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Independent challenges Democrat in race for District 40 House seat

For the first time in 46 years, someone other than Nick Salazar will occupy the District 40 seat in the state House of Representatives.

First elected to the Legislature in 1972, on the same day Richard Nixon won a second term as president, Salazar, the longest-serving elected official at the Roundhouse, has decided to call it a career.

So, come January, either Democrat Joseph Sanchez or independent candidate T. Tweeti Blancett will represent the northern New Mexico district that stretches horizontally over parts of four mostly rural and mountainous counties – Colfax, Mora, Rio Arriba and San Miguel. It includes the communities of Angel Fire, Maxwell, Springer, Wagon Mound and Watrous, separated by mountains from the district’s western section, with parts of the Española area and Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo.

The candidates vying for the seat may agree on some issues and both have deep roots in New Mexico, but they come from different backgrounds.

Sanchez grew up in Alcalde, and is deeply ingrained in the culture and tradition of the area. On his campaign website, josephsanchezfornm.com, he recalls the annual spring ritual of cleaning out acequias and talks about the “Dance of the Matachines” performed by both Hispano-Mexicano and pueblo people at the church in Alcalde and at Ohkay Owingeh each Christmas.

He’s also a member of Los Blue Ventures de Louis Sanchez, his father’s well-known band mostly made up of family members that plays a variety of ranchero, cumbia and gospel music.

“My father always had bands when he was younger. When he started having kids, he made a band out of us, like the Partridge Family,” said Sanchez, who is featured on the saxophone, but also plays guitar, bass and drums.

Single, but with a girlfriend, the 40-year-old Sanchez is a rookie politician and a senior electrical engineer at Los Alamos National Laboratory, returning to the hill after a three-year stint as CEO of the Jemez Electric Cooperative.

Blancett is a sixth-generation New Mexican and a lifelong rancher, married to her husband, Linn, for 53 years. The 73-year-old has served in the statehouse before, as a Republican, representing a district in the Four Corners area for one term in the early 1980s, when she and Linn were ranching there.

Her political profile peaked, however, decades later when she drew national attention for fighting the gas and oil industry. People magazine wrote an article about her in 2002. Vanity Fair selected her as an “Eco Hero” for “fighting the George W. Bush administration’s push to expand oil and gas exploration.” Her celebrity even got her an appearance on “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart in 2004.

“That was a hoot!” she said in a phone interview this week.

Break with GOP

Blancett, who had campaigned for Bush in 2000, broke from the Republican Party because she didn’t like the politics.

“Because they wanted me to represent the party’s idea, instead of what I thought was good,” she said. “Even when I was in the Legislature, I had problems with them wanting me to follow a certain path, whether or not it was good.”

She says she didn’t sign on as a Democrat for the same reason.

“The Democrats are the same way. It’s crazy. That’s why I advocate for an open primary,” she said. “One-third of people can’t vote in the primary. What sense does that make? I’m just as valid a voter as my Democratic or Republican counterpart.”

Blancett, who now lives near Wagon Mound, said she decided to run for the District 40 seat after no Republican entered the race. “I didn’t want it to be a complete giveaway,” she said, lamenting the fact that there are so many legislative races that aren’t races at all, because there’s only one candidate. “I think there are 34 seats that are shoo-ins out of 70. It’s so out of balance.”

Blancett is running a bare-bones campaign. The first campaign finance report she filed this month shows just two contributions totaling $320. That includes a $300 contribution from “Rancher/Candidate” T. Tweeti Blancett, the “T” standing for Treciafaye, her given name.

She says she’s only accepting donations of $10 or less and not from anyone outside the district.

“I think it’s wrong the way we run elections,” she said. “I think there should be a limit – everybody gets to spend this much money, and that’s it. You go out and meet people, and if they choose to vote for you, great. If not, that’s OK.”

She’s also running because she thinks the small communities of District 40 need someone like her to represent their interests.

“This is one of the poorer districts in the state, for sure,” she said. “But we’re going to have money in the state Legislature this year, and I think we need to spend it on our rural areas, because these little rural communities have been neglected so long. We need to catch up.”

She realizes that running as an independent on little money makes her an underdog.

