May 18, 2020

Progressive Democratic challengers want new voices in the state legislature

District Senate 38 Democratic candidate Carrie Hamblen got a boost last week in her bid to defeat incumbent state senate candidate and President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen.

That’s because the race narrowed to two candidates – Papen and Hamblen – last week when healthcare professional and entrepreneur Tracy Perry dropped out, citing health reasons. Hamblen, who was the morning radio host for National Public Radio local member station KRWG for 20 years, would have likely split the more left leaning Democratic voters in District 38 with Perry. But Hamblen said the race is now, “more of a challenge for Senator Papen.”

Perry’s name will remain on the ballot.

Hamblen is one of seven progressive Democrats running for state senate seats in the upcoming June 2 primary against a group of more conservative-leaning Democrats. Although they are not a monolithic group – state Sen. Richard Martinez has support from a teacher’s union and a medical cannabis company, for instance. But several are long-time legislators with backing from oil and gas and other pro-industry groups. A win for these mostly first-time women candidates who are ideologically left running to defeat these mostly male Democrats who lean more to the right could be a shift in New Mexico politics, according to political analyst Lonna Atkeson, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico.

“The two things we don’t talk about (in New Mexico) are abortion and immigration,” Atkeson said. “In New Mexico, it’s complex because it divides the (Democratic) party. We tend to stay away from the culture issues because they are divisive. Is there a place for conservative values in the Democratic party or are they (conservative Democrats) not their voters anymore?”

Most of these challengers are talking about reproductive healthcare and have made abortion access a key part of their campaigns.

The more conservative Democrats in the state senate now fending off primary contenders sided with their Republican colleagues and voted against HB 51 in 2019, a bill which had Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s support. Had HB 51 passed the state senate, it would have repealed  a 1969 state law that banned abortion, except if a woman’s life is in danger. With the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling on Roe v. Wade, that state law has been unenforceable for nearly 50 years.

But abortion rights advocates believe that the law now puts the state’s abortion access in a tenuous position. Since the appointment of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018, many believe that in just a few years, the highest court in the land will overturn Roe, which would make New Mexico, a state that currently stands out for maintaining abortion access, one of the most restrictive.

Related: With a health care crisis under way, New Mexico could be critical for abortion access

Hamblen said Papen’s vote on HB 51 was key to her decision to jump into the race. Hamblen said the old law leaves “women to be vessels,” and that this “shouldn’t be something politicians meddle with in the first place.”

“We need to do our part to protect women and healthcare providers,” Hamblen told NM Political Report.

Papen did not return repeated calls for comment. But during an interview last week with Walt Rubel and Peter Goodman on the Las Cruces-based community radio station KTAL-LP 101.5 FM, Papen said she supports Roe v. Wade and that she rejected HB 51 because it included later abortions.

“I don’t support that,” she told KTAL listeners.

Atkeson said that if the challengers do win, it would provide new information and, perhaps, a new direction for the Democratic party within the state.

“That would tell us there’s a real shift in the Democratic Party in rural areas. That would be interesting. Is the Democratic Party a big tent or are there litmus tests to choices? The Democratic Party historically has attempted to be a big tent,” she told NM Political Report.

Hamblen’s race is a little different from the other six in that Senate District 38 includes the state’s second-largest city, Las Cruces.

A poll conducted in February by Planned Parenthood of New Mexico, which supports abortion rights, found that more than 80 percent of those polled in Senate District 38 want to keep abortion legal and 84 percent believed women should have access to affordable abortion care.

The last time Papen faced an opponent in the primary was in 2000 when she first ran. She defeated Republican opponents in the last two general elections and in 2008 Papen ran unopposed. In April she started with $51,979.95 already in the bank. She has raised $96,500 according to her last two campaign filing reports and has $64,430.69 left in her campaign account.

Hamblen has raised $36,941.59 since she entered the race in June 2019. An important difference between the two candidates is that much of Papen’s contributions come from industry, including a $2,400 donation from Chevron and a $3,250 donation from Conoco Phillips. Hamblen’s campaign funds are largely small donations from individuals who live in the district.

