The life of Jeff Apodaca – high school running back and son of the governor – changed forever the morning he woke up and couldn’t go to the bathroom.
He was 17, and a cancerous tumor had blocked his urinary tract.
It was one of the few times Apodaca can remember crying, he says now. The doctors told him to forget about playing football again, and he started a regimen of chemotherapy and radiation, losing his hair and 38 pounds in the process.
But he did play again, for Southern Methodist University and the University of New Mexico.
Apodaca, now 56, says he would bring that kind of determination and resilience to the Roundhouse. He is one of three Democrats seeking the nomination for governor in the June 5 primary.
It’s his first campaign, and he still sounds a bit like a competitive athlete when he talks about himself.
“When you go through a life-threatening cancer like that,” Apodaca says, “there’s nothing else that I can’t do.”
His core beliefs, he said, include: “Never give up and find a way.”
Apodoca – a former media executive – is competing for the Democratic nomination against state Sen. Joseph Cervantes, a Las Cruces lawyer, and U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a former Bernalillo County commissioner and former state secretary of health and secretary of aging and long-term services.
The winner will face Republican Congressman Steve Pearce of Hobbs in November.
Incumbent Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, cannot run this year because of term limits.
Apodaca pitches himself as a candidate who would disrupt the status quo. But he’s also faced questions about his lack of government experience and whether his proposals are realistic.
Apodaca, however, has a ready retort when someone compares his background to the resume of his opponents, who have spent decades in government or elected office.
“All that political experience, I got one question for you – how’s that working for us?” Apodaca said in a recent interview.
Besides, he said, he grew up in politics.
And the criticism comes, he said, because he’s the only candidate with ambitious, transformational proposals.
“What amazes me is that my opponents don’t talk about ideas,” Apodaca said, “and if they do, they’re copying our ideas. They don’t talk about solutions because – guess what – they’ve never had to come up with solutions.”
He’s faced questions, nonetheless, about the feasibility of his proposal to invest more than $1 billion out of New Mexico’s $23 billion in permanent funds as part of a plan to create 225,000 jobs over a period of years.
“He’s creating more jobs than we have people unemployed,” said state Sen. John Arthur Smith, a Deming Democrat and chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee.
Adding 225,000 jobs would be an incredible increase in New Mexico. The U.S. Labor Department estimates the state’s civilian labor force at 936,500, with about 884,000 employed and 52,000 unemployed. That’s an unemployment rate of 5.6 percent, second-worst in the nation.
Apodaca said he arrived at the 225,000 jobs number after meeting with business leaders, UNM experts and others. The state would invest in low-interest loans for small local businesses, among other measures.
“I have a mindset of, we can do anything we want when we put our minds to it,” Apodaca said. “… We just have to provide the funding.”
In any case, Sen. Smith said, tapping into the permanent fund – or changing what it’s used for – is more complicated than it sounds. It could take congressional and voter approval, he said.
Apodaca is a son of former Gov. Jerry Apodaca, a Democrat who was in office from 1975 to 1979, and Clara Apodaca, a former Cabinet secretary for cultural affairs who also served in former President Bill Clinton’s administration.
Apodaca grew up in Las Cruces and moved to Santa Fe when he was 12, after his dad became governor.
He now lives in the Northeast Heights of Albuquerque, with his wife, Jackie Moss Apodaca, and their twin sons, Asher and Gage, both 10.
Apodaca grew up as one of five children, and he said the campaign trail provided some of the best one-on-one time with his dad. He describes it as a “very Catholic, Latino family.”
But it wasn’t easy, he said, being the governor’s kid at a new school.
“I’m a good fighter,” Apodaca said. “I was picked on all the time.”
Success in sports helped Apodaca make friends. He played running back at Santa Fe High School until cancer interrupted his senior year.
The treatments made him “viciously ill,” he said, making it hard to eat and drink.
But Apodaca ended up as one of the first medical marijuana patients in New Mexico. His own father, he said, had signed a law that allowed, for a limited time, research into medical uses of marijuana.
Apodaca said he still remembers his first meal after smoking marijuana: corned beef hash with green chile. His grandmother had made his favorite dinner.
