SANTA FE, N.M. — An open seat has attracted two Los Alamos County Councilors with working-class upbringings and state-level political experience to contest the Democratic nomination for House District 43.
Whoever comes out on top in the June 5 primary, either retired LANL physicist Peter Sheehey or former lab attorney Christine Chandler, will face Republican candidate Lisa Shin in November to represent a district that covers Los Alamos County, and parts of Rio Arriba, Sandoval and Santa Fe counties.
Current Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard, a Democrat who is vacating her seat to run for state land commissioner, took what had been considered a GOP stronghold when she was first elected in 2012, then soundly defeated Republican challengers in two subsequent elections.
The seat had been held by Republican Jeannette Wallace for 20 years until her death in 2011. Garcia Richard in 2012 beat Republican James W. Hall, who had been appointed by Gov. Susana Martinez to succeed Wallace.
Despite Garcia Richard’s success and a Democratic edge among registered voters, District 43 is still seen as a swing district. The district’s registered voters are about 43 percent Democrat and 31 percent Republican, with the others independent or registered to minor parties.
Sheehey said that, as a Democrat, it’s necessary to have appeal to a wide range of district voters. He describes himself as a “fiscally responsible progressive.”
Similarly, Chandler said that her campaign is not necessarily about playing to party affiliations, but evaluating the interests of the entire constituency and “balancing what those needs are.”
Earlier race for seat
This isn’t Sheehey’s first attempt at District 43’s seat. In 2010, driven to run by his experience canvassing for Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, he got into the race, but lost in the Democratic primary to Garcia Richard. Wallace, in her last campaign, defeated Garcia Richard that year.
Sheehey acknowledged his political experience at that time was limited, also including a few years on the county’s Planning and Zoning Commission. But he has added to his résumé – and knocked on “thousands” more doors – since then by winning elections to County Council in 2012 and 2016.
As a councilor, he says he’s worked with state legislators on bills relating to LANL and expanding the Local Economic Development Act. A bill to expand the number of communities, including Los Alamos, that can access the state’s LEDA project funding passed in 2016. The 2018 bill that would require a nonprofit contractor for the lab to pay gross receipts taxes passed the House and Senate, but was vetoed by the governor earlier this year.
He was a North Central Regional Transit District board member from 2014-16 and is currently on the board of the North Central New Mexico Economic Development District.
“I’m much more experienced,” he said. “I’m certainly better known.”
Before his 2012 retirement, Sheehey spent most of his career working on nuclear weapon safety. He came to LANL in 1986 as a student and spent his early years working on his thesis in nuclear fusion energy. The lab is also where he later met his wife of nine years, Naishing Key.
Tapping into his lab experience, his first official venture into politics was joining the Los Alamos Committee on Arms Control and International Security more than 20 years ago. The volunteer group of mostly retired and current lab employees, which he has led for the past 10 years, studies and relays information to New Mexico’s U.S. senators about nuclear weapon control treaties.
In 1993, he earned his Ph.D. in physics from UCLA while still working at the lab. The Whittier, Calif., native also has two bachelor’s degrees from UC Santa Cruz. He earned an aesthetic studies degree in 1975 and, in 1985, following three years in the Air Force, he earned a chemistry degree.
Being a retired physicist, Sheehey says, allows him to use a “scientific approach” to government work. “That means gather the facts, analyze, communicate and make decisions based on the facts,” he said.
Sheehey described being raised in a working-class family. Growing up, he worked in the same bookbinding factory as his father in Pico Rivera, another suburb of Los Angeles.
And he cites his upbringing, with access to a good education in Southern California that led to jobs with good health benefits for him and his siblings, for making him passionate about issues like improving education and health care for all.
A chance to advance
A similar background, on the other side of the country, is also what drives Chandler’s passion on issues like education. The retired LANL attorney grew up in Northhampton, Mass., where her father, a Polish immigrant, worked in construction and grounds-keeping and her mother at a brush factory.
But in the college town with a good public school system, Chandler said she and her family had the opportunity to advance. She went on to earn an economics degree from Smith College in 1980 and a Boston College law degree in 1984.
A job with a Santa Fe law firm brought her to New Mexico that same year. She later settled in Los Alamos, where around 1986 she became an in-house attorney for the lab, specializing in employment law. She worked there until 2013, excluding a year she took off in 1993 to pursue a second degree from Georgetown University in international and comparative law.
Chandler, like Sheehey, met her spouse, former physicist and now-lawyer George Chandler, at the lab. The two have been married since 1994 and have been in private practice together since 2013. She says they are transitioning toward closing the firm. Civic leadership is something she fell into living in Los Alamos, where she says the organizations are plenty, the county is small enough for someone to easily join local government, and citizens are engaged in local issues. “I’m not really sure why it is, it’s just the nature of how we are here and we reinforce those values in one another,” Chandler said.
Her previous public duties include serving as probate judge and on the county’s Charter Review Commission and Planning and Zoning Commission. She also served on the New Mexico Commission on Access to Justice, a group that aims to expand legal services for low-income residents.
Currently, she is on the boards of nonprofits First Born of Los Alamos, which provides support for first-time parents, and the Delle Foundation, which offers grants to women’s health- and children’s education-related projects. She has had two stints on the County Council and is its vice chair.
She says her behind-the-scenes experience in the Legislature will allow her to “hit the ground running” if elected. Since 2014, except for one year, Chandler has been a legislative analyst for the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Chandler said she works with stakeholders, lawmakers and the Legislative Council Service to improve the clarity and evaluate the legality of bills ranging in topic from minimum wage to criminal law.
“Knowing all the legislators, seeing how it works, recognizing you have to cross the aisle … learning to compromise on bills, that’s all of the things I worked on and observed,” she said.
Chandler’s work at the lab was brought into a 2003 controversy over an embezzlement scam that resulted in the convictions of two lab employees and allegations that LANL brass tried to impede the investigation. Possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars of items had been purchased on the lab’s tab.
One investigator, at a congressional hearing, maintained that Chandler had tried to verbally intimidate him in an effort to get his FBI investigative notes. “That’s just a false statement,” Chandler said recently. She added that, while there were discussions about FBI notes, there was no intimidation involved. No action was ever taken against Chandler.
House District 43 Democratic candidates
Peter T. “Pete” Sheehey
POLITICAL PARTY: Democratic
OCCUPATION: Retired physicist, Los Alamos County Councilor
CITY OF RESIDENCE: Los Alamos
RELEVANT EXPERIENCE: Los Alamos County Councilor, 2013-present; North Central Regional Transit District board member; North Central New Mexico Economic Development District board member, 2017-present; Los Alamos County Planning and Zoning Commissioner, 2008-12; Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist 1986-2012; USAF veteran, 1976-79; president, Los Alamos Committee on Arms Control and International Security.
EDUCATION: MS and Ph.D. in Physics, UCLA; MS in Chemical Engineering, UC Santa Barbara; BA in Aesthetic Studies, BS in Chemistry, UC Santa Cruz.
CAMPAIGN WEBSITE: petesheehey.com
POLITICAL PARTY: Democratic
CITY OF RESIDENCE: Los Alamos
RELEVANT EXPERIENCE: Los Alamos County Council Vice Chair and two-term Councilor; Legislative Analyst for the New Mexico Senate Judiciary Committee (four sessions); former Los Alamos National Laboratory Attorney; former Probate Judge; licensed New Mexico Attorney.
EDUCATION: Smith College, A.B. Economics; Boston College Law School, J.D.; Georgetown University Law Center, L.L.M., International & Comparative Law
CAMPAIGN WEBSITE: christine4statehouse.com
See the candidates’ answers to 19 issues questions from the Journal at journalnorth.com. Scroll to the Santa Fe Politics section.
VIEWS ON TOP ISSUES
1. What are the top two things you would propose to address the state’s high crime rate?
CHANDLER: The certainty of being caught deters crime, but increasing the level of penalties does not. We must improve the effectiveness of the police and courts. Encourage triage: imprison serious and violent offenders; divert low level offenders to treatment and education; and provide effective rehabilitation for the incarcerated.
SHEEHEY: Reduce crime by prevention and rehabilitation. Early intervention programs to help troubled youth will lead to more people working and fewer into drugs and crime. Addiction and behavioral health treatment, and job training programs for incarcerated offenders are proven to result in fewer repeat offenders.
2. Do you support or oppose legalizing recreational marijuana use in New Mexico and taxing its sales?
CHANDLER: I support the de-criminalization of the possession of small qualities of marijuana for personal use.
SHEEHEY: I support legalizing recreational marijuana use in New Mexico for those 21 and over, and taxing its sales. At least half of the taxes raised should be used for drug and alcohol education and rehabilitation programs.
3. Do you support or oppose raising New Mexico’s minimum wage, currently $7.50 per hour? If so, by how much?
CHANDLER: Yes, ultimately to $12.00/hour, phased in over a reasonable period of time. Workers must be able to earn a living wage to support themselves and their families.
SHEEHEY: I support raising the minimum wage to at least $10 per hour to start, with indexing to keep up with inflation.
4. Do you favor making New Mexico a sanctuary state?
CHANDLER: The term sanctuary state means different things to different people depending on perspective. State officials must and should follow applicable federal law; however, it has been held by the federal courts that the federal government cannot require state officials to enforce federal laws.
SHEEHEY: I believe the United States is a sanctuary country by the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees all persons due process and equal protection of the law. If the Constitution is upheld, there should be no need for “sanctuary states.” New Mexico is a state of many cultures; all should be welcome.
5. What would you support to make New Mexico schools safer? Would that include changing New Mexico’s gun laws? If so, what specific changes to the gun laws would you support?
CHANDLER: Many schools require improved perimeter and access controls, as well as enhanced training for staff, students and parents. We also need greater availability of behavioral health resources in the schools and elsewhere. Requiring universal background checks is an important first step to changing our gun laws.
SHEEHEY: I support in-school police officers and in-school health care offices, including mental health, to provide early treatment of mental health problems that lead to violence. I support thorough background checks on all sales of guns, using an improved national instant criminal background check system (including mental health information).