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Moderate NM Senate Dems could face primary foes

Sen. John Arthur Smith

Sen. Mary Kay Papen

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – With the dust from New Mexico’s 60-day legislative session finally settled, progressive groups are already taking aim at some moderate Senate Democrats who helped put the brakes on several high-profile bills.

Those who could face challenges include two longtime lawmakers who hold key positions: Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith of Deming and Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces.

But the state’s Democratic Party chairwoman says there’s no “litmus test” for legislators who are elected to represent diverse districts statewide – and no punishment for Democrats who stray from the party’s platform.

“We put the platform out there and we don’t chop anyone’s head off for not following it 100 percent,” party Chairwoman Marg Elliston told the Journal.

She also said the state Democratic Party is “not in the business” of deciding who should run in primary elections, while adding that she saw more unity than division among Democrats on critical issues during this year’s legislative session.

With Democrats currently holding a majority in both legislative chambers and all 112 legislative seats up for election next year, the schism between progressive and more moderate Democrats could be an issue to watch.

Former state Sen. Eric Griego of Albuquerque, who now heads a progressive advocacy group, said this year’s session brought victories from his perspective on legislation related to voter registration, public schools and gun restrictions.

But he said a small group of conservative Senate Democrats, several of whom hold key positions in the chamber, played a key role in stymieing bills dealing with more money for early childhood programs from the state’s largest permanent fund, legalizing recreational marijuana use and repealing a long-dormant state abortion ban.

“Most of those bills, had they gone to the floor they would have passed,” Griego said in a recent interview, alluding to the fact the permanent fund and marijuana bills were both bottled up in the Senate Finance Committee without a final vote being taken.

He said groups are already working on organizing primary election challenges for next year, while predicting that at least four Senate Democrats will face “serious” and “credible” primary opponents.

“It’s a conservative coalition that’s out of step with Democratic values,” said Griego, who is the state director of the New Mexico Working Families Party, a progressive advocacy group. “They’re undermining potential change in our state.”

The four senators he cited are Democratic Sens. Clemente Sanchez of Grants and Gabriel Ramos of Silver City, along with Smith and Papen.

Papen has been the Senate president pro tem since 2013, while both Smith and Sanchez are influential committee chairs. Smith has been in the Senate for 30-plus years, while Papen was first elected to the chamber in 2000. The other two senators are more recent arrivals.

Smith said he’s not worried about a possible primary challenge, adding more liberal House Democrats will have to explain to voters why they supported a tax package that would have raised certain rates and generated more than $350 million in additional revenue annually.

That tax legislation was pared back by the Senate before being signed into law.

“I’ve been a target before and I’ll be a target again,” said Smith, who pointed out voters in three counties encompassed fully or partially by his southwest New Mexico district supported Republican Steve Pearce over Lujan Grisham in last year’s gubernatorial race.

For his part, Sanchez said he’s also not sweating the possibility of a contested primary. He said he’s heard mostly positive feedback from constituents in his largely rural district since the session ended March 16.

“I don’t own the seat, so anybody has the right to run,” he said in an interview. “If we go to Santa Fe and govern based on the next election, than we’re not doing the job right.”

Progressive challengers

Progressive New Mexico Democrats have a history, at least in recent years, of ousting long-term incumbent lawmakers in primary elections.

Current Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller was among several progressive Democrats to win election to the Legislature in 2008 – Griego was also among the group – by knocking off more moderate office-holders like Shannon Robinson and James Taylor.

In last year’s election, northern New Mexico House members Debbie Rodella and Carl Trujillo, both of whom were considered to be business-friendly Democrats, were unseated by primary foes.

But such attempts have not always been successful, as both Smith and former Sen. Phil Griego, who was later convicted of bribery and other public corruption charges, rebuffed primary challengers backed by teachers unions and conservation groups in 2012.

Part of progressives’ challenge in trying to unseat conservative Democrats in next year’s election cycle will be that many of the targeted lawmakers represent districts outside the progressive strongholds of Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Las Cruces.

Sanchez, who was first elected to the Senate in 2012, said many voters in his district – it includes parts of Cibola, Valencia, McKinley and Socorro counties – share his moderate views and fiscal conservatism.

“I think I fit that profile for my constituency,” Sanchez said.

But progressive leaders say members of the conservative coalition in the Senate also represent districts with high poverty rates, and argue those legislators have not done enough to address child well-being issues.

Stephanie Maez, the executive director of ProgressNow New Mexico, said the group will embark on a voter education effort before next year’s election cycle, though she said it was too early to provide specifics.

In the past, the nonprofit group has launched billboards targeting certain lawmakers.

“Now is the time to be bold,” Maez, a former state House member, told the Journal.

“We had eight years of real harm done to our tax code and our environmental legacy,” she added, referring to the administration of former Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican.

Above the political fray

One person who has largely stayed out of the political fray when it comes to the Legislature is Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who took office in January.

While Lujan Grisham expressed disappointment that some of her agenda – including a bill that called for more money from the Land Grant Permanent Fund for early childhood programs – did not win approval by legislators this year, she has described the session overall as among the most productive in state history.

She has also largely refrained from publicly criticizing lawmakers, instead complimenting them for hammering out compromises on bills to increase New Mexico’s minimum wage and enact changes to the state’s tax code.

“I am not about attacking any group in the Legislature whose job it is to be the fiduciary for taxpayers,” Lujan Grisham said during a ceremonial bill-signing event this month for the minimum wage legislation.

Democrats will hold their biannual State Central Committee meeting in Rio Rancho later this month. Next year’s primary election is scheduled for June 2, 2020.

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