Senate candidates clash in TV debate

Libertarian Gary Johnson, Democrat Martin Heinrich and Republican Mick Rich, from left, participate in a debate Friday sponsored by KOAT-TV and the Albuquerque Journal. (Greg Sorber/Journal)

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

In a freewheeling, tumultuous debate, U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich and his two opponents spent an hour late Friday questioning one another sharply, interrupting one another’s answers and taking turns making their pitch to voters.

Libertarian Gary Johnson and Republican Mick Rich seized on the first televised debate of the campaign to send barbed comments Heinrich’s way and cast themselves as the right choice to represent New Mexico in the U.S. Senate.

Johnson was by far the most lively – pointing his finger at Heinrich at one point.

He and Heinrich mixed it up on Johnson’s budget vetoes during his tenure as governor and whether Johnson’s calls to reduce government spending would damage New Mexico military bases.

Johnson disputed the idea that addressing the federal budget deficit – a defining issue for his campaign – would harm the state. Instead, he said, the state should gain military assets from elsewhere in the country because of New Mexico’s climate, airspace and other strengths.

“It’s an argument unique to New Mexico,” Johnson said. “I think we’ll end up gaining assets.”

Heinrich, a Democrat seeking re-election to a second term, said he didn’t buy it.

“I just don’t think it’s credible to say we’re going to cut everywhere else, other than New Mexico,” Heinrich said. “I think that’s a pretty flippant answer.”

Rich, a contractor who has worked across the state, focused much of his energy on questioning Heinrich’s commitment to New Mexico. He said Heinrich actually lives in Maryland.

“He has become a Washington politician,” Rich said. “He has abandoned New Mexico.”

Rich also turned to a few lines over and over.

“I care about New Mexico,” he said, a phrase he repeated, in some version, about five more times.

He cast himself as someone who would support President Donald Trump’s judicial nominees and work to boost border security and fight to safeguard and expand New Mexico’s military workforce.

The candidates’ pointed comments came during a 60-minute debate aired by KOAT-TV late Friday and jointly sponsored by the Journal.

The three candidates responded to questions from Journal Senior Editor Kent Walz and KOAT anchors Shelly Ribando and Doug Fernandez.

Heinrich, a former Albuquerque city councilor who also served in the U.S. House, pitched himself as a bipartisan workhorse who was committed to working across the aisle to craft legislation on immigration, energy policy and other topics, in addition to bringing federal jobs to the state.

“I think New Mexicans deserve an economy that works for all of us, not just the few,” Heinrich said.

Johnson described himself as someone who had taken a one-person handyman business and grown it into a large and successful company. His tenure as governor from 1995 to 2002, he said, demonstrated his commitment to honesty and transparency.

“I wasn’t a wallflower as governor,” he said.

Johnson said free market principles and competition could help improve health care, education and the economy.

The candidates challenged one another often, sometimes speaking over one another and drawing warnings from Fernandez, the moderator.

Heinrich said Rich’s construction company was late finishing a project at the New Mexico Military Institute.

Rich responded by saying his son was now leading the company, but that the job would be finished.

“I have a great reputation in this state as a contractor,” he said. “… Sen. Heinrich has yet to build anything for the last 10 years in Washington.”

Johnson said he was happy to see Heinrich in person, suggesting the incumbent was avoiding forums with his challengers. Johnson said that in his 1998 re-election campaign for governor, he debated his opponent 28 times.

“It’s great to see you, by the way,” Johnson said to Heinrich, “because we haven’t seen each other this whole time.”

Heinrich responded: “Usually when I see you, Gary, it’s on a ski lift.”

Johnson: “You’ve seen me one time! You’ve seen me one time for two minutes.”

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