SANTA FE — Incumbent state Sen. John Sapien is facing criticism from his Democratic primary opponent, former state Rep. Ben Rodefer, that he is too cozy with big business and too chummy with conservative Democrats who hold sway in the Senate.
Sapien’s response? No apologizing for his down-the-middle record representing Corrales-based Senate District 9, one of the few true swing seats in the Albuquerque area.
“I’ve had a number of people tell me, ‘Senator, you’re doing a great job, and that’s why people want to run against you,’ ” Sapien said. “I don’t think this district will be best served with a far-left voice, and I don’t think it will be served with a far-right voice.”
Rodefer, a small-business owner who lives in Corrales, has cited past campaign contributions to Sapien from Walmart, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and other large companies in building his case that Sapien has not been loyal to core Democratic principles.
Rodefer, who was elected to the House of Representatives in 2008 but was defeated in his 2010 re-election bid by Republican David Doyle, also highlights Sapien’s vote in favor of a food tax measure in 2010. Rodefer voted against the tax increase, which was ultimately vetoed by then-Gov. Bill Richardson.
“He can’t claim he’s a better Democrat than I am,” Rodefer said of his primary election opponent. “It doesn’t play out in any arena.”
Sapien, an insurance agent whose father was a Sandoval County commissioner, has already responded to at least one of Rodefer’s criticisms.
After Rodefer challenged him last month to sign a pledge against the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative think tank, Sapien responded by denouncing ALEC and claiming he has urged State Farm Insurance, which he works for under contract, to reconsider its ties with the group.
Sapien also claims he has never been a member of ALEC.
For his part, Rodefer has said he should not be labeled a “progressive,” describing himself as fiscally conservative on certain issues, though he joined other progressives in helping lead opposition to a plan to pledge future state tax dollars for a giant development on Albuquerque’s West Side during the 2009 legislative session. “I’m not anti-business in any way, shape or form,” he said.
A poll released last month by Rodefer’s campaign showed Rodefer leading Sapien by 10 percentage points based on a survey of 300 likely Democratic voters in the district. However, Sapien has cast doubt on its accuracy by pointing out several polls conducted by the same pollster during the 2010 New Mexico election cycle — including one for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Diane Denish — did not come close to matching final results.
Meanwhile, Rodefer attributes Sapien’s seat on the h igh-prof i le L eg islat ive Finance Committee to the political spoils system.
Shortly after taking office, Sapien was one of eight Democrats who joined Senate Republicans in voting to re-elect Senate President Pro Tem Tim Jennings, a conservative Democrat from Roswell, to his leadership post. Jennings had previously angered some Democrats by recording a telephone message in defense of a Republican senator who later lost his re-election bid.
Sapien said his seat on the Legislative Finance Committee has given him a better understanding of the $5.6 billion state budget. He also said the connections he has made have helped him be effective: He sponsored eight bills that were passed by the Legislature in 2011 — though two of those were pocket-vetoed by Gov. Susana Martinez.
“I really believe that on the issues, I have best served constituents,” Sapien said.
A tough general election contest awaits whichever of the two emerges from the high-profile Democratic primary. That’s because Doyle decided to run for the Senate instead of seeking re-election to his House seat.
Though he was defeated by Doyle in 2010, Rodefer said that occurred during a year that favored the GOP and said he would be better able to bring out Democratic votes than would Sapien.
The district, which now encompasses all or much of Corrales, Placitas and Bernalillo, was held by a Republican for much of the past decade until Sapien scored a narrow victory over incumbent Steve Komadina in 2008.