In sprawling House District 50, a Democratic incumbent seeking his third term faces off against a well-funded independent candidate hoping to be the first non-major party candidate ever elected to the New Mexico Legislature.
Lamy resident and former Santa Fe school board member Jarratt Applewhite is running against state Rep. Matthew McQueen, an attorney and Galisteo resident who has represented the district since 2015.
Applewhite says he’s not running against McQueen per se.
In fact, the two agree on several major issues. At a candidate forum in Eldorado last month, they found common ground on issues such as expanding early childhood education, prioritizing economic development, opening up primary elections to all voters regardless of party affiliation, promoting renewable energy and supporting women’s reproductive rights.
Applewhite, 67, said he’s running against the two-party system. The former Democrat who served on the Santa Fe school board in the 1990s said he switched his registration to “decline to state” shortly after moving to Lamy about 10 years ago.
“I’ve been cranky for a long time,” he said. “I’ve seen both parties abandon their middles and become more extreme. And I’ve watched the primary process become the only elections that count.”
His main motivations for running are to support independent process for establishing political districts (like House districts), open primaries and more open ballot access for candidates
He says District 50 – spanning through parts of Santa Fe, Torrance, Valencia and Bernallilo counties, from Eldorado east of Santa Fe to the outskirts of Belén – was gerrymandered following the past census to become “forever blue” – Democratic – and to separate communities of interest.
“They took out half of Moriarty (and) half of Edgewood,” he said. “They took out all of Estancia and replaced those Republicans with Eldoradans who couldn’t tell you where the Estancia basin is if their life depended on it.”
Applewhite said the Eldorado community now makes up about 45 percent of the district’s voters, and about 4,500 voters were added south of Belen who he said should be voting with others who live in the southern Rio Grande Corridor.
McQueen acknowledged the district’s “challenging” shape, citing the half day’s drive to go back and forth to visit constituents in Rio Communities east of Belén, but says that doesn’t mean it’s gerrymandered.
Like Applewhite, he supports an independent redistricting process, but said District 50 wasn’t drawn by Democrats; it was drawn by a court with representation from both parties at the table, he said.
McQueen added that he understands the need to represent that diverse district, mentioning he’s promoted an “open-door policy” during his time as a representative.
“The people in Chilili and Bernallilo County are just as important to me as the people in this room,” McQueen said during the Eldorado candidate forum. “I’ve worked my ass off representing the entire district.”
Applewhite has actually outraised McQueen during the current election cycle, when the money Applewhite himself has put into the campaign is included.
Applewhite had raised $51,417 by Sept. 10, compared to $38,500 for McQueen. The incumbent had a $17,000 balance coming into the campaign. As of the latest campaign financing reports, McQueen had $45,114 in cash on hand to just $5,720 for Applewhite. But Applewhite has already spent $45,700, compared to $11,200 by McQueen.
A troubled teen
Applewhite describes himself as a “10th-grade dropout” – though he later earned his GED in the 1970s – who ran away to New Mexico in a Volkswagen van when he was 17. His father worked for the CIA and later as a liaison for former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Applewhite was born in Germany and the family later spent time living in Beirut, Lebanon, and Washington, D.C.
After arriving in New Mexico, he started working as a farrier and a vet technician. He transitioned into real estate after starting his family. He and his wife of 37 years, Dinah, have three adult children. His daughter Faith is a city of Santa Fe firefighter and his two other children, Amenity and Elias, both live and work in Austin.
In the late ’90s, Applewhite co-founded a still-operating IT company, SambaSafety, that examines drivers’ credentials for fleet operators. He left after several years and headed a venture capital fund spearheaded by Santa Fe’s McCune Foundation to provide funding for local businesses. He briefly worked as the chief financial analyst for the New Mexico Finance Authority before retiring in 2009.
Since then, he said, he’s gone “full circle” back to his horse life, building a barn at his Lamy home and tending to his or other people’s horses.
Because of the wide-ranging House District, Applewhite says he has three separate campaigns. In Eldorado, he’s promoting “restoring our democracy.” In Torrance County, it’s to bring the Estancia Valley back into District 50. And in Valencia County, it’s putting Rio Communities back into a district that includes the Rio Grande corridor.
