Early this year, neither of the two candidates for House District 46 now on the ballot for the Nov. 6 general ballot was expected to be there.
But Andrea Romero emerged with an upset victory after a brutal Democratic primary campaign fight with incumbent Rep. Carl Trujillo, in which both candidates faced harsh criticism – Trujillo for alleged sexual harassment, which he denies, and Romero for accusations that she and others misused public dollars from a little-known group focused on seeking federal money to clean up hazardous waste at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the jobs that come with it.
Trujillo may now be out of the picture as far as the campaign goes, but one of his supporters isn’t.
Heather Nordquist, who works at LANL, is running as a write-in candidate. She was part of a citizens group that first raised questions about spending by the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities (RCLC) while Romero was executive director.
Nordquist says she never expected to run for office. But when Romero defeated Trujillo in the June primary for House District 46 last June, things changed.
“I couldn’t in good conscience let her to be the presumed representative in my district,” Nordquist said in a recent interview. No Republican sought the House 46 seat.
Another angle in the race is tribal influence in northern Santa Fe County.
Romero has the financial support of area pueblos. Meanwhile, Northern New Mexico Protects, the residents’ group that Nordquist is associated with and that first raised the financial questions about Romero’s travel reimbursements at the RCLC, has been at odds with the pueblos on several fronts – water rights litigation, tribal claims to area roads and plans for a high-voltage power line through residential areas that some pueblos favor, with payments for easements through tribal land pending from the power company.
Responding to criticism from opponents of her campaign support by tribes, Romero says, “Those are communities investing in a candidate they believe in.”
Regrets from Romero
Nordquist says she believes accountability and transparency are the tenets of good government, and Romero failed that test while serving as staff head of the RCLC.
The State Auditor’s Office says that more than $50,000 in “improper expenditure payments” were made to Romero, the director who preceded her, RCLC board members, or other third parties from July 2014 to June 2018. More than half the amount – nearly $27,000 – went to Andrea Romero Consulting Inc., which had been operating under a $140,000-per-year contract to provide director services for the coalition.
Romero, who no longer works for the RCLC, has apologized and accepted responsibility for mistakes that were made, but she insists that she didn’t knowingly do anything improper. And she makes the point that all of the expenses she submitted for reimbursement were approved by the RCLC board – made up of elected officials or other leaders from area cities, counties and pueblos – or its treasurer.
Nevertheless, Nordquist says, “Certainly, there were lapses in judgment on her part.”
Among those lapses, according to Nordquist, was Romero’s reaction to an initial audit by Los Alamos County, the RCLC’s fiscal agent, that identified more than $2,000 in expenses that did not comply with the coalition’s travel policies, including payments for alcohol and tickets to a Major League Baseball game while on a trip to Washington, D.C., last year.
In an initial, written response to the RCLC board, Romero suggested that members of Northern New Mexico Protects should be investigated. She noted that two of NNMP’s leaders – including Nordquist, who was serving as executive vice-president of NNMP at the time – work at LANL and may have violated lab rules “in their effort to disparage (the coalition) and me for a political purpose.”
By then, Romero was a candidate in the Democratic Party primary against Rep. Trujillo, who soon became subject of controversy over the allegations of sexual harassment by a lobbyist.
However, the initial public records request related to her expenditures by an NNMP member was made in December, weeks before Romero announced her candidacy. NNMP said its records request wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. It had requested records from other entities, such as the Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative.
So, when Romero defeated Trujillo in the June primary with 53 percent of the vote, Nordquist remembered Romero’s letter calling for a probe of NNMP members.
“That was the catalyst,” Nordquist admitted when asked about what motivated her to run as a longshot write-in. “I think it does take some animus to go after someone for raising questions about how public money is being spent.”
Romero now says she does have regrets about handling it that way.
“I think I would do it differently,” she said, adding that she felt some pressure to defend herself and had only a short time to respond. “I don’t think it was necessary to bring them into it.”
No excuse not to run
So what was Romero’s motivation to run?
“I think, like so many candidates across the country, it was November 2016,” she said of the month Donald J. Trump was elected President. “That was earth shaking.”
All politics are local, they say. “So, I started looking at what was going on in my local community and it turned out that my sitting legislator had misaligned values from the Democratic value proposition that I think we hold dear as Democrats,” she said, referring to Rep. Carl Trujillo. She had concerns about his positions on such things as women’s reproductive rights and gun legislation, she said.
But Romero, who had been politically active prior to that, having worked for Alan Webber’s campaign for governor in 2014, wasn’t interested in running against Trujillo.
“Nobody was,” she said. “Everybody was like, no, he’s too powerful and aggressive.”