Blancett doesn’t have a Twitter account, despite her Tweeti nickname. (“I have 36 first cousins; we all have nicknames,” she said.) But she does have a Facebook page and a campaign website. Her site includes a photo of her with a quote by Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you … and then you win.”

“I have always taken on battles that often are not winnable, but that is no excuse to not try to change a bad condition,” she writes on the website.

Sanchez’s experience

Her opponent said he has experience changing bad conditions, pointing to his three years as CEO of Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative. There, he was in charge of all aspects of the operation, including business and member services, engineering and line operations.

“Part of the reason I took on the co-op job was to help fix the co-op, which had a long history of troubles,” he said. “When I came on, they were talking about going into bankruptcy and when I left, it had a $16 million balance.”

He brought in CPAs and engineers to address the co-op’s problems, “and brought in technologies to get us up to speed with the utility industry,” he said.

Sanchez said that, when Rep. Salazar announced he would vacate his seat, people encouraged him to run. “This was a chance to do something bigger,” he said. “I was born and raised in Rio Arriba and really want to help my community, and this was another way to do that.”

Sanchez lists his membership in Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northern New Mexico, and his position on the board of directors of the United Way of Northern New Mexico as other ways he serves his community.

Sanchez went back to work for LANL about 10 months ago. Prior to joining the co-op, he spent eight years as engineering manager in the Engineering Services Division at the lab. He says the combined experience has provided him with technical expertise in the energy industry and the regulatory process, and that, through his work, he has established partnerships and strengthened his leadership skills. On his website, he also touts the strong work ethic his family instilled in him as a child, his love for the rural and outdoor lifestyle, and his “deep appreciation of the ancient and multi-culture history of District 40.”

Sanchez doesn’t exactly have a large war chest, after spending nearly $60,000 in the Democratic primary when he garnered 47.7 percent of the vote to win a three-way race. His campaign finance report from Sept. 10 showed that his campaign had a balance of less than $1,000.

While many of the contributions he received during the primary season were relatively small amounts from individuals, his largest single contribution of $1,500 came from Chevron.

Sanchez has also received funding from political action committees. Enbridge U.S. Inc. of Houston, a natural gas distribution company listed as a PAC on his finance report, contributed $2,000. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers PAC contributed $1,000, and the Independent Community Bankers Association of New Mexico and the PNM Responsible Citizens Group each gave $500. His most recent report lists an in-kind contribution of $539.38 from the Brian Egolf Speaker Fund PAC.


T. Tweeti Blancett

POLITICAL PARTY: None

OCCUPATION: Rancher/hotelier

CITY OF RESIDENCE: Eagle Nest

RELEVANT EXPERIENCE: Former state representative, advocate for conservation issues on federal ranch lands, rancher, lifelong resident of New Mexico, small-business owner in District 40

EDUCATION: B.Sc. NMSU, M.A. UNM

CAMPAIGN WEBSITE: tweetiblancett.com


Joseph Louis Sanchez

POLITICAL PARTY: Democratic

OCCUPATION: Electrical engineer

CITY OF RESIDENCE: Alcalde

RELEVANT EXPERIENCE: I bring over 15 years of executive management and technical experience in the energy sector, and in the construction and operation of nuclear facilities for waste and research operations. My professional work includes: engineering manager, Engineering Services Division at LANL; electrical engineer in support of LANL construction and operation programs; and CEO of Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative, Inc. (JMEC). I have represented JMEC in state and local initiatives with other power providers for provision of power service under the jurisdiction of the state Public Regulation Commission.

EDUCATION: Bachelor’s Degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of New Mexico and two master’s degrees, one in Electrical Engineering, from UNM, and one in Business Administration, from NMSU.

CAMPAIGN WEBSITE: josephsanchezfornm.com


ISSUES QUESTIONS

1. What are the top two things you would do to improve the economy in New Mexico?

BLANCETT: New Mexico needs to fix its internal financial controls; we are a state that can’t keep its own government in order. 1. Give all state contracts to New Mexico-owned businesses. 2. For all state projects, buildings and construction, first bid to local contractors without the Little Davis Bacon rates.

