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Race for the Senate: Martin Heinrich

Rep. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., running this year for the U.S. Senate, greets supporters during a recent campaign stop at a union hall in Albuquerque. (dean hanson/journal)

Talking to retired union workers in a small office of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Albuquerque, Martin Heinrich recalled his father’s 50 years as an IBEW member and the importance of Social Security and Medicare in his parents’ retirement.

“Fighting for the middle class” is a promise the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate is centering his campaign around.

For the 41-year-old Heinrich — a two-term representative of central New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District and a former Albuquerque city councilor — that fight starts with a pledge to prevent any reductions in Social Security and Medicare benefits as Congress struggles to ensure their financial survival and balance the budget’s $1.1 trillion deficit.

“It really brings into focus what this is all about,” Heinrich told the two dozen union retirees. “My parents are people who saved, they invested, and yet Social Security is absolutely critical to their ability to have a middle-class retirement.”

Heinrich has said his fight for the middle class also includes renewing tax cuts for families earning less than $250,000 a year, protection of veterans’ benefits and increased regulation of Wall Street corporations.

“I think the voters here in New Mexico have seen that this is really a battle over the future of the middle class and over the big picture issues of protecting Social Security and Medicare, growing our economy by investing in the middle class,” Heinrich said in a Journal interview.

A Journal Poll conducted Oct. 9-11 found Heinrich with a 9-point advantage over Republican opponent Heather Wilson, who formerly held the U.S. House seat Heinrich now represents.

Heinrich has maintained a lead in the race despite Wilson’s efforts to cast him and his congressional record, particularly his positions on environmental and energy policy, as “too extreme” for New Mexico. Heinrich has also been accused of being overly liberal and “anti-jobs” because of his votes for policies such as Obamacare and increased Wall Street regulation.

“I think one of the reasons we’re doing so well in the polls is that people know who I am, and they know what I’ve done for the last four years, (and) even before that on the City Council,” Heinrich said. “The contrast between what my opponent’s campaign is saying and what I’ve actually done is so stark that it just hasn’t worked.”

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., who is retiring after 30 years in the Senate and whose seat Heinrich is seeking, has helped the younger congressional member raise money for the Senate campaign.

“I think he’s done a great job in the Congress representing New Mexico and his district. I think he’ll do a great job in the U.S. Senate as well,” Bingaman said of Heinrich. “I think on the issues that matter here in New Mexico, here he is much more in line with the positions I’ve taken and the positions I think most New Mexicans would support.”

Rep. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., joins Trust for Public Lands president and CEO Will Rogers, left, and Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., far right, as U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar speaks in 2011 at the dedication of an urban national wildlife refuge in Bernalillo County’s South Valley. (journal file)

Social Security and the budget

While Heinrich highlights his pledge to protect Social Security, his Senate race opponent has done the same.

In Congress this year, the futures of Social Security and Medicare were key factors in a vote on the failed House Republican-backed budget, sponsored by now-GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan.

The House GOP budget, drafted to address the nation’s massive deficit, included deep cuts to Medicare and Social Security spending and proposed changes to the structure of the programs. At the same time, those cuts were just one piece of the Republican plan aimed at encouraging business growth and shrinking the size of government.

Heinrich, alongside all Democrats in the House and 10 Republicans, voted against that budget in March. Still, that budget passed the Republican-led House but stalled in the Senate, where there is a Democratic majority.

Heinrich, who has repeatedly said the federal deficit “should not be balanced on the backs of seniors,” has argued that the budget should be balanced with a combination of tax increases and federal spending cuts that don’t challenge Social Security or Medicare commitments.

Critics, however, have argued that Obamacare includes about $700 million in cuts to Medicare, although those cuts would not affect benefits.

Wilson has not said whether she would have supported the Ryan budget.

Heinrich’s House record

A review of the 2011 congressional voting record compiled by the National Journal ranked Heinrich the No. 146 “most liberal” of the chamber’s 193 Democrats.

Heinrich’s votes have included support for the $800 billion federal stimulus program and support for President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Wilson has said she would have opposed both.

A member of the House Armed Services Committee, Heinrich has said one of his top congressional accomplishments was voting to protect Kirtland Air Force Base’s 150th Fighter Wing, known as the Tacos, a move that kept about 1,000 of the unit’s jobs at Kirtland although it lost its flying mission as the planes were moved to other air bases.

Heinrich has proposed bills addressing American Indian issues, including an effort to help preserve Native languages. Another Heinrich bill that passed Congress this year and was signed into law will expand home mortgage lending on tribal lands and increase home ownership rates.

Heinrich, a former environmental lobbyist and New Mexico natural resources trustee for Gov. Bill Richardson, also has focused much of his legislative effort on initiatives on clean energy and access to public lands, although Heinrich’s Senate campaign has rarely highlighted those efforts.