Finally, she relented.
“I was like, I guess I don’t really have an excuse (not to),” she said. “For me, I couldn’t go to bed at night and say I didn’t try. That’s kind of how it happened.”
“It’s an honor and a privilege to be the Democratic candidate and being able to connect with people who are passionate about making the state a better place,” she said. “To be in a position to help them is what I care about the most.”
Romero, 31, grew up on Santa Fe’s south side until about the age of 10 when her parents split up. From then until she went to off to college to study political science at Stanford, she and her younger brother split time between her father, who stayed in Santa Fe, and her mother, who moved around northern New Mexico to places like La Mesilla, Chimayó and Española, finally settling in Nambé. She attended Santa Fe Public Schools and graduated from Santa Fe High in 2005.
After graduating from Stanford, Romero spent a few years in Africa working for the International Food Policy Research Institute. Returning to New Mexico, she started her consulting company. Since 2014, she has served as executive director of MIX Santa Fe, a city-supported group that promotes economic development, and she co-owns Tall Foods, an startup ostrich ranching operation currently exploring ways to develop probiotic products from their eggs.
Issues lead to activism
Nordquist was born in Los Alamos and raised in El Rancho, where she lives with her husband, Terry, and three rescued dogs. Nordquist, 44, says she was a year behind New Mexico Congressman Ben Ray Lujan while attending Pojoaque schools. But she graduated from Los Alamos High, transferring there her senior year.
After high school, she worked as a travel agent and in the specialty foods industry before she got a job in LANL’s travel office in 1999. She also began taking computer science and math classes, which helped her secure a staff job as a nuclear safeguards specialist. She lived in Vienna, Austria, for five years, serving as a remote monitoring specialist.
“When we got back in 2014, everything started bubbling up,” she said of a series of issues that affected the people in her neighborhood. Water rights disputes arising from the Aamodt case, pueblo claims to roads that county government had maintained, acequia rights and power line easements led her to become a community advocate and activist. She and others formed NNMP.
Nordquist says she has drawn support in her run for the House seat from people she has tried to help. She has raised about $20,000 for her campaign – a lot for a write-in candidate – most of it coming in increments of $100 or less from individuals with addresses within District 46. She has also loaned her campaign about $3,300. According to her latest campaign finance report dated Oct. 8, she had just $979 left in the bank four weeks before Election Day. She has had only one corporate donor.
“I have one donation from Santa Fe Dog, LLC, a local dog trainer who lives in my district,” she wrote on her campaign’s Facebook page this week. “I have one PAC donation, from the Luciano “Lucky” Varela PAC, and am so grateful for Jeff Varela and his family’s belief that I can serve constituents in the spirit of Lucky’s legacy.”
Santa Fe Dog gave her $150, while the Varela PAC gave $250. Her biggest contributors are retirees Michael and Judy Johnson, who share the same Santa Fe address, who each gave $2,500; and Alex Trujillo, also of Santa Fe, who contributed $1,500.
Nordquist has signed the pledge by American Promise, a national advocacy group that supports amending the U.S. Constitution to limit the amount of money in politics.
“If you are seeing cries of outrage over imaginary benefits that I derive from certain special interests, while ignoring the $500 pharma check that my opponent accepted, her thousands of dollars of gaming money donations, her many out-of-state donors, or the tens of thousands of dollars of dark money that were used to help her win the primary, congratulations!” says her Facebook message. “You are officially afflicted with a severe case of cognitive dissonance.”
Romero, meanwhile, had $16,334 still in the bank. She had raised and spent more than $50,000 in her successful primary campaign. She has raised more than $32,000 since then.
Among her biggest contributors since July 1 are the union groups American Federation of State, County and Municipal Workers ($2,500), Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 412 ($1,000), American Teacher Federation-New Mexico ($750) and National Education Association ($500).
She has gotten significant support from Native American groups and tribes. Isleta, Pojoaque and Sandia pueblos each contributed the maximum $2,500 to her campaign, while the Zuni tribe gave $500 and the Fort Sill Apache tribe of Oklahoma gave $250. Tsay Corp., a construction company based on Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, gave $500. She also received in-kind contributions totaling more than $600 from pueblo entities and properties, including Nambé Pueblo and Pojoaque’s Buffalo Thunder Resort.
Romero says she’s not taking any money from oil and gas interests “because it functions as the state’s revenue generator.”
But, as mentioned by Nordquist in her Facebook post, she is accepting money from the pharmaceutical industry, which critics blame for the opioid crisis that has swept the nation and is rampant in the district she hopes to represent. Denver-based Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America contributed $500 to Romero’s campaign.
