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Striking a couple of blows against the fortress of incumbency

Wow. Two northern New Mexico House incumbents – one with a quarter-century in office – were knocked off in Tuesday’s Democratic primary elections.

Incumbency has long been something of an impregnable fortress for legislators in these parts. See the examples of Nick Salazar of the Española area, who had won 23 elections since 1972 before stepping down this year; Santa Fe’s Luciano “Lucky” Varela, who was in office for 30 years until shortly before his death last year; and the late House Speaker Ben Lujan, from Nambé, who served in the House for 38 years.

So two incumbents going down in one night in adjacent House districts in el Norte is something like an earthquake.

Carl Trujillo, a three-term incumbent first elected in northern Santa Fe County’s House District 46 after Lujan retired, previously had proven himself to be a formidable politician. He nearly upset the legendary Lujan in his first run for the seat, then took down the sitting Santa Fe mayor, David Coss, when the position opened upon Lujan’s retirement.

But Truillo lost this time around to first-time candidate Andrea Romero, a Stanford grad, management contractor and ostrich farmer.

Many factors were in play. Romero had her own controversies – over being reimbursed from public dollars for travel expenses like booze and baseball tickets in her role as executive director at the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities, among other things – but Trujillo faced the harshest allegations.

In the weeks before the primary, he became the subject of an internal House investigation into allegations levied by a lobbyist – that he propositioned her, touched her inappropriately and retaliated when she rejected his advances. Trujillo says the accusations are lies.

The race became the nastiest in years. Fliers compared Trujillo to Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump, he of the Access Hollywood tape. An anti-Romero mailer, without saying it, suggested irony in Trujillo being accused of sexual impropriety by an Animal Protection Voters lobbyist as Trujillo ran against someone raising ostriches for products like meat.

But also involved was a major effort by New Mexico progressives to take on some Democratic incumbents in heavily Democratic districts, incumbents who the progs considered too conservative on issues like abortion, the environment, guns, corporate support and marijuana. The #metoo and Women’s March movements were in the air.

In the end, Romero won by a margin that wasn’t terribly close.

It’s probably a bigger deal that 25-year incumbent Debbie Rodella of Española lost in House District 41. Rodella hadn’t even had an opponent in years.

This race also had special circumstances. Rodella’s husband, former Rio Arriba County Sheriff Tommy Rodella, was convicted on federal charges in 2014 for roughing up a motorist and brandishing a firearm in what the feds said was an unconstitutional arrest. He was given a 10-year sentence. Tommy Rodella had other controversies – he had resigned once as magistrate judge amid controversy and was removed from the bench another time. The Rodellas had been involved in various other political kerfuffles in Rio Arriba.

So maybe District 41 voters – given not just an opposing candidate for once, but a strong one like former Los Alamos National Laboratory Foundation director Susan Herrera – decided they were tired of Rodellas altogether, including the state representative who had nothing to do with her husband’s criminal sins.

But no one could have assumed Rep. Rodella was vulnerable before Herrera jumped into the race and mounted a serious campaign. It appeared that, until this year, Democrats as a group had decided House 41 was Rodella’s for life. Herrera’s win is a surprise and an upset.

Like Romero in District 46, Herrera ran from the left in a contentious primary battle. She won by a comfortable margin.

So incumbents beware. Romero and Herrera have shown that being elected once isn’t always enough to assure being elected forever in northern New Mexico, despite the name recognition, power and campaign dollars that flow from being a seated legislator.

There were reasons to root for or against Romero and Herrera, depending on one’s view of the world and particular issues or candidates’ personal qualities or failings. And many long-serving lawmakers do earn the distinction.

But putting a hole through the armor of incumbency is undeniably a good thing.

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