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Top Senate Democrat faces business group CEO

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – It’s been 20 years since Mary Kay Papen last faced a primary opponent in her southern New Mexico-based district.

Mary Kay Papen

But the top-ranking Senate Democrat is facing a challenge this year from Carrie Hamblen, who says Papen’s votes on abortion, coyote-killing contests and early childhood funding don’t match voter sentiment in Doña Ana County.

In response, Papen said she’s proud of her record representing Senate District 38, saying, “I’m very pro-business, but I’m also pro-people.”

Papen, 88, a retired Volkswagen dealer in Las Cruces and El Paso, has served in the Senate since 2001. She was elected as the Senate’s president pro tem in 2013 and still holds the position, giving her influence over determining committee membership and chairs.

Carrie Hamblen

During her time in the Senate, Papen has drawn accolades for her legislative work as an advocate for mental health services and laws to combat violence against women.

“I’m probably socially liberal, but I’m very fiscally conservative,” Papen said.

Hamblen, the president and CEO of the Las Cruces Green Chamber of Commerce, is a former longtime morning radio host who says she has been thinking about running for office for years.

She decided not to run against Papen in 2016 but said she felt compelled to do so this year due to some of the incumbent’s votes in recent years.

Among other actions, she cited Papen’s votes against a ban on coyote-killing contests in 2019, against a bill to repeal a long-dormant state abortion ban and against a plan to take more money out of a state permanent fund for early childhood programs.

“We need to provide those resources to our students and children so that they have the best educational opportunities possible,” Hamblen said.

If successful in ousting the incumbent, Hamblen said, she would pledge to serve only two terms and try to