Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Three Republican-connected political committees bankrolled by oil companies and other corporate interests – including the parent company of Public Service Company of New Mexico – have waded into contested Democratic primary races in next week’s election.
The independent expenditure groups – also known as super PACs – have used the hefty contributions to pay for campaign mailers and ads supporting certain moderate Democrats and targeting other more progressive candidates in contested races for land commissioner, the Public Regulation Commission and the state House.
One of the groups, New Mexicans for Progress, is an independent expenditure group that was created just last month, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.
It got its entire total of $440,000 in contributions last month from PNM Resources, the parent company of PNM, and reported spending more than $200,000 during a recent three-week period on mailers targeting several PRC candidates who are challenging incumbents.
One of those challengers, Janene Yazzie of Gallup, who’s running in a three-way Democratic primary against incumbent Lynda Lovejoy and former commissioner Theresa Becenti-Aguilar, accused PNM on Friday of seeking to influence election results in an attempt to maintain “lax regulation” of the utility company by the five-member Public Regulation Commission.
“It is obvious that I’m being targeted because I have a progressive vision that is very different than the two incumbent candidates that have held this office for 18 years,” Yazzie said. Specifically, campaign mailers sent out in recent days by New Mexicans for Progress accuse Yazzie of moving to New Mexico from Arizona several months ago to run for elected office.
But she said Friday that’s not true, saying she has lived in Gallup for the past four years continuously and was registered to vote in Arizona only because of the Navajo Nation practice of registering to vote based on where one’s parents live.
Meanwhile, Mariel Nanasi, executive director of the Santa Fe-based New Energy Economy, a group that’s frequently clashed with PNM over utility-related issues, accused the company of corruption.
“It’s shocking but not surprising,” Nanasi told the Journal. “There’s no longer even a pretense of regulation when PNM’s parent company bankrolls with $440,000 the regulators of their choice. We have to question the ability of the commission to regulate on behalf of government.”
However, a statement released by PNM Resources defended the company’s unprecedented political involvement with a super PAC, which is being funded by shareholders, not customers.
“PNM Resources’ participation is legal, appropriate, and necessary to help ensure a fair election,” the statement said. “Important policy decisions will be made by our next generation of elected officials, and we want to ensure that voters have the information to understand each candidate’s position on key public policy issues.”
For its part, New Mexicans for Progress said in a statement that its efforts are intended only to counteract a wave of political spending by PACs affiliated with environmental groups that have been financed in part by big contributions from out-of-state groups.
New Mexicans for Progress has paid more than $170,000 to a company owned by Jay McCleskey, Gov. Susana Martinez’s political adviser, for professional services that include sending out the campaign mailers.
While legal under state and federal campaign finance laws, the last-minute infusion of spending in Democratic primary races is rare for groups that have traditionally been more aligned with GOP candidates.
New Mexico enacted campaign donation limits after the 2010 election cycle, but those caps don’t apply to super PACs, which can accept contributions of any size but are barred from coordinating directly with candidates.
Another independent expenditure group that’s been active in primary election campaign is New Mexico Strong, a group based in Austin, Texas, that was created in December 2017, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.
New Mexico Strong received $274,250 in contributions last month from two oil companies – Chevron and Artesia-based Mack Energy Corp. – and has used the money on campaign ads and mailers supporting Democratic land commissioner candidate George Muñoz of Gallup and incumbent state Reps. Carl Trujillo of Nambé and Debbie Rodella of Española, both Democrats.
Both Trujillo and Rodella are facing serious primary election challenges from more progressive opponents – Andrea Romero of Santa Fe and Susan Herrera of Embudo, respectively – while Muñoz is running in a three-way Democratic primary for land commissioner.
A third independent expenditure group, NM Prosperity, has also sent out campaign mailers on behalf of Muñoz, Trujillo and Rodella. That PAC also received most of its money – a total of $50,000 – from Mack Energy Corp.
One of Muñoz’s opponents in the land commissioner race, Garrett VeneKlasen of Santa Fe, said Friday that the independent expenditure groups’ activity was “disgusting” and aimed at tilting the election toward a more industry-friendly candidate.
“We cannot allow oil and gas giants who want to pillage our public lands for corporate profit to buy this election,” said VeneKlasen, who’s on leave from his job as executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation.
Muñoz, a state senator, countered by saying he’s been “under attack” by conservation groups since he entered the race for land commissioner, a powerful job that involves generating revenue for public schools from 9 million acres of state trust land.
“Nobody gave me a bunch of oil and gas money,” said Muñoz, who added that he is the Democrat with the best chance to beat former land commissioner Pat Lyons, a Republican, in the general election.
However, while the outside PAC spending was not given directly to Muñoz, his campaign has received contributions from several oil and gas companies, according to reports filed with the Secretary of State’s office.
The third Democrat running for land commissioner is state Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard of White Rock.
New Mexico’s primary election is Tuesday. More than 84,000 voters statewide have already cast ballots via early and absentee voting, with Democrats making up about two-thirds of that amount, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.
Journal staff writer Kevin Robinson-Avila contributed to this report.