Progressives going after incumbents in hot Democratic primaries

By Justin Horwath, NM In Depth It’s a safe bet Democrats will barrel into 2025 with their supremacy intact at the New Mexico Legislature. Barring an unexpected shock during this year’s elections, Democrats’ stranglehold on power is assured. Going into the 2024 contests, Democrats control nearly two-thirds of all seats in the House and nearly […]

Progressives going after incumbents in hot Democratic primaries

By Justin Horwath, NM In Depth

It’s a safe bet Democrats will barrel into 2025 with their supremacy intact at the New Mexico Legislature. Barring an unexpected shock during this year’s elections, Democrats’ stranglehold on power is assured.

Going into the 2024 contests, Democrats control nearly two-thirds of all seats in the House and nearly three of every five seats in the Senate.

The question going into the June primary election is whether the party’s progressive wing will continue to increase power in the Legislature or will more centrist Democrats hold ground.  

This year’s effort by progressives is the latest in a long standing campaign, stretching back to the mid-2000s, to bring more progressives into the Legislature. In 2008, progressives successfully replaced a slate of centrist Democrats with newly minted candidates who are now political veterans, including the launch of current Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller’s political career, who joined the Senate that year. 

Because of this one-party dominance, the ideological fault lines within the Democratic Party have major policy implications on abortion, the environment, education and workplace issues like minimum wage and paid family and medical leave benefits. 

Progressive political candidates and committees have raised tens of thousands of dollars for bids to oust certain Democratic legislators in June’s primary election. 

New Mexico’s progressive political machine was buoyed dramatically in 2020 when insurgents unseated long-time Democratic incumbents viewed as more centrist or right of center.

The first campaign finance reports filed April 8 show progressive insurgents amassing thousands in contributions from individuals.  And the efforts of progressive independent expenditure committees will undoubtedly benefit their campaigns. 

Incumbents hold an advantage in corporate money, with energy, healthcare and hospitality interests giving big. They also enjoy support from their own colleagues in the Legislature; House Speaker Javier Martinez of Albuquerque, despite policy disagreements with more conservative  incumbents, pledged to back his fellow lawmakers facing intraparty challenges. 

Tim Krebs, a University of New Mexico political science professor, said Democratic incumbents who buck the progressive agenda have braced themselves for challenges from the party’s left flank since the 2020 elections. 

“We had that moment in time where John Arthur Smith and other conservative Democrats in the state and on the senate side were ousted from office,” Krebs said. “…you’ve got sort of liberal interest groups that want to support the Democratic Party and they want to flip seats in their direction. So they recruit candidates who can do that and challenge candidates who aren’t toeing the progressive line.”

A handful of top Senate Democrats with decades of legislative experience were toppled in the 2020 primary by insurgents angered by their votes against an effort to wipe away a dormant abortion criminalization law that predated the 1970s Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. The following year, Democrats successfully eliminated the law. 

Shown the door were former Senate Finance Committee Chair John Arthur Smith of Deming — a three-decade veteran known as “Dr. No” for his fiscal conservatism who voted against rescinding the old abortion criminalization law — as were Senate President Pro Tempore Mary Kay Papen, and senators Clemente Sanchez and Gabriel Ramos.

A progressive political action committee (PAC), Better Future for New Mexico, raised significant money in 2020, and is back in action this year.  In its first primary election filing, the group reported raising just $7,750 from four donors,  but began the year with more than $330,000 in the bank and has demonstrated in past elections it can raise considerable amounts. 

Better Future has been largely funded by out-of-state special interest groups, philanthropists, business executives and attorneys. It in turn funneled money to New Mexico-based groups to run political campaigns, a prime example of the phenomenon of “gray money” in which PACs give to PACs, who then give to other PACs, making it difficult to find out where the money comes from. 

Nick Voges, a consultant for the committee, said it supports other nonprofit groups or PACs aligned with its values. Voges said those values include protecting reproductive healthcare and gender equity; advancing “worker and people-centric policies” such as paid family and medical leave; protecting the environment; and gun safety laws. 

“The policies that are important to Better Future New Mexico and the independent community organizations that we work with are broadly supported by many New Mexicans and transcend political labels,” Voges said in an interview.

Olé, a progressive New Mexico-based membership organization that runs political campaigns, is one group that receives money from Better Future.

The group since 2009 has worked on issues such as immigration, abortion access, wages, housing and other causes. Its volunteer membership is currently vetting candidates to endorse for the primary cycle, said Executive Director Andrea Serrano. 

Serrano said Olé, which stands for Organizers in the Land of Enchantment, has helped elect state and municipal candidates who voted for minimum wage hikes, payday loan caps and abortion access protections. 

