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Key Democratic legislator may face primary challenge

Sen. Mary Kay Papen

SANTA FE – A Las Cruces Democrat who works with developmentally disabled people has announced her campaign for a state Senate seat, setting up a potential 2020 primary showdown with a top-ranking senator.

Tracy Perry, who is making her first run for elected office, said she is not daunted by the prospect of taking on Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, for the Senate District 38 seat.


Tracy Perry

“It’s time for a change,” Perry said, adding that she plans to run on a progressive platform and has already started raising money for next year’s race.

A single mother and cancer survivor, Perry is the chief executive officer of Direct Therapy Services, which works with people with developmental disabilities. She said she has spent time in Santa Fe lobbying for changes to a state system that, in recent years, has featured a large backlog of people waiting for services.

“I know what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck,” she told the Journal. “I feel like I would be a great voice for the people.”

Papen, 87, said Thursday that she has not decided whether she will run next year for another four-year term.

“I’m not a spring chicken, and I don’t own the seat,” said Papen, who added that there are still issues she wants to work on at the Roundhouse, including autism awareness.

But she is one of several moderate Senate Democrats who angered some progressives during this year’s 60-day legislative session by opposing proposals to take more money from New Mexico’s largest permanent fund for early childhood programs, repeal a long-dormant abortion ban and legalize recreational marijuana use.

Papen has served in the Senate since 2001 and was elected Senate president pro tem in 2013. In that position, she plays a key role in assigning members to committees, where a majority of legislative debate occurs.

As a senator, Papen emerged as a leading critic of former Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration’s 2013 move to freeze Medicaid payments for 15 behavioral health providers due to alleged overpayments and possible fraud. But she also has voted with Republicans on several hot-button issues, including the 2015 confirmation of ex-Public Education Secretary Hanna Skandera.

Perry said Thursday she wants to provide district voters with a choice during the 2020 election cycle, but said her candidacy is “not about Mary Kay Papen.”

“It’s about my campaign and what I can bring to the district,” she said.

The Senate District 38 seat encompasses parts of Las Cruces and stretches south to the Mexican border.

It is a Democratic-leaning district, and Papen easily defeated Republican general election opponents during her last two re-election campaigns. She has not faced a Democratic primary opponent since her first run for the seat in 2000.

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