But Hamblen and some of the other challengers are getting financial support and endorsements. Planned Parenthood Votes New Mexico IE Committee, one of the organization’s political action committees, reported raising $122,500 in the last four weeks and spent $16,193.26 on a variety of state congressional races as of May 4. Another Planned Parenthood PAC called Planned Parenthood Votes New Mexico Coordinated Committee donated $622.50 for digital ads in support of Hamblen’s campaign. The Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club, New Mexico Working Families, Conservation Voters of New Mexico and political action committee Forward Together Action, and other progressive groups have all endorsed Hamblen. 

Planned Parenthood Votes New Mexico has also spent $622.50 on digital ads to support challengers Leo Jaramillo, who is running against Martinez in Senate District 5; Siah Correa Hemphill, who is battling Democratic incumbent state Sen. Gabriel “Gabe” Ramos in Senate District 28 and Pam Cordova, who is trying to unseat Sen. Clemente Sanchez in Senate District 30.

Marshall Martinez, New Mexico field director for Forward Together Action, said that in addition to endorsing Hamblen, his group also endorsed Cordova and Noreen Kelly, who is challenging state Sen. George Muñoz, also a Democrat and vice chair of the Senate Finance Committee, for Senate District 4.

Martinez said that one problem for any challenger to an incumbent – name recognition – is not an issue for Hamblen.

“Talk to native Las Cruceans,” Martinez said. “They hear the voice and know her. You can’t be on a morning show for 20 years and not be well known.”

The personal is political

Neomi Martinez-Parra, who hopes to unseat long-time Senate Democrat John Arthur Smith for Senate District 35, told NM Political Report that she needed an abortion early in her marriage due to health complications. Smith’s vote against HB 51 was one of the major deciding factors in her decision to run.

“He does not have a uterus, but he’s making decisions about me and what’s right for me and my husband. There’s a lot of us that feel that way,” she said.

Smith, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said he has not heard from constituents concerned that he took that vote.

Cordova, a retired educator, said that after Sanchez’s vote on HB 51 in 2019, she and a group of residents in her district called a meeting with the state Senator to discuss his vote with him. Sanchez chairs the Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee.

“It’s not okay for a politician to make deeply personal, heartbreaking decisions for us (women),” she said.

Sanchez did not respond to calls requesting an interview. Sanchez’s district is one-quarter tribal land in the northwest corner of the state.

Noreen Kelly, who is Navajo (Diné), said that during the 2019 legislature, she and others from Senate District 4, which is largely Navajo tribal land, tried to meet with Muñoz but that he didn’t make time for them.

Muñoz said he makes it a priority to see constituents and isn’t sure why the meeting didn’t take place.

Connie Trujillo, a nurse-midwife hoping to unseat Democrat state Sen. Pete Campos for state Senate District 8 said Campos’ vote against HB 51 “was sort of the decision maker for me,” to run. Trujillo feels Campos has turned a blind eye to the need for obstetric care in the district, particularly in Las Vegas. Trujillo established her own obstetric clinic for about a year to improve care. Campos, who has been endorsed by the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club, did not return a call.

For Rio Arriba County Commissioner Leo Jaramillo winning will mean losing money at his job at Los Alamos National Laboratory while sitting in the legislature. Jaramillo announced his candidacy shortly after Martinez was convicted of aggravated DUI late last year. Martinez did not return a call.

Siah Correa Hemphill, an educator in Silver City who is opposing Ramos for a district that covers Grant and Catron counties and part of Socorro County, said that as an educator, seeing so many kids in emotional crisis led her to attempt to unseat Ramos who is running for the first time. Lujan Grisham appointed Ramos to his position to replace Lt. Gov. Howie Morales.

Lujan Grisham announced Wednesday she is endorsing Correa Hemphill in the race.

When asked what he heard from his constituents after he voted against HB 51, Ramos told NM Political Report that his constituents have thanked him.

