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Oilman’s money at root of GOP family feud

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Mark Murphy, a Roswell oilman and mega-donor to Republican Party candidates and causes, is again at the center of a squabble within the GOP.

Murphy, his wife and their companies made $10,400 in campaign contributions to Ruidoso builder Jim Lowrance in his bid in the Republican primary election to unseat state Rep. Zach Cook, a Ruidoso lawyer, in House District 56.

The Murphys and their companies gave another $50,000 to a newly formed political action committee that supported Lowrance, as well as $12,500 to a second PAC that aided Lowrance and other candidates.

Cook, a member of the House of Representatives since 2009, easily won the primary in June despite the avalanche of Murphy money. Cook’s campaign spent more than $40,000.

Four years ago, Murphy, his companies and a related PAC contributed more than $400,000 to two Roswell Republicans in their bids to unseat GOP state legislators. One of the Murphy-backed candidates won; the other lost.

In a recent letter to members of the GOP state central committee, Cook wrote that state Republican Chairman John Billingsley had supported the candidacy of Lowrance, former party chairman in Lincoln County.

“My opponent’s campaign was apparently endorsed and funded by our own party leadership at a time when our state party is doing nothing to help defeat Democrats,” Cook wrote.

Billingsley – a retired businessman from Alto, a former Lincoln County GOP chairman and ex-campaign manager for U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M. – said he is a friend of Lowrance but said he didn’t recruit him to run against Cook or support his candidacy.

Billingsley, through a spokeswoman, declined to be interviewed further about the Cook/Lowrance race and his relationship with Murphy.

In a telephone interview, Murphy said Billingsley is a friend but that Billingsley didn’t ask him to support Lowrance.

“He might have been as surprised as anyone,” Murphy said.

Murphy, who said he has spent time in Lincoln County since a child and owns property there, said he and his wife met Lowrance in February and were impressed by the businessman.

“We need more people like him in the Legislature,” he said. “We have enough lawyers.”

Murphy said he also objected to Cook’s support of a gross receipts tax approved by Lincoln County voters in 2010. A maximum of $750,000 generated annually from the tax hike is being used to offset the gambling tax bill of the Ruidoso Downs horse-racing track and casino.

Track and casino owner R.D. Hubbard had threatened to close the operation if the tax deal wasn’t approved. Cook co-sponsored the state law that allowed for the tax increase.

Lowrance billed himself in the race as “a true conservative.”

Cook was appointed to the Legislature by then-Gov. Bill Richardson to fill a vacancy. He had been recommended by the Lincoln and Otero county commissions.

Cook was endorsed in the primary by the New Mexico Association of Commerce and Industry but is the only Republican in the Legislature to receive a contribution ($5,200) so far this year from the state trial lawyers PAC.

Cook was an early supporter of GOP Gov. Susana Martinez in the 2010 election. The governor endorsed him, along with all other House Republicans, for re-election, a Martinez spokesman said.

Murphy and Martinez

Murphy and his companies contributed at least $30,000 to Martinez in 2010, and he later served on a Martinez transition team.

Murphy has donated just $500 this year to the governor’s re-election campaign, but he said that is a reflection of her multimillion-dollar campaign treasury and her lead in the polls over Democrat Gary King, the state attorney general.

“I am still fond of the governor and wholeheartedly support her election,” he said. “I think my time and money will be better-spent on the party and the conservative cause if I focus on legislative races.”

All 70 seats in the state House, now controlled 37-33 by Democrats, are on the ballot in the November general election. Republicans are making a major push to reduce the Democratic majority or take control.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Thom Cole at tcole@abqjournal.com or 505-992-6280 in Santa Fe. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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