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Influential incumbent faces spirited challenge

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Friends and foes alike agree that John Arthur Smith casts a long shadow at the Roundhouse.

Neomi Martinez-Parra

But the affable senator is facing a spirited Democratic primary challenge from Neomi Martinez-Parra in a race that will be decided by voters hundreds of miles from Santa Fe – in New Mexico’s sprawling Senate District 35.

The race has big implications, because Smith is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and arguably the Legislature’s most influential voice on budgetary matters.

The Deming Democrat, who has served in the Senate since 1989 and was given the nickname Dr. No after clashes with past governors, said he’s pledged to voters that he’ll be careful with their tax dollars.

“Your luck can run out, but I believe for the most part my votes have pretty well represented my district,” Smith said in a recent interview.

But his cautious approach to spending and his role in stifling legislation pushed by the more progressive wing of his party have sparked criticism in recent years.

Sen. John Arthur Smith

Martinez-Parra, a licensed special education teacher and ex-vice chairwoman of the state Democratic Party, says the longtime incumbent has not done enough to help working families in the district.

“We have not had representation in our district in a very long time that will fight for the people and not special interests,” said Martinez-Parra, who lives about 60 miles from Smith in Lordsburg.

If elected, she said, she would push for more funding for early childhood education programs, improved health care access and more environmental safeguards.

“This is about pushing progressive policies that help our most vulnerable families who are hurting economically,” Martinez-Parra told the Journal.

In response, Smith said criticism that he’s too tightfisted might be a tough sell given the state’s current budget situation. Due to plummeting oil prices and the coronavirus pandemic, state revenue levels for the coming budget year are expected to be between $1.8 billion and $2.4 billion less than previously projected.

He also questioned whether Martinez-Parra’s environmental views – including support for a ban on fracking – would resonate in the largely rural district.

The two candidates also disagree on legalizing recreational marijuana for adult users and repealing a long-dormant state abortion ban, according to their responses to a Journal questionnaire.

Smith opposes both proposals, while Martinez-Parra supports the measures, which have both stalled in the Senate in recent sessions.

Targeted before

Senate District 35 runs along the Mexican border and encompasses all or parts of Hidalgo, Sierra, Luna and Dona Ana counties.

The district leans conservative – Donald Trump won 50% of the vote there in 2016, compared with 40.8% for Hillary Clinton – but Smith has managed to hold the seat for 31-plus years.

“I’ve been targeted before,” he said, referring to a 2012 primary challenge backed by teachers unions that he rebuffed.

In addition, a former Democratic Party chairman even suggested in 2014 that Smith should consider becoming a Republican due to his opposition to some party priorities.

Specifically, he has drawn criticism for opposing proposals to take more money from the state’s $17.9 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund for home visiting, child care assistance and other early childhood programs.

In response, Smith has touted increased general fund spending on such programs, and during this year’s 30-day session he co-sponsored a bill to establish a new $320 million early childhood trust fund.


Smith has reported raising $81,700 for his reelection bid and has more than $106,600 in his campaign account.

Specifically, he reported contributions from several oil companies, health care providers, a high-profile private prison company and Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe.

Martinez-Parra reported receiving $35,612 for her bid to oust the longtime incumbent. As of last week, she had roughly $20,800 available in campaign funds.

Her contributors include U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., and the New Mexico Working Families Party, a group that’s targeting Smith and several other moderate Senate Democrats during this year’s primary election cycle.

The winner of this year’s June 2 primary race will face Republican Crystal Diamond of Elephant Butte in the November general election.

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