Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
Editor’s note: Today the Journal concludes its profiles of the three candidates competing in the Democratic primary for governor. Go to ABQJournal.com for their answers to questions on issues.
SANTA FE – It’s been 44 years since a sitting New Mexico lawmaker was elected governor, a fact that’s not lost on Joseph Cervantes.
But the veteran southern New Mexico legislator, trial lawyer and businessman who hails from a prominent farming family, is banking on his Roundhouse fluency as a selling point with New Mexico voters.
“It’s been 44 years – that’s seven administrations – that we’ve elected governors as outsiders to the process who have never balanced a budget, never sponsored and introduced legislation and got it passed, and frankly, who have never enjoyed a working understanding of the legislative process,” Cervantes said in a recent interview.
Cervantes, 57, has experienced the highs and lows of the Legislature.
He introduced several prominent ethics-related bills that were signed into law, including the 2007 Fraud Against Taxpayers Act, the 2010 Whistleblower Protection Act and a 2009 measure that opened legislative conference committees to the public.
But Cervantes also was stripped of his House Judiciary Committee chairmanship in 2007 by then-House Speaker Ben Lujan after an internal Democratic power struggle. He said at the time that it was a case of having “too many roosters in the henhouse.”
Cervantes, who won election to the Senate in 2012 after more than a decade in the House, said he hasn’t been afraid to buck legislative leadership during his time as a state lawmaker.
“Since I got to Santa Fe, I’ve been about trying to change it,” he said. “I’ve been reforming things since I was there, and naturally that meant sometimes challenging the status quo and some people who were a part of it.”
Lobbyist J.D. Bullington, who has worked at the state Capitol for more than 20 years, said Cervantes has not changed since becoming a member of the Legislature in 2001, unlike some other legislators.
“He’s great to work with, from a lobbyist’s standpoint, because you know what you’re going to get,” Bullington said. “He is fundamentally the same person now as when he first came in.”
However, Cervantes’ independent streak has not always endeared him to party insiders.
He came in third at the state Democratic Party’s pre-primary convention in March – with fewer than 10 percent of delegate votes – and has struggled to keep up with rivals Michelle Lujan Grisham and Jeff Apodaca when it comes to fundraising.
To boost his gubernatorial bid, Cervantes made a $1 million loan to his campaign last month, on top of $400,000 he had previously lent. He has also reported getting hefty contributions from relatives.
He told the Journal the personal money will be spent on TV ads, field offices and other campaign expenditures.
“We’re absolutely putting it to use – there’s no other point to having it,” Cervantes said. “There was a time in our history when people would put their livelihoods, and their careers and even their lives on the line for political reasons, and I believe that courage is missing from people in politics today.”
Cervantes grew up in a fourth-generation farming family in La Mesa, a small community along the Rio Grande in southern Doña Ana County.
His grandfather made a living selling vegetables out of the back of a truck, but the family business eventually grew into an agricultural powerhouse that now includes a chile-processing facility and a 1,400-acre farming operation that produces chile, alfalfa and cotton.
Cervantes left the farm, first to get a degree in architecture in California and then to pursue a legal career in Albuquerque after going back to school for a law degree. He eventually returned to Las Cruces to start a private law practice and was elected to the Doña Ana County Commission in 1998 at the age of 37.
As a lawyer, Cervantes specializes in tort law. He was a plaintiffs’ lawyer in a wrongful death suit that resulted in the New Mexico’s largest-ever jury award, a $165 million judgment that stemmed from a 2011 crash involving a FedEx truck and a family pickup truck in which a mother and daughter were killed.
Asked why he decided not to stay in the family business, Cervantes described the inquiry as a “psychiatrist’s question” before adding, “The honest answer is I wanted to make sure that I was doing things on my own.”
However, he still holds a financial stake in several family commercial farming ventures, according to annual disclosures filed with the Secretary of State’s Office.
