Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
For years, District 45 state Rep. Jim Trujillo did not face a challenger in the primary election.
But now that the 81-year-old is stepping down after 18 years in the Legislature, citing health issues, five Democrats have qualified to fill the position representing a district that slices across the southern half of the city of Santa Fe from St. Francis Drive all the way down to the old Santa Fe Downs racetrack, with Interstate 25 as its southern border.
Some of the names on the primary ballot will be familiar to local voters.
Pat Varela has been county treasurer for the past eight years and is the nephew of the late longtime legislator Luciano “Lucky” Varela. Carmichael Dominguez was a Santa Fe city councilor for 12 years and served previously on the Santa Fe Public Schools school board. And while she’s never run for office before, Lisa Martinez has worked in state and city government in Santa Fe for more than 25 years.
Other names, such as Linda Serrato, a relative newcomer to the district, but by far the leading fundraiser in the race through the early going, and Yolanda Louise Sena, are lesser-known candidates in the June 2 primary election.
Here’s a look at the Democratic field in the order their names appear on the ballot:
Patrick “Pat” Varela says he’s had his eye on serving in the state legislature for a long time.
“I’m not going to lie about it, ever since I was young,” he said.
His uncle had a lot to do with that. An influential presence at the Roundhouse for nearly 30 years before his death in 2017, “Lucky” Varela was a role model to Pat in more ways than one.
“I lost my father when I was in my 20s, so he was there to step in,” Varela, 50, said. “He once told me, ‘I’m not your father and you’re already a man, but if you ever need a father … . He was that kind of man. He was a big influence on my life, and still is.”
Varela, a lifelong resident of District 45, is now caretaker for his 84-year-old mother.
Pat recalled “Lucky” offering him what was more than fatherly advice when Pat was elected county treasurer in 2012.
“When I got elected, he told me, ‘You know, this is a serious job. You have to be there for the people. You can’t just occupy a seat,’ ” Varela said.
“Lucky” Varela is supporting his nephew’s campaign, even now. According to the most recent campaign finance report filed in mid-April, the Luciano “Lucky” Varela for New Mexico PAC contributed $5,000 to his campaign – more than half of the fundraising total thus far.
Varela says he took his uncle’s advice to heart, and is proud of what he’s been able to accomplish as county treasurer and during his two terms as president of the Treasurer’s affiliate of New Mexico Association of Counties.
As county treasurer, Varela takes credit for restructuring the county’s investment policy, making it more favorable to taxpayers, he says, and for being the first county treasurer in the state to set up an outreach program for the convenience of residents in rural areas.
As president of the Treasurer’s affiliate, he worked on getting several bills passed through the state legislature.
“It involved lobbying people in the Legislature. It’s almost the same as being a regular legislator because you can’t just get things passed on your own. You need to work with people to get things through,” he said.
Varela said it was a surprise to him when the Journal reported when he ran for treasurer in 2010 that there was a tax lien against him. He explained that he was going through a divorce at the time and was unaware of the lien. The matter was resolved within two weeks, he said.
He also points to his community involvement, serving on several boards, including the Boys & Girls Club. He’s also a member of Los Caballeros de Vargas, which plays a prominent role during Fiesta de Santa Fe.
Carmichael A. Dominguez is also a caballero and was honored to portray Don Diego de Vargas during the 2000 Fiesta.
But he’s better known as a three-term member of the City Council, representing Santa Fe’s south side, the most impoverished part of town, as well as the fastest growing and the one with the highest concentration of Hispanics. He served on the city’s Finance Committee – the budget-building panel within city government – all 12 of his years on the council, the past six as chairman.
It was during those years that the committee was tasked with navigating the city through the Great Recession, then a $15 million budget deficit during the 2016-17 fiscal year.
Prior to his service on the council, Dominguez was a member of the school board in Santa Fe. On his campaign website, he lists education as his top priority.
Dominguez attended Kearney Elementary, De Vargas Middle School and Santa Fe High, though he points out he represented Capital High while on the school board and Jaguar territory as a city councilor.
All of this, he says, adds up to him being the most logical choice to represent District 45.
“I think my experience is second to none in the field,” he said. “I have to say I respect all the people for running, but when it comes to understanding the district and doing things for the district, I’ve actually done things.”
Dominguez cited access to Early Childhood Education and health care services on the south side, and development within the Airport Overlay District he helped create among his accomplishments.
Dominguez, who will turn 50 before Election Day, is entering a period in his life where he’s shifting gears. Within the span of a year, he went through a divorce, the youngest of his two boys reached adulthood, he finished out his final term on the City Council and retired after a 25-year career as a cartographer with the state Department of Transportation.
On ending his tenure with the city in March 2018, Dominguez told the Journal he planned to “step back, take a deep breath and gauge the future.”