SANCHEZ: Support the Office of the State Engineer/Interstate Stream Commission effort to help the 16 Regional Water Planning regions update their water plans. Without adequate water infrastructure, N.M. can’t address the many other water needs. We need to expand broadband infrastructure to rural areas for both education purposes and economic development.

2. What are the top two things you would propose to address the state’s high crime rate?

BLANCETT: (1) Make mental health and addiction treatment available in every community through state-operated or -contracted facilities since much crime is done by mentally ill or addicted people. (2) For the others, keep them off the streets, in jail and teach them something meaningful so they can work if and when they get out.

SANCHEZ: Prioritize funding for important public safety initiatives to improve safety and security, particularly in prevention, treatment and enforcement to end the drug cycle of the heroin and opioid issue, a massive driver for crime. We must ensure we take measures, like appropriate compensation, to attract law enforcement officers.

3. New Mexico now spends about $300 million a year for early childhood programs, such as home visiting, pre-kindergarten and child care assistance. Do you support or oppose a constitutional amendment that would withdraw more money from the Land Grant Permanent Fund to increase funding for early childhood services?

BLANCETT: No, I do not support more money from the severance fund! New Mexico needs to live within its means. Education is important, but too much goes to administration of the programs and there is lack of consolidation of programs within school districts, which contributes to the overall costs. Equalization needs to stay in place for all education.

SANCHEZ: Quality pre-K is one of the best investments we can make in our future by increasing distributions from our Permanent School Fund — a sensible investment to help the economy now and ensure every child has the best opportunity. This investment should include a safeguard to ensure the viability of the fund.

4. Do you support or oppose legalizing recreational marijuana use in New Mexico and taxing its sales?

BLANCETT: We can look to Colorado to see how a state can regulate a drug that has fewer social costs than liquor and cigarettes. They have a strong industry employing many people and are funding treatment centers. If we legalize, I would want to see really tough penalties for anyone who buys for or gives pot to minors.

SANCHEZ: I fully support medical use and am open to supporting recreational marijuana if the pros outweigh the cons. We can look at other states with similar demographics and their impact with recreational marijuana.

5. Do you support or oppose raising New Mexico’s minimum wage, currently $7.50 per hour? If so, by how much?

BLANCETT: Support, but not sure to what level.

SANCHEZ: I support a raise for the minimum wage in New Mexico. The number determined should not have a negative impact on our small businesses. Basic economics tells us when money moves, the economy moves.

6. Do you support or oppose opening the state’s primary elections to voters who aren’t affiliated with either major political party?

BLANCETT: Support. I’m running for state representative in the worse gerrymandered district in the state of New Mexico. … All registered votes in New Mexico should be able to vote in any public election, without being a member of a party, for the candidate of their choice. Our closed primary system disenfranchises a third of all voters in New Mexico … .

SANCHEZ: They have a constitutional right to vote. Unaffiliated voters are a large voting bloc; however, they should pick one primary to vote in — they can’t vote in both. For transparency purposes, the primary they choose should become public information, to bring more clarity to the voting patterns of these non-party people.

7. Do you favor making New Mexico a sanctuary state?

BLANCETT: No, New Mexico should play by the same rules as other states, but any religious establishment that chooses to become a sanctuary area should be allowed to.

SANCHEZ: Yes.


PERSONAL BACKGROUND

1. Have you or your business, if you are a business owner, ever been the subject of any state or federal tax liens?

BLANCETT: No.

SANCHEZ: N/A.

2. Have you ever been involved in a personal or business bankruptcy proceeding?

BLANCETT: No.

SANCHEZ: No.

3. Have you ever been arrested for, charged with, or convicted of drunken driving, any misdemeanor or any felony in New Mexico or any other state? If so, explain.

BLANCETT: No.

SANCHEZ: I failed to appear in connection with a citation for failing to wear a seat belt. I was subsequently charged with failing to appear. After appearing on this charge, the matter was resolved and charges dismissed.

Editor’s note: Sanchez’s answers presented here are from a Journal questionnaire he submitted for the June Democratic primary, in which he defeated two opponents. He had not submitted answers to the Journal’s general election questionnaire, updated with some different questions, by this week’s Journal North deadline.

Questionnaires from legislative candidates, with questions on a longer list of issues, will be posted at abqjournal.com.

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