Those proposals have included bills to require the federal government to set aside millions of dollars to ramp up leasing for solar and wind energy production on federal lands. He also has proposed expanding the Cibola National Forest and creating rules that give hunters and fishermen access to public lands currently walled off by private property.

On other environmental legislation, Heinrich cast a noteworthy vote when supporting a Democratic push to enforce a greenhouse gas cap-and-trade program to cut emissions.

Heinrich voted against the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have connected Canadian oil supplies with a distribution point in Texas, citing environmental concerns in the Midwestern states the pipeline was slated to run through. Wilson has voiced support for the pipeline.

Environmental champion

Heinrich’s clean-energy and environmental record has been noticed by a coalition of environmental advocacy groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund and the Sierra Club.

The coalition has spent an estimated $4 million in the Senate race to help elect Heinrich, among the most money the groups spent on any congressional race across the nation this year.

NRDC Action Fund director Heather Taylor-Miesle said Heinrich is her group’s No. 1 candidate to help elect this year because of his proven commitment to environmental issues and concerns the group has with Wilson’s record.

“You have a huge champ on our issues versus somebody who has shown to be nothing but trouble,” Taylor-Miesle said. “That’s why (Heinrich) rose to the top when it came to support from a lot of organizations.”

Heinrich said he welcomes the support of environmental organizations who back his record, but said he’s not looking out for those groups’ special interests.

“I’m not a 100 percenter with anybody. Not with the NRA (National Rifle Association), not with the Sierra Club,” Heinrich said.

The NRA endorsed Heinrich in his 2010 House re-election bid with an “A” grade, but the gun-rights organization this year dropped Heinrich to a “B” and endorsed Wilson.

“I consistently do what I believe is right for New Mexico, and if people can support that, then I think it’s great, but it’s not going to change my views one way or another what these third-party groups do,” Heinrich said.

Critics take aim

Heinrich’s congressional record has also spurred opposition, particularly among the business community.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, citing Heinrich’s votes for cap-and-trade, the Affordable Care Act, new Wall Street regulations and a vote against the Keystone pipeline, says Heinrich’s record is “anti-jobs.”

“Martin Heinrich has consistently voted against the business community by failing to support job creating energy legislation like the Keystone XL pipeline, and instead supporting legislation such as cap and trade, the health care law, and Dodd-Frank financial reform,” U.S. Chamber spokeswoman Sally-Shannon Birkel said in a statement.

Wilson has also hit Heinrich particularly hard on his support for government-subsidized renewable energy programs. Wilson in a recent debate labeled Heinrich’s proposed approach to energy policy a “green dream” that ignores New Mexico’s oil and gas industry, a critical piece of the state’s economy.

Heinrich has said natural gas should be a key part of the transition to clean energy, although he has criticized large companies like ConocoPhillips —New Mexico’s largest natural gas producer— for continuing to benefit from “Big Oil” federal tax incentives.

But Heinrich has clearly put stock in continued government investment in renewable, cleaner energy development.

“I agree we need to keep energy costs low, but that doesn’t mean giving polluters free rein,” Heinrich said during a recent debate. “… This needs to be a smooth transition from the things we know well to the things that are going to be powering all of our needs in the future. You can’t do that overnight.”

Heinrich more recently was hit with criticism from former Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who said Heinrich voted to cut 20,000 defense jobs through mandatory cuts starting Jan. 1 if Congress doesn’t agree on a plan to cut about $1 trillion in spending.

Heinrich has said he supported the mandatory cuts, known as sequestration, because they were a part of a broader agreement in 2011 to ensure the U.S. didn’t default on its loans by failing to raise the debt ceiling. The mandatory defense cuts were included as a tool to force a divided Congress to strike a compromise on spending cuts before 2013.

New Mexico’s other House members, Republican Steve Pearce and Democrat Ben Ray Luján, both voted against it. Wilson has said she would have opposed it.

Bingaman, who also voted for the debt deal, along with Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., called Domenici’s criticism of Heinrich’s vote “a complete distortion of the vote.”

Before Congress

The son of a utility company lineman and a factory seamstress, Heinrich came to New Mexico after graduating from the University of Missouri with a degree in engineering.

In Albuquerque, Heinrich took a job doing mechanical drawings at an Albuquerque laboratory but went on to work for AmeriCorps. He later worked with the Cottonwood Gulch Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to get youths connected with the outdoors, and started his own consulting business working with nonprofit and education clients.

Heinrich and his wife, Julie, have two young sons, Micah and Carter.

Heinrich took his first step into politics in 2003 when he was elected to the Albuquerque City Council.

On the council, Heinrich was the chief proponent of increasing the minimum wage in Albuquerque. Heinrich was also a vocal opponent against extending Paseo del Norte through the Petroglyphs National Monument.