He has also defended one of his family’s companies, Cervantes Agribusiness, from legal claims that it tried to circumvent a federal visa program to hire more Mexican laborers.
It might not be his day job, but Cervantes has touted his agricultural background in TV campaign ads – in which he trades a suit and tie for a plaid shirt with rolled-up sleeves – and says it’s part of the reason he’s running for governor.
“When you grow up in a farming family, you’re ingrained with the duty of leaving things to the next generation, and leaving them better than you found them,” Cervantes told the Journal. “It’s an approach to life where it’s not about today – it’s about the next generation.”
At the state Capitol, Cervantes has strayed from his caucus on some votes.
He voted in favor of a 2011 bill backed by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez that would have repealed the law allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain New Mexico driver’s licenses – the bill never reached the governor’s desk – and was one of only eight senators to vote “no” on a 2013 tax package that passed the Legislature on the final day of that year’s 60-day session.
But he also voted in support of Democratic-backed bills to increase the state’s $7.50-per-hour minimum wage and a proposed 2017 tax hike package aimed at plugging a gaping hole in the state budget.
“I don’t put labels on myself ever, other than as a Democrat,” Cervantes said when asked to define himself politically. “There are issues where I’m going to be defined as very progressive, and there are going to be issues where I’m defined less so.”
In his current position as Senate Conservation Committee chairman, Cervantes cast the key vote during this year’s session to table a bill that would have allowed the Public Service Company of New Mexico to recoup its investment in abandoned coal plants by issuing low-interest bonds that would have been paid off by customers over a 20-year period.
While successful in some of his attempts to change legislative practices, Cervantes has met resistance in his recent bid to overhaul the state’s system for funding roads, dams and other public works projects.
Bills sponsored by Cervantes seeking to require more public scrutiny of such infrastructure projects have stalled in each of the two most recent regular legislative sessions.
“The capital outlay process has a lot of folks who like it the way it is,” he told the Journal.
His district, Senate District 31, is largely rural and Hispanic. It encompasses part of Las Cruces, along with the border communities of Santa Teresa and Sunland Park.
Issues and hurdles
If he’s successful in his bid to become the first sitting lawmaker elected governor since Jerry Apodaca in 1974, Cervantes says he would push to double the state’s minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2020.
He has also vowed to decriminalize marijuana use and sponsored legislation that would have done just that, but has expressed wariness about proposals to legalize recreational cannabis use – as nine other states and the District of Columbia have done – and tax its sales.
First, however, Cervantes must win over enough Democratic voters in the June 5 primary election to earn the party’s nomination. The winner will face off against Republican Steve Pearce in the November general election. Longtime New Mexico political observer Brian Sanderoff said Cervantes faces obvious geographic and name recognition hurdles in the three-way primary race featuring candidates with strong Albuquerque ties.
“As a state senator from Las Cruces, Joseph Cervantes is not a household name in New Mexico,” said Sanderoff, president of Albuquerque-based Research & Polling Inc.
Cervantes points out he lived in Albuquerque for roughly 10 years and two of his three daughters are attending graduate school at the University of New Mexico. He also cites his connections with Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller, forged during the time the two spent as colleagues in the Senate.
But Cervantes does not hold back in claiming that the Democratic Party’s current leadership apparatus stifles independent thinking, saying party leaders should allow for more leeway when it comes to political views and issues facing rural New Mexico.
“There are those in the party who don’t want a robust campaign and don’t want a robust debate in the primary process,” he said. “They’d like to anoint one blue Democrat and one Republican and let them have at it.”
In addition, with New Mexico lagging behind its neighbors in terms of recent job growth and still posting one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates, Cervantes said it’s not time for a governor that needs “on-the-job training.”
“The notion you can bluff your way through a governorship or even a presidency just doesn’t work,” he said. “The bottom line is you have to have the respect of the people you hope to lead and that respect comes from having an understanding of the issues.”