On a sunny Sunday in mid-October, Heather Wilson stood in the backyard of a modest home in Bernalillo County’s South Valley discussing health care, job creation and other issues with supporters.
As small children chased one another around the lawn, the former congresswoman and Republican candidate for U.S. Senate flashed her intellect but showed none of the stiff-on-the-stump demeanor of past campaigns.
Answering a question about the sweeping health care bill that President Barack Obama signed into law in 2010, Wilson drew laughs when she said she didn’t mind if her two teenage children remained on her health insurance until they are 26 years old — as the new law allows — as long as they get “out of my refrigerator.”
Turning serious, Wilson said Congress should scrap the Affordable Care Act, commonly referred to as Obamacare.
“I think the health care law was a mistake, and I think it needs to be repealed and replaced,” Wilson said, while peppering her remarks with references to “disproportionate share providers” and “hospital payment rates.”
“The government in Washington doesn’t have a clue how this will affect businesses.”
Aiming to return
Wilson, 51, represented New Mexico’s Albuquerque-based 1st Congressional District from 1998 through 2008. In a Journal interview, the former congresswoman explained why she wants to return to Washington and serve in the U.S. Senate.
“I’m concerned about the future of this country and this state,” Wilson said. “We are the first generation to leave less to our children than our parents did. I think it’s morally wrong.”
Wilson has vowed to help spur business growth by supporting tax cuts and reducing regulations she says hinder job creation. She wants to extend tax cuts for everyone, including families making more than $250,000 per year, reasoning that many of those households are the owners of small businesses.
Wilson said she would oppose any effort to privatize Social Security, although in 2002 — when the U.S. was sitting on a massive budget surplus — she endorsed the idea of “personalized” Social Security accounts.
She has not taken a clear position on a controversial, federal budget blueprint put forth by Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican vice presidential nominee.
Ryan’s budget proposal would convert Medicare to a voucher program, but only for those 54 and younger. The House Budget Committee chairman contends the change is necessary to preserve a program headed for bankruptcy.
Wilson has said she has “serious concerns” about the voucher element of Ryan’s plan. The Ryan budget has become a political lightning rod in the presidential campaign, as well as congressional races around the country.
Wilson supports extending the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and contends it will create thousands of new jobs. Most Democrats — including Rep. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., her opponent in the Senate race — oppose the extension and vigorously dispute the employment claims.
Jobs, jobs, jobs
Wilson, who won five elections in a congressional district in which Democrats outnumber Republicans, says the Senate campaign “is about jobs.”
“The economy is growing slower now than it was in 2010. It seems to me that increasing taxes on small businesses — the people who have the ability to grow jobs — doesn’t make sense,” Wilson said.
“The cost of groceries is up, the cost of gasoline is up, and everybody is worried if they’ll have a job,” she added. “The average household income in New Mexico is down by $4,000 from what it was four years ago. The cost of college education is through the roof. If this is what (Heinrich) means by helping the middle class — quit helping.”
Throughout the general election campaign, Wilson — an Air Force Academy graduate and onetime Rhodes scholar who was on the staff of the National Security Council during the administration of President George H.W. Bush — has portrayed herself as the candidate best-equipped to protect New Mexico’s military installations and national laboratories.
She said a deficit-reduction deal struck by Congress last year that would trim $1.2 trillion from the budget could eliminate at least 20,000 federal jobs in New Mexico unless a compromise is reached. Heinrich said he voted in favor of the deal, which also raised the federal debt limit, to avoid a U.S. credit default.
“We are facing, next year, massive job losses in New Mexico and that’s because the Department of Energy and Defense both have significant operations here,” Wilson said. “New Mexico makes a disproportionate contribution to our nation’s defense and since (former Sen.) Pete Domenici left the United States Senate we have not had an advocate willing to stand up and fight for New Mexico. It’s about time we had one.”
Wilson has cited protecting Kirtland Air Force Base and helping to fend off job cuts at Cannon Air Force Base, as well as her work crafting wiretapping laws and improving intelligence collection, as some of her biggest congressional accomplishments.
Mentor weighs in
A New Hampshire native, Wilson graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1982. While there, she met her future husband, Jay Hone, an instructor. After graduation, she worked defense-sector jobs in Washington and overseas. In the meantime, Hone moved from Colorado Springs to Albuquerque and kept in contact with Wilson. Wilson accepted Hone’s marriage proposal and joined him in New Mexico in 1991.
Wilson applied to become superintendent of Albuquerque Public Schools, but didn’t get the job. But then-Republican Gov. Gary Johnson appointed Wilson as secretary of the state’s Children, Youth and Families Department in 1996. Soon after, Wilson captured the attention of then-Sen. Domenici, a New Mexico political legend who retired from the U.S. Senate in 2008 after serving 36 years.
