SANTA FE, N.M. — Debbie Rodella hasn’t had to defend her seat in the New Mexico House of Representatives for a dozen years. But the District 41 incumbent is facing a challenge from Susan Herrera, a 70-year-old rookie candidate, in the June 5 Democratic primary.
In the absence of a Republican to run in the November general election, the primary will decide who represents the district made up much of Española and Rio Arriba County, a big chunk of Taos County, including areas just north of the Town of Taos, and a section of northern Santa Fe County for the next two years.
Rodella, an Española Valley native who was first elected to the Legislature in 1992, last faced opposition in 2006 when she edged Moises A. Morales Jr. by 140 votes in a primary election in which 4,386 votes were cast.
Herrera says she’s running because it’s time for a change – and time for the northern New Mexico district that has long leaned Democratic to be represented by someone more in line with the party’s values.
“I’m running because I just can’t believe all these good people in northern New Mexico are being represented by someone who has a long track record that doesn’t serve their interests,” she said.
Herrera referred to Rodella as a DINO (Democrat In Name Only) and pointed out Rodella voted against legalizing same-sex marriage and amendments that would have limited air pollution – measures she said Democrats would typically support.
She also said that early campaign finance reports show that Rodella’s campaign is getting financial backing from oil and gas, and pharmaceutical companies, as well as lobbyists.
Last month, the Daily Kos, a widely read liberal blog, cited Rodella’s voting record and what it said was her allegiance to payday loan lenders, opposition to gun safety measures and voting rights in an endorsement of Herrera. Having a national publication or website endorse a candidate in a northern New Mexico legislative race is unusual.
“I guess I was the beneficiary of Debbie’s bad voting record,” Herrera said, adding that she was flattered by the endorsement. “They looked at my background and what I’ve accomplished, and decided to endorse me.”
Rodella declined a request to be interviewed for this story. But on her campaign’s Facebook page, she says she’s running to retain her seat because she cares.
“I was born and raised in the Española Valley and I care about our communities where my family has lived for generations, where my roots run deep,” the page says. “I’m running again because I want to give something back.
“I appreciate our beautifully diverse cultures that bring us closer together and I want to continue to be your voice in Santa Fe. I’m running again because of my experience, my ability to get things done, my willingness to find common ground and consensus to arrive at solutions.”
During the 2018 legislative session, Rodella sponsored legislation, signed into law by the governor, to expand wireless infrastructure. Last year, she sponsored the successful bill placing a limit of 175 percent on the amount of interest a payday lender can charge, and one that would have raised the statewide minimum wage from $7.50 an hour to $9.25 an hour, which passed but was vetoed by the governor.
Rodella’s husband is former Rio Arriba Sheriff Tommy Rodella, who was convicted of civil rights violations and brandishing a firearm during a road rage incident, and is currently serving a 10-year sentence in a federal prison.
While she’s a novice when it comes to running for office, Herrera says she’s been immersed in politics most of her life. Her father, a New Mexico native, was elected to three terms on the City Council in Pamona, Calif. She spent 13 years in Washington, D.C., first as a legislative assistant for California Rep. Jim Lloyd and later as director of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. While there, she also served on the National Council of La Raza, now UnidosUS, a nonprofit Latino advocacy group.
After she, her husband and son, then 4, moved to northern New Mexico in 1990, Herrera got involved with several nonprofit groups, many of them focused on education, including Siete del Norte, Child-Rite and the Northern New Mexico Community College Foundation.
She became the first executive director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory Foundation and held that position for 17 years. The foundation has since awarded millions of dollars in scholarships to thousands of recipients and under her leadership helped launch the First Born Program, which is now in 17 of New Mexico’s 34 counties.
“I know how to take an idea, get buy-in and get the money to implement it,” she said.
Rodella, who announced last week that she was appointed to the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators executive committee, had a monetary head start in the campaign.
Candidates report funds raised so far
According to the first round of campaign finance reports for the period ending March 30, Rodella – chair of the House Business and Industry Committee – started with an opening balance of $64,000. She added to that total by raising another $38,000.
Rodella received $9,800 from the oil and gas industry, $2,150 from lobbyists and $3,250 from three Democratic legislators, one from Indiana.
