chest. The worst of it, one boy told me, was the day they hogtied him to a pole by his cuffs and shackles and paraded him around camp like a pig on a stick, while other boys beat him.

Chandler calls the article “a bunch of junk” and “totally a mischaracterization of everything,” though he wouldn’t delve into specifics.

“You’re looking at the same magazine that made a hero out of El Chapo,” Chandler said, referring to a Rolling Stone story penned by Sean Penn after the actor interviewed Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, the notorious Mexican cartel leader.

Shortly after the Amber alert, he went on the TODAY Show and told Matt Lauer that “people don’t understand the types of kids we end up dealing with” and that they “have been through many programs in various stages.”

“When we go into a detention center to pick up a child who’s been court-ordered, that we stood before a judge or something to have him placed in our program, yes, we might have to put him in restraints,” Chandler told the TODAY Show. “That is actually very minimal of what we do.”

The state police’s raid and subsequent investigation into Tierra Blanca ultimately led to no charges of wrongdoing against him.

The Deming area leans Republican but has consistently elected Irwin and state Sen. John Arthur Smith, two of the Legislature’s most conservative Democrats, for years.