Now that he has had time to do that, Dominguez says he’s ready to go back to work.
“As my campaign slogan says, I’m committed to all,” he said. “I want people to know that, through my work ethic, experiences and the relationships I’ve built, the discussions we had while on the Finance Committee, I’m best prepared to make sure the people of District 45 are well represented.”
Dominguez’s campaign finance report from a month ago showed that he had collected just two $100 contributions for his campaign, one from former City Attorney Kelley Brennan and the other from his former colleague on City Council, Signe Lindell.
Lisa Dawn Martinez can’t claim she’s lived in District 45 all her life, like the others above her on the ballot. She grew up in Chimayó and didn’t move to Santa Fe until the early ’90s.
But she can boast that she has the endorsement of Rep. Trujillo, the man she hopes to replace.
She’s known him for a long time.
“I’ve been interested in politics in Santa Fe and I’ve worked with the legislators from around here over a number of years, and the legislators in (this area) are all highly respected. Rep. Trujillo is one of those highly respected legislators and when the opportunity presented itself to run for his position with him retiring, I decided to run,” Martinez said.
It’s her first time running for office, though the 54-year-old said it had been a “lifelong goal.”
In addition to the endorsement, Trujillo chipped in $1,000 for her campaign, about a third of the $3,200 her campaign had raised, according to the report she filed April 13. Martinez also put up $1,000 of her own money. The rest came from $500 contributions from attorney Daniel Najjar and lobbyist Scott Scanland, and a $200 donation from Stephen Arias, who was chief clerk of the New Mexico House of Representatives for more than 30 years.
Martinez headed up the state’s Construction Industry Division for seven years and estimated that she worked on 400 bills that passed through the Legislature.
“I understand the process,” she said. “I bring business experience, government experience, experience working in the private sector and leadership. I’ve had the opportunity to lead just about every agency I worked for.”
Martinez was heading up the city’s Land Use Department until soon after Alan Webber was elected mayor in 2018. He asked all department heads to reapply for their position if they wanted to stay. She applied, but was not selected. Soon thereafter, she landed a job as chief building official with city of Rio Rancho.
Now retired, Martinez is married to Wayne Dotson, who is also now retired after a 28-year career in state government. She has two step-children now in their 30s.
She also owns two businesses: Lisa D. Martinez Design and B Construction.
With a background in architecture and as a licensed general contractor, Martinez considers herself a “visionary” who can play a role in helping the state recover from the economic crisis it’s facing as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.
“And I can hit the ground running on day one. I won’t need an orientation,” she said.
Yolanda Louise Sena did not respond to interview requests.
Linda Michelle Serrato is a California native who, along with her husband, Matt, is putting down roots in New Mexico. Also a first-time candidate, she said her 2½-year-old daughter, Alma, was the inspiration for her to run for state representative.
“I’m raising my daughter through a pandemic right now,” she said. “And I see the issues that will have long-term impacts on her life, and I want to set up my daughter’s generation and beyond to help get them what they need to succeed.”
She went on to speak about New Mexico’s high rate of working poor, the fact that the state has no law addressing paid family leave or a statewide living wage.
“These are issues that impact working families and impact if workers decide to stay or leave our state,” she said.
Serrato first came to New Mexico soon after she graduated from Stanford in 2008 with a degree in public policy to work on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, working the eastern part of the state. She later went to work for Congressman Ben Ray Luján’s office, becoming his political director and relocating to Washington, D.C. She spent about five years on Capitol Hill before returning to New Mexico five years ago.
While Varela and Dominguez may have better name recognition, and Martinez has Rep. Trujillo’s endorsement, Serrato has won the support of several special interest groups coveted by Democratic candidates, among them Planned Parenthood, the American Federation of Teachers – New Mexico, Animal Protection Voters, Conservation Voters New Mexico and the Sierra Club.
She also boasts having collected more money and received more contributions to her campaign than all the other candidates combined.
“As a person, I don’t leave any stone unturned, whether it’s fundraising or collecting signatures. There’s essentially no point where I’m going to stop working hard,” she said.
Her campaign report from mid-April shows she collected more than 120 individual contributions from around the country totalling $22,215.
A Journal analysis of her finance report shows that more than half of the contributions came from donors in California, some of them family members who contributed multiple times. She collected more than $16,000 from the Golden State – 72% of her fundraising total. Another $4,345 came from other states. A total of $1,830 – 8.2% of her fundraising total – was from New Mexicans.
Serrato says the money and endorsements she’s received are a result of her work ethic, organizational skills and because people like what they hear when they hear her message.
“I do think that my message has resonated and the campaign we’ve built is pretty strong,” she said.
The winner of the June 2 Democratic Party primary will face Libertarian Helen Milenski in November’s general election.