“The census is coming up in two years and, in three years, these (legislative districts) are going to be redrawn,” he continued.
He wants to bring together “the city fathers in Edgewood and Moriarty and Estancia, and the county commissions.”
“Even if I’m unsuccessful in any independent redistricting, if their voices can become loud enough that the old boundaries can be restored, guess what? I’m not going to move to Moriarty to retain my seat. And I can go back to horses.”
According to campaign finance reports, Applewhite contributed about $5,500 and loaned more than $27,000 to his campaign. He has also received thousands from other political independents across the country. He explained that the money comes through Unite America, an organization that supports independent candidate campaigns nationwide. The amounts, ranging from about $2 to $1,000, come from Unite America supporters who either donate to his campaign directly or make a general donation to the organization, which divides it among its highlighted candidates.
Campaign financing has been a tense subject in the campaign. At their forum, both candidates addressed the need for campaign financing reform, but Applewhite criticized McQueen for receiving money from PACs, lobbyists and special interests.
In an interview, however, McQueen noted that he doesn’t receive many industry contributions – his current campaign finance reports indicate $200 from the New Mexico Gas Company PAC. Other than that, he recalls receiving $150 from BP once last year.
McQueen has raised about $38,500 in contributions. He told voters at the recent forum that he accepts PAC money, primarily from “leadership PACs,” because he cannot shell out thousands of dollars for his campaign like Applewhite. His finance reports show contributions from the House Democratic Committee PAC, the Brian Egolf Speaker Fund, and PACs from such organizations as the state’s Bankers Association, Realtor’s Association and American Federation of Teachers.
‘I want to go back’
In a recent interview, McQueen said if there was one word to describe his time in the Legislature, it would be “frustrating.”
“We as Democrats have been playing defense for eight years,” he said. “My four years in the Legislature, we haven’t had a partner in the governor’s office.” He said he is looking forward to that changing if Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham wins the race to replace Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.
The 51-year-old Southern California native and attorney who specializes in areas like conservation easements and land use has lived in New Mexico for more than 20 years. McQueen currently practices with a law partner in Santa Fe, though he has previously worked for such nonprofits as the Santa Fe Conservation Trust, as well as for the Office of the State Engineer.
He currently lives in Galisteo with his wife Caroline and his two young kids, 4-year-old Jack and 2-year-old Cate.
In his professional life, McQueen recently served as the attorney for the Santa Fe Gateway Alliance, a nonprofit organization that fought the controversial development of a Pilot Flying J truck stop on Interstate 25 just outside of Santa Fe over concerns about pollution, crime and dangerous traffic. The development was denied by the County Commission and an appeal in District Court was recently withdrawn. McQueen said he hopes that means the battle is over.
“I think it was a great win for the community,” he said of the Gateway Alliance’s success. “And that’s the kind of client I take on. If Pilot Flying J had approached me to represent their side, I would’ve said no.” He also represented residents who opposed a gravel mine proposed on La Bajada Mesa.
McQueen said he’s able to use his environmental background as the current chair of the House Energy, Environmental and Natural Resources Committee. He is also co-chair of the interim Water and Natural Resources Committee, and a member of the Judiciary Committee.
As a representative, however, he said one needs to become a “generalist.” If re-elected, he said he would continue pushing for bills that he’s introduced in previous sessions. These include a bill that requires public officials convicted on corruption charges to forfeit their pensions; restructuring the state’s Game Commission appointee process; and a bill that would make life skills-based classes that cover topics like financial and media literacy a graduation requirement for high school students.
He also discussed reintroducing a bill banning “bump stocks,” devices that allow semiautomatic weapons to fire more quickly, which was proposed for the 2018 session, but not put on the agenda by Gov. Martinez. In next year’s 60-day session, bills can be introduced without approval from the governor.
He also expressed interest in introducing a bill that allows communities to create their own mid-sized solar projects.
He views the 2019 session as a “golden opportunity” for the state to make positive changes.
“I want to go back,” he told the voters at the Eldorado forum. “There is work to be done, and I’m ready to go back to do it.”