In a recent Journal interview, Domenici said he was immediately struck by Wilson’s intellect and résumé. In 1998, after 1st Congressional District Rep. Steve Schiff died of cancer, Domenici encouraged Wilson to run for the open House seat.
“I saw an innate ability, and she was highly respected and regarded by anyone who dealt with her,” Domenici, now 80, recalled. “It was very interesting to find someone so highly educated who also had a great deal of developed expertise about New Mexico.”
However, Domenici said Wilson, as a product of a strict military academy, needed to hone her people skills.
“She had to get more familiar with people and get better at meeting and greeting people — and she did,” he said.
Wilson won the special election to replace Schiff and went on to serve four more terms. She ran for the U.S. Senate seat Domenici vacated in 2008, but lost to Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., in the GOP primary election. Then-Rep. Tom Udall, a Democrat, won the general election and is in the midst of his first term as a U.S. senator.
Domenici recently filmed a campaign ad for his political protégée that praised Wilson’s ability to protect New Mexico’s national laboratories.
Where she stands
On the stump and in her campaign ads, Wilson has consistently cast herself as an “independent” voice for New Mexico.
In 2008, Wilson’s last year in the U.S. House, the National Journal ranked her the 148th-most conservative member of the 435-member chamber. The ranking was based on her 2007 votes on economic, social and foreign policy issues.
Javier Gonzales, chairman of the New Mexico Democratic Party, disputed the characterization of Wilson as moderate or independent.
“If you look at her record in Congress, she was consistently voting with President (George W.) Bush, including those tax breaks for the wealthy, the unfunded wars, the bailout for Wall Street,” Gonzales said. “Her record says she’s going to be anything but independent.”
Wilson said her vote for the $700 billion bank bailout in 2008, which many conservative Republicans opposed, was a difficult one.
“It was the least terrible of a number of terrible options,” Wilson said. “We were told at the time we were within 48 or 72 hours of your credit card not working or your payroll check not being deposited in your bank … and the banking systems seizing up.”
Meanwhile, Wilson said she would have opposed a nearly $800 billion economic stimulus package Congress approved in 2009 to help prevent America’s deep economic recession from turning into a depression. Heinrich voted in favor of the stimulus.
“They borrowed half the money, including from countries that don’t like us, and put the debt on our children,” Wilson said. “It was not a success.”
Wilson cited her leadership on several lands bills during her House tenure as proof that she is willing to work across the partisan divide.
Wilson backed the creation of the 11,000-acre Ojito Wilderness in 2005 and got behind a difficult-to-achieve settlement of a Sandia Mountain land dispute between the tribe and homeowners in 2003.
Wilson said if elected, she would work to broker a compromise on a proposed federally protected wilderness designation for the Organ Mountains in Doña Ana County. Her opponent this year asked the president to simply use his executive power to declare a wilderness designation — a strategy Wilson criticized.
“That’s exactly the kind of extreme position that says ‘ignore all local concerns and don’t resolve anything,’ ” Wilson said.
Meanwhile, a coalition of powerful environmental groups has waged a fierce campaign against Wilson in the Senate race, describing her record in Congress as dangerous for America’s water and air.
A League of Conservation Voters ad said Wilson accepted campaign contributions from chemical manufacturers and oil companies and then voted to shield them from liability stemming from groundwater contamination as a result of a toxic gasoline additive called MTBE.
The ads refer to Wilson’s votes in support of wide-ranging, multifaceted energy bills in 2003, 2004 and 2005. Wilson in 2005 voted against a provision in that year’s energy bill that would have removed legal protections for the oil and gas industry in case of MTBE water contamination.
Around that time, Wilson accepted about $61,000 in campaign contributions from MTBE producers, according to the League of Conservation Voters, which is based in Washington, D.C.
Wilson said her 2005 vote to limit MTBE liability wasn’t about protecting producers, but intended to allow MTBE leaks to be addressed with a government cleanup program before the issue got tied up in court fights.
“It was the trial lawyers and the environmental extremists who wanted to be able to sue for damages. My focus was, let’s focus on cleaning this up,” she said.
Wilson’s political career has not been without controversy.
In 2006, she emerged at the center of a Washington scandal involving U.S. attorneys who claimed they were forced to resign because they had not aggressively pursued public corruption cases that could have hurt Democrats.
Wilson and Domenici both said they called David Iglesias, then the U.S. attorney for New Mexico, in late 2006 to inquire about corruption cases in New Mexico.
During congressional testimony in 2007, Iglesias said he felt “pressured” by the Domenici and Wilson calls. Both Domenici and Wilson denied that charge.
Domenici received a “qualified admonition” from the Senate Ethics Committee.
Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility — a government watchdog group — filed an ethics complaint against Wilson with the House ethics committee, but the panel never took any action against her.
“My call was not about any particular case or person, nor was it motivated by politics or partisanship,” Wilson said in a statement in 2007, when Iglesias testified to Congress. “If the purpose of my call was somehow misperceived, I am sorry for the confusion.”
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal