ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In his speech after winning the Democratic nomination for governor in Tuesday’s primary election, state Attorney General Gary King told supporters, “We worked hard to get here, but I think the real hard part of the race starts tomorrow.”
It was an understatement from an understated man.
King received about 44,000 votes in the five-way primary for the gubernatorial nomination; he’ll need something close to 300,000 votes to defeat Republican Gov. Susana Martinez in November.
King does have some things going for him: nearly 200,000 more registered Democratic voters than Republicans, experience (12 years in the state House and eight as AG), education (a Ph.D. in chemistry and a law degree), a Mr. Clean image, name recognition and being the son of three-term Gov. Bruce King and Alice King, an advocate for children and families.
What King isn’t is a great communicator.
And that adds to the difficulty of the task he faces: Defining himself as a successful attorney general while the better-financed, better-organized Martinez campaign continues to promote the image of him as a bungler.
King describes himself as humble, someone who lets his work speak for itself. “We do our work in court; we don’t do our work in the press,” he told a news conference in 2011.
King doesn’t like to toot his horn – he’s actually a saxophone player – but he needs to start blowing it to have a chance at unseating Martinez.
His low-key nature has allowed others to help define him. Good guy but plodding and ineffective as attorney general is a popular theme, even among some Democrats. That image certainly played a role in his last-place finish at the pre-primary Democratic Party convention.
The Martinez campaign issued a statement Tuesday night that said King had failed to lead as attorney general and his record “is one of incompetence and failure.”
It hasn’t helped that state Democratic Party Chairman Sam Bregman has acknowledged calling King the worst attorney general ever. Bregman’s comment came prior to his becoming party chairman and while, as a lawyer, representing a defendant in a DWI-related case brought by the AG’s Office. Bregman’s client, a former State Police officer, was acquitted.
King says he has been more aggressive in pursing public corruption than any other attorney general, but he hasn’t effectively made that case, given that one major government corruption case never made it to trial and that another major case resulted in a no-contest misdemeanor plea by one defendant and dismissal of charges against three others.
King’s record as attorney general is also far broader than corruption prosecutions. It ranges from fighting Internet crimes against children to environmental protection litigation, from battling a horse slaughter plant to helping homeowners avoid mortgage foreclosures.
To counter the negative image of him, King needs money, and he needs it quickly – before Martinez can reinforce that image with a barrage of TV ads. As of May 27, his campaign had less than $76,000 in the bank. Martinez had $4.2 million.
New Mexico’s limits on the size of campaign contributions, enacted after the last gubernatorial election in 2010, will make things difficult for King. Donations to gubernatorial candidates for the general election are capped at $5,200 each.
King has raised more than $900,000 for his gubernatorial bid, but about $340,000 of that came from personal money he loaned his campaign.
Working in King’s favor are his travels around the state as attorney general to hold community meetings on good government, safe schools, prescription drug abuse and more. He is personable.
Also, New Mexico is a blue state, with Democrats accounting for 47 percent of all registered voters. Republicans are at 31 percent and independents at 19 percent. Of course, New Mexico has a fair share of Democrats, especially in more conservative parts of the state, who are willing to cross party lines.
The last two failed Democrats for governor – in 1998 and 2010 – received at least 46 percent of the vote. Bruce King got 40 percent in his failed bid for a fourth term in 1994, but that was a three-way race.
King could be starting the race within shouting distance – although not likely whispering range – of Martinez.
“We know there is work to be done,” King said in his victory speech Tuesday evening.
Another understatement from an understated man.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Thom Cole at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-992-6280 in Santa Fe. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.