Money in the campaign

Some of the seven Democrats facing the progressive challengers in the upcoming primary have received significant backing from industry, particularly the oil and gas industry. While several $7 donations came in from miners for Ramos last year, another donor, Houston-based Occidental Petroleum, gave $5,000 to his campaign.

Muñoz, a businessman from Grants, loaned his campaign $100,000. His campaign’s $112,318.22 closing balance for May dwarfs the $17,615 Kelly has raised so far.

Muñoz defended the difference of scale and financial backers by saying “business is what makes the economy turn.”

New Mexico Strong, a Chevron-based PAC, spent $376,472 on Papen, Ramos, Sanchez, Muñoz and Smith over the last few weeks. Tripp Stelnicki, spokesperson for Lujan Grisham, suggested on Twitter that the Chevron-backed PAC had gone too far in its messaging in a mailed advertisement that showed a photo of both Ramos and Lujan Grisham next to each other.

Stelnicki called the ad “deceptive.”

The PAC sent mailers with several other incumbents alongside the Democratic governor.

The progressive Democratic challengers have received financial support, too. Sen. Martin Heinrich’s Facebook page hosted a live event Wednesday to discuss the upcoming primary with suggested contributions for Correa Hemphill and Cordova. Heinrich’s spokesperson, Aaron Morales, did not respond to a request about how much money the online effort raised.

The Enchantment PAC, which gave small donations to candidates Hamblen and Martinez-Parra, had an opening balance of $168,720.25 and spent a total of $21,400 in recent weeks. No Corporate Democrats, a PAC made up of a coalition of left-leaning organizations, had $25,170.95 as its closing balance in early May.

The Associated Press reported earlier this week that the National Institute for Reproductive Health Action Fund is devoting at least $30,000 to Kelly’s campaign. Kelly said she was unaware of this support. A spokesperson for NIRHAF, based out of New York, did not confirm the amount but said the organization is supporting Forward Together Action, which endorsed Kelly, as well as Cordova and Hamblen.

Other left-leaning PACS that have donated money to some of the progressive candidates include Conservation Voter New Mexico and NM Working Families Party Pac, but the amounts range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand.

Atkeson said that with the amount of money behind most of the incumbents, they would be hard to beat. Added to that is the restriction put on the main strategy for challengers – shoe leather by going door to door – because of the recent stay-at-home orders to slow the spread of COVID-19. Hamblen said she works the phones every evening. Jaramillo said he’s been using Snapchat to try to reach younger voters. Most said they have turned to Facebook, Zoom and other social media platforms, as well as phone banking, to reach voters.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has put other challenges on campaigning for some.

Trujillo said she has had to pick up extra shifts at an Albuquerque hospital due to the pandemic, which has given her less time for social media and phone outreach. Kelly mentioned the difficulties of running a primary race in western New Mexico, the hardest-hit area. Lujan Grisham eased restrictions on the stay-at-home orders around the state except for tribal lands in the state’s northwest corner, because residents there have been hit the hardest with the number of cases of the respiratory disease.

Related: Navajo mom feels the magnitude of the coronavirus

Can a grassroots candidate win?

When asked if women may respond in this New Mexico primary the way they responded in the 2018 congressional races, voting in more women and grassroots candidates than ever before, Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains said through an email that 77 percent of New Mexico residents, including in rural areas, believe a woman should be able to access abortion care.

Hamblen said she is undaunted by the amount of financial support Papen has garnered. She said that what she hears repeatedly is that it’s time for a change.

“You don’t have to spend as much money to have reach,” Hamblen said. “There are people in this community who believe I should be the next candidate and they’re using their networks.”

Another thing that sets Hamblen and Papen apart is longevity. Papen has been in office for 19 years. Hamblen said that if she is elected, she’ll run for two terms only and groom a Latina to try to follow in her footsteps. According to the U.S. Census, Doña Ana County is 69 percent Hispanic or Latino.

“I’m not the face of this district and Senator Papen is not the face of this district,” Hamblen said.