Candidates for Senate District 39 have quite a bit in common. Republican Aubrey Dunn Jr. and Democratic incumbent Phil Griego both have ranches, they both switched party affiliations early in their political careers, and they both followed their fathers into politics.
“My whole family were Republican at one time,” Griego, 64, said. “My dad was on (Santa Fe) city council and was county chairman of the Republican party. He was very involved in politics and was able to work both sides.”
Dunn’s father, Aubrey Dunn Sr., was a Democratic state senator for 15 years, and Dunn Jr. was a registered voter with that party for some time.
“I was a Democrat until Bruce King lost the last time,” Dunn, 56, said. “When I decided to get active in politics in 1995 or ‘96, I decided to be Republican.”
Both candidates say they were heavily influenced by their fathers, and not just by their politics.
“The biggest takeaway I got from him was he got into public service was just that,” Dunn said. “He did it for public service and not for any other reason.
“Aside from that, integrity and honesty; that’s what comes through,” he continued. “Growing up, I remember being in a restaurant in Santa Fe and there were lobbyists there who tried to buy him a meal. My dad just sent it back and said, ‘I don’t do that.’ And I saw him do that throughout his political career.”
“My dad (grocer Tito Griego) was my best friend,” said Griego, CEO of American Surety Title Co. in Santa Fe.
“Every time I had a problem, we’d sit down and talk about it. He guided me as I grew up. He showed me how to treat people and showed me the importance of God and family. He gave me my principles socially, politically and spiritually.”
Politically, Griego said his father taught him three things.
“He told me don’t ever lie; you dance with who brought you to the dance, and that’s my district; and when you’re in an elected position, you don’t own it, you lease it. It’s up to the people to decide how long you’ll stay,” he said.
Griego has leased his seat in District 39 since 1997 and is an established figure in the Senate. During the last legislative session, he ranked second among lawmakers in the number of bills sponsored that were signed into law.
Many of those bills related to rural issues, a focus for him throughout his tenure.
“As a rancher, I understand the problems ranchers and farmers face,” he said. “When I go around the district, I talk to a lot of them and I understand the issues about water, the cost of a bale of hay and livestock. You understand, because you’ve done it and you’re doing it. … We speak the same language.”
Dunn, who grew up on an apple farm, got into ranching later in life.
“When I first got married, one of our goals was to own a ranch,” he said. “I bought my first ranch in ‘96, just got into it, and we learned as we went.”
Before that, Dunn was a banker, and he still does some consulting work in that field. He spent 10 of his 25 years in banking as president and CEO of the First Federal Bank in Roswell, and as recently as last year finished a stint as interim president of Valley National Bank in Española.
“I mainly got into banking so I could ranch,” he said.
One story Dunn likes to tell on the campaign trail relates ranching to politics. He said he’ll travel around his ranch and supplement his cows’ diet by dropping off cubes made of grains.
“When we go out and feed them, there’s always a group of cows waiting at the gate. I call those Obama cows,” he said. “They wait there for a handout, and become enslaved to the feed truck.
“It’s the same way with people. The ones that become dependent don’t do as well. They don’t look to feed themselves, but rely on the government.”
While Dunn and Griego may have similar backgrounds, they are miles apart in realigned District 39, which now extends from the western outskirts of Santa Fe east to Griego’s San Jose ranch in the north, to Dunn’s Mayhill spread down south in Lincoln County.
“It’s become one of the largest Senate districts,” said Brian Sanderoff, president of Research and Polling, which had a hand in the redistricting process. “It’s perhaps the most meandering district in the state and includes a good portion of San Miguel, Santa Fe, Torrance, Valencia and Lincoln counties and goes as far south as Ruidoso. In the past, it didn’t go nearly as far south.”
Sanderoff said District 39 lost portions of Los Alamos, Taos and Mora counties and picked up sections of Torrance, Valencia and Lincoln in redistricting last year.
The political makeup make-up of the district also has changed, though not dramatically. Sanderoff said.
“It’s always been a predominantly Democratic district and still is, but much less so,” he said. “It picked up Torrance and Lincoln counties, which are predominantly Republican. It used to be a safe Democratic seat, now it’s a lean Democratic seat.”
There were initial fireworks the race during the primary campaign season earlier this year. Dunn complained that a group with ties to Republican Gov. Susana Martinez spent money on behalf of Griego in Griego’s Democratic primary race against two opponents.
Sanderoff said he doesn’t envy either candidate having to campaign within the district.
“It’s never been known as a compact district,” he said, “but now it’s a very large and meandering district and would be hard for anyone to campaign in, for sure.”