Top of mind for its members is the failure by two votes of the Paid Family Medical Leave Act during this year’s legislative session, Serrano said. 

“ … [W]hen there are lawmakers who are beholden to wealthy corporations, they are going to make bad choices that are going to harm New Mexicans,” Serrano said. 

The profiles of a candidate’s donors can matter in races. In District 70 in northern New Mexico, a progressive candidate is attacking an incumbent for taking corporate contributions. The incumbent says such contributions are unavoidable for a candidate who wants to win elections.

Anita Gonzales, deputy director of the Las Vegas educational nonprofit New Mexico Mesa, Inc., is trying to unseat two-term incumbent Ambrose Castellano, who voted against the paid family medical leave act this year.

It is her third attempt to beat Castellano. In both previous elections, Gonzales lost by fewer than 100 votes

This time around, she has a rare primary election endorsement from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. 

Almost all of the $31,000 raised by Gonzales came from individual contributions according to the Secretary of State’s data, except for $8,000 in March, which the governor gave her. 

She received $2,000 from the Karen F Grove Trust. Karen Grove is the chair of the Grove Foundation, a 501(c)3 nonprofit based in California that reported $94 million in assets in 2022. A spokesperson for the foundation noted that the trust is separate from the foundation.  An affiliated organization, the Grove Action Fund, a 501(c)4 organization, has funded Better Future in recent years with a large donation.

Gonzales said the governor’s endorsement means a lot to her but it doesn’t mean she will be duty-bound to Lujan Grisham’s agenda in cases where they may disagree, noting she’s running a grassroots campaign.  

“A majority of the campaign donations thus far are individuals — they are people that just are working to support me — in contrast to my incumbent who has had mostly corporate donations,” she said. 

Asked if the campaign would go negative, Neri Holguin, who is consulting for Gonzales, said, “We’re running against an incumbent and we’re making a case for why we think voters should fire him and hire Anita.” 

Holguin sent out an email April 16 announcing an ethics complaint had been filed with the State Ethics Commission alleging Castellano has misspent campaign funds for personal use over the past several years. 

“I’m not surprised to learn of this,” Castellano wrote to New Mexico In Depth in a text. “I welcome a fair and legal process but believe my campaign is in compliance with laws and regulation.”

Castellano, who works in construction, suggested Gonzales may be beholden to the governor’s agenda and pitched himself as an “independent voice” who will work to moderate urban progressive policies. 

For instance, Castellano said that while he favors paid family and medical leave as a policy, he did not support the 2024 bill because he would have preferred an initial opt-in program for employers before forcing them to pay into a fund. He cited businesses still suffering from the 2022 wildfires that ripped through parts of the district.

“Obviously, you know, I’m not a progressive; I’m a moderate Democrat. I don’t support a lot of bills that hurt small businesses or harm rural communities,” he said. 

Of the $48,500 raised by Castellano since last October, 80% comes from corporations, trade associations and lobbyists. Major corporations donating to his campaign include AT&T, Lovelace Health System, Pfizer, Altria; Anheuser Busch; Core Civic; BNSF Railway Co.; UnitedHealth Group and others, according to his campaign report. House Speaker Javier Martinez, who did not return a call for comment,  gave Castellano $5,500 and endorsed his legislative colleague. 

Castellano said that he has “gained the respect” of corporations participating in the legislative process because they know he will have a discussion with them about the issues. That does not mean he is indebted to them, he said, citing a vote to increase by 5% oil leasing royalty rates on state land. 

Castellano also argued that corporate money is unavoidable for incumbents. 

“What’s the difference between the governor’s PAC, which gets money from out of state, or any other legislator that gets money from out of state?” he said. “ I’m no different.”

Krebs, the University of New Mexico professor, said that often, progressive challengers have successfully attacked an incumbent’s donor base, especially if the money comes from outside the district or state. But it is rare for a challenger to reject those same contributions once in office.

“Is she going to say, ‘No I’m not going to take that money?’” Krebs asked if Gonzales wins.

Gonzales said any corporate money she takes would have to align with her values. For instance, Marathon Oil donated $5,000 to Castellano in November. Gonzales said she would reject a contribution from Marathon Oil, and pledged to reject campaign contributions from all oil and gas companies. The same is true for payday loan companies, she said.

But not all corporate contributions are bad, she said. Juno Beach, Fla.-based NextEra Energy pitched in $1,000 to Castellano’s campaign in June. NextEra is one of the largest renewable energy developers in the U.S. — and it has projects in New Mexico. Gonzales said she would consider taking a contribution from the Juno Beach, Fla.-based company.

“The way our system is, in order to afford campaigns you do need dollars,” Gonzales said.

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