Now marijuana is a centerpiece of his campaign.
Apodaca is vowing to expand New Mexico’s medical cannabis program – authorized by a 2007 law – and legalize adult use of marijuana.
Apodaca said he would push immediately for a comprehensive bill legalizing marijuana in the 2019 legislative session. It would be an economic boost and generate tax revenue, he said.
His rivals have taken a more cautious approach. Lujan Grisham said she supports legalization as a concept but wants an analysis of how to protect children and keep people from driving while impaired.
Cervantes has sponsored bills to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use, but he’s been wary of embracing full legalization.
Apodaca, for his part, said marijuana played a role in his own recovery from cancer, giving him a firsthand look at the benefits.
And he eventually made it back on the football field, after a two-year break. His scholarship offers dried up after cancer, he said, but a coach at Southern Methodist in the Dallas area kept in touch.
He later transferred to UNM and started at safety.
After college, Apodaca joined the media world. He started as an ad salesman for KOB-TV, the beginning of a career that took him to New York, Los Angeles and eventually back to Albuquerque.
Apodaca worked at Entravision Corp. – a global media company that operates the Univision affiliate in Albuquerque, among other stations – from 2010 to 2016. He rose to the rank of executive vice president for the mountain region.
But he had a contentious end to his tenure. In 2016, he filed a lawsuit alleging defamation, retaliation and wrongful separation a few months after his employment ended. He accused Entravision and two of its executive of fabricating allegations against him.
The lawsuit was later dismissed as part of a settlement.
Apodaca also was in court a few years earlier – related to his role as an investor and executive for the Language Academy LLC, which billed itself as the state’s “only International pre-kinder program featuring French and Spanish in an outdoor classroom,” according to court documents.
In 2014, a man who leased property to the school sued, seeking about $149,000 in unpaid rent and other fees.
The plaintiff, Marcelo Roman, accused Apodaca of “making false and misleading statements” that constituted fraud, according to the complaint.
Apodaca and the Language Academy denied the allegations. They filed a countersuit, arguing that they were actually the ones “fraudulently induced” to sign the lease. They couldn’t use the property, their countersuit said, because repairs hadn’t been made, rendering the premises unfit for the academy.
The lawsuit and countersuit were dismissed the next year after the parties said they had reached a “mutually agreeable compromise,” according to court records.
Apodaca told the Journal that his own kids went to the academy and that Jackie volunteered there. But the owner of the school, he said, went through a divorce and closed the school, and the ensuing litigation ensnared Apodaca.
“The court dismissed the case against us, as we were just volunteer parents,” he said.
Apodaca has also been accused of failing to pay his taxes. The state Taxation and Revenue Department filed a tax lien claim with the Bernalillo County clerk in 2016, alleging Apodaca hadn’t paid nearly $5,700 in taxes and penalties.
Apodaca said he disputed the taxes but later paid them in full.
“We disputed the tax earnings from the state, then paid the taxes owed,” Apodaca said.
He also faced a variety of lien claims filed by the Las Campanas Master Association, a homeowners association, with the Santa Fe County clerk from 2013 to 2015.
Apodaca said he and Jackie bought an investment property in Santa Fe County in 2004 – before the financial crash a few years later drove down the value of the land, even as the property taxes went up.
“We disputed our tax bills,” he said. “When we eventually sold the property at a loss in 2016, we paid all our property tax and HOA responsibilities in full.”
Apodoca has an edge about him when people dismiss his candidacy.
Establishment Democrats, he said, told him it wasn’t his turn to run for governor.
Apodaca met with rival candidates but wasn’t satisfied.
“I saw no vision. I saw no hope. I saw no opportunities,” Apodaca said. “What I heard was ‘career, career, career, vice president, Cabinet positions.’ I heard steppingstones. I didn’t hear anything about New Mexico.”
In a recent interview, his voice wavered as he talked about his wife, Jackie, agreeing to be “all in” on a run for governor – after she read about the release of another report ranking New Mexico last on some metric.
“I mean, I don’t recognize the state of New Mexico I grew up in,” he said, “and that’s a very passionate thing for me.”