Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
The three Democrats running for governor all called Sunday for a change in New Mexico’s direction but took aim at one another’s credentials in an occasionally testy debate that touched on poverty, crime, marijuana and the well-being of children.
During the hourlong debate, Jeff Apodaca and Joseph Cervantes both asked pointed questions of Michelle Lujan Grisham, the perceived front-runner, about profits from a health care consulting company she co-founded and the circumstances of her resignation as Department of Health secretary under then-Gov. Bill Richardson in 2007.
But Lujan Grisham fought back, asking both of her Democratic rivals why they allegedly have not paid health care coverage and given other benefits to their campaign staffers.
The live debate, sponsored by KOAT-TV and the Journal, was the first televised debate between the Democrats running for governor and took place with just over two weeks left before the June 5 primary election.
Apodaca, a former Albuquerque media executive whose father, Jerry Apodaca, was New Mexico’s governor in the 1970s, sought to portray himself as a political outsider who would bring new ideas and energy to the Governor’s Office.
“All that 50 years of experience sitting next to me, how’s that working?” Apodaca quipped at one point during the debate, referring to the combined tenure of his two rivals in state government, the Legislature and Congress.
But Lujan Grisham and Cervantes both suggested that Apodaca’s policy ideas lacked necessary detail, including his proposal to make New Mexico the ninth state in the nation to legalize recreational marijuana use and tax its sales.
Lujan Grisham, a three-term congresswoman who is giving up her Albuquerque-area congressional seat to run for governor, said she also supports the idea, but only if safeguards are built into the law to address workplace issues and keeping marijuana products out of children’s hands.
“I’m not wishy-washy; I know what the challenges are,” she said.
Since entering the race in December 2016, Lujan Grisham has used her broad network of connections to outraise her Democratic rivals and secure endorsements from key labor unions.
However, her opponents haven’t backed down, as Cervantes has given more than $2 million in personal loans to his campaign in recent months and has used the money to launch TV ads targeting Lujan Grisham.
And Apodaca, while trailing in the money race, has campaigned aggressively and maintained an active social media presence, including holding weekly virtual town hall meetings.
During Sunday’s debate, Lujan Grisham cited her 16-year run as a state Cabinet secretary – under three different governors – as evidence of her readiness to be governor, and she touted her work in Congress on legislation that would protect certain young immigrants from deportation and provide a pathway to citizenship.
“We should become not just the state of enchantment, but the state of opportunity,” she said.
On the issue of immigration, Cervantes, a state senator who hails from a prominent southern New Mexico farming family, said he joined protesters when Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently traveled to Las Cruces, and he described President Donald Trump as having an “anti-immigrant administration.”
“I will not allow our state employees or resources to do Washington’s job,” said Cervantes, who has served in the Legislature since 2002.
That answer appeared to put Cervantes at odds with Apodaca, who said being labeled a “sanctuary state” would hurt New Mexico in the long run.
Meanwhile, the candidates took turns blasting Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration for its approach to preventing crimes against children, after being asked by a moderator about the latest case to send shock waves through New Mexico – that of a 7-year-old Albuquerque girl who the Attorney General’s Office has said was sex-trafficked by her close relatives.
Both Lujan Grisham and Apodaca cited high employee vacancy rates and recent unspent funds by the state Children, Youth and Families Department, while Cervantes lamented a lack of leadership and accountability in the Martinez administration.
Martinez, the state’s two-term Republican governor, is barred from seeking a third consecutive term in office and will step down at the end of this year.
The lone Republican in the race to succeed her is Steve Pearce, who is also giving up his congressional seat to run for governor. Because he is unopposed in the primary election, Pearce did not take part in Sunday’s debate.