Contributing $2,500 were the Committee to Elect Patricio Ruiloba, a state representative from Albuquerque who is vice chair of the Business and Industry Committee; Mack Energy Corp. of Artesia; Conoco Phillips of Austin, Texas; and Occidental Petroleum of Houston. Only one of her 64 contributors gave less than $100.
Starting from scratch, Herrera raised $30,500 from 87 contributors, including a $2,200 contribution from herself. The largest contributions came from David Rigsby, a turkey farmer from Embudo, where Herrera now makes her home, and Suzanna Duran of Dixon, who lists her occupation as “gardener.” Both are listed as giving $2,700, $200 more than the maximum allowed for legislative candidates. Herrera couldn’t be reached for comment on that issue Thursday night.
Twenty-two individuals offered contributions of less than $100.
Herrera said she’s happy with what’s she’s been able to raise so far. She said she planned raise $50,000, which she said should be enough to run a campaign for the District 41 seat.
“More would be a sin,” she said.
HOUSE DISTRICT 41 DEMOCRATIC CANDIDATES
Debbie A. Rodella
POLITICAL PARTY: Democratic
CITY OF RESIDENCE: Española (La Mesilla)
RELEVANT EXPERIENCE: State Representative 1993 to present
EDUCATION: Bachelor’s degree, Business Administration, College of Santa Fe; Associate degrees in Accounting and Business, Northern New Mexico Community College
CAMPAIGN WEBSITE: www.debbierodella.com (under construction)
POLITICAL PARTY: Democratic
CITY OF RESIDENCE: Embudo
RELEVANT EXPERIENCE: CEO, LANL Foundation; director, U.S. Congressional Hispanic Caucus
EDUCATION: BUS — UNM
CAMPAIGN WEBSITE: www.susanherrera.com
VIEWS ON TOP ISSUES
1. What are the top two things you would do to address the state’s high crime rate?
RODELLA: I voted FOR the 8.5% raise for State Police and for the 17.6% increase for the district attorney to establish a crime strategies unit, reduce case backlog and prosecute violent crimes against children. Drug addiction leads to crime. We need to invest more in education, prevention, intervention, rehabilitation and treatment.
HERRERA: Work to increase wages and training for all law enforcement. Encourage the development of neighborhood watch groups to assist local law enforcement. Expand the concept of community policing.
2. Do you support or oppose legalizing recreational marijuana use in New Mexico and taxing its sales?
RODELLA: I’m undecided. I have engaged voters on both sides of this issue. Supporters think we should follow Colorado with legalization and taxing sales. Opponents bring up our drug epidemic and believe we are sending the wrong message to children, and that it’s still against federal law. I support medicinal marijuana and de-criminalization.
HERRERA: I support legalizing recreational marijuana use in New Mexico and taxing its sales.
3. Do you support or oppose raising New Mexico’s minimum wage, currently $7.50 per hour? If so, by how much?
RODELLA: I support raising the minimum wage. I was primary sponsor of 2017’s HB 442, which passed and was pocket-vetoed by the governor. HB 442 was the result of much negotiation and resulted in compromise/consensus to raise the minimum wage to $9.25. The bill wouldn’t have affected municipalities with a higher minimum wage.
HERRERA: Minimum wages for Colorado and Arizona are $10.20 and $10.50, respectively. I support raising New Mexico’s minimum wage to $10 per hour on an incremental basis.
4. Do you favor making New Mexico a sanctuary state?
RODELLA: I believe New Mexico is already a sanctuary state.
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?
RODELLA: Student safety should be the top priority. I voted FOR SB 239 to provide funding to make schools safer. I am pro-Second Amendment and a hunter. I would consider supporting improved state-federal information sharing to keep guns from persons posing a danger to themselves/others. I support keeping guns from those with domestic violence convictions.
HERRERA: I would encourage every school district to apply for a Student Resource Officer funded by the U.S. Department of Justice. I would support common-sense gun legislation, including universal background checks, banning assault weapons and temporarily banning weapons for individuals with restraining orders.
See the candidates’ answers to 19 issues questions and more at journalnorth.com. Scroll to the Santa Fe Politics section.