Romero doesn’t see anything wrong with taking money from drug makers, promising “it won’t have any bearing on what I think it’ll take to eradicate opioid addiction. My loyalties are with the people of New Mexico, not to any pharmaceutical company.”
Out-of-state PACs Emily’s List, which supports progressive women candidates, has given Romero $1,500 and Enterprise Holdings has donated $250.
HOUSE DISTRICT 46 CANDIDATES
Andrea D. Romero
POLITICAL PARTY: Democratic (party nominee)
CITY OF RESIDENCE: Santa Fe
RELEVANT EXPERIENCE: Consultant, director, CEO/founder
EDUCATION: Stanford University, Bachelor of Arts in Political Science, 2009; Santa Fe High School graduate, 2005
CAMPAIGN WEBSITE: andrearomero.com
POLITICAL PARTY: Democratic (write-in candidate)
OCCUPATION: R&D Scientist III
CITY OF RESIDENCE: El Rancho
RELEVANT EXPERIENCE: Community activist
EDUCATION: B.Sc. Computer Science, UNM, 2004
CAMPAIGN WEBSITE: nordquistforhd46.com
1. What are the top two things you would do to improve the economy in New Mexico?
NORDQUIST: New Mexico must invest in broadband infrastructure and our education system to attract businesses. K-12 STEM programs are key to a workforce ready for the jobs of the future.
ROMERO: First, expand opportunities for northern New Mexico that build on our strengths: food production, science and technology, arts and cultural works, hunting and fishing, outdoor recreation, tourism, and entrepreneurialism. Second, increase solar and wind production in northern New Mexico, providing better paying jobs in tech, construction, transmission, and energy storage.
2. What are the top two things you would propose to address the state’s high crime rate?
NORDQUIST: The opioid epidemic is a large contributor to our crime problem. Solving it will require more treatment options and decriminalization of small drug infractions in favor of rehabilitation.
ROMERO: We must focus on early childhood education programs, which are proven to increase graduation rates and salary earnings later in life, and second, provide more drug and alcohol treatment programs, which are often the root cause of much of the crime wave we see today.
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?
NORDQUIST: I support more funding for early childhood education, but also want to make sure that this funding is available every year. We must assure that more early childhood teachers are trained and that enough providers are available.
ROMERO: Support. Pre-K and other early childhood programs are essential so children entering kindergarten are ready to learn. It is has a $5 return on every $1 invested. Pre-K programs have been proven to create longer term benefits — reduced incidents of special education, higher graduation rates, and higher earnings as an adult.
4. Do you support or oppose legalizing recreational marijuana use in New Mexico and taxing its sales?
ROMERO: I support. With the right policy, legalizing recreational marijuana will allow police to focus on violent criminals, reduce overcrowding in prisons, make an easily accessible drug safer, and will add hundreds of millions of dollars to the state budget.
5. Do you support or oppose raising New Mexico’s minimum wage, currently $7.50 per hour? If so, by how much?
NORDQUIST: I would support raising the state wage to $10 in the near term. We must look at the impact these wages would have on our small businesses for further hikes.
ROMERO: Women and minorities make up a disproportionate number of minimum wage workers — so raising the minimum wage helps address unfair wage gaps. It’s been almost 10 years since the legislature raised the minimum wage, yet costs continue to rise. I support phasing in a minimum wage of $15 per hour.
6. Do you support or oppose opening the state’s primary elections to voters who aren’t affiliated with either major political party?
NORDQUIST: I would support open primaries. More and more New Mexicans are not affiliated with a party, and we should be encouraging more participation in the picking of representatives that more closely mirror the views of a larger part of the electorate.
ROMERO: Support. Open primaries have been proven to increase voter participation, which is always a good thing.
7. Do you favor making New Mexico a sanctuary state?
NORDQUIST: Yes. The sanctuary status is meant to assure that our local resources are not abused by federal authorities in prosecuting immigration cases, and I fully support that.
ROMERO: Support. I will defend immigrant communities from the egregious methods used by federal ICE programs of systematically tearing families apart. I will stand against all efforts that target immigrant families and attempt to deport productive, law-abiding, tax-paying members of New Mexico communities.
1. Have you or your business, if you are a business owner, ever been the subject of any state or federal tax liens?
2. Have you ever been involved in a personal or business bankruptcy proceeding?
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.
NORDQUIST: Under the latest animal control ordinance in Santa Fe County, I was just convicted of a misdemeanor because my dog got out of our yard. Around 1996, I had two misdemeanors. One was an open container (I was the passenger, not the driver). The other, I don’t remember the name of the charge, but I threw a phone at my boyfriend, he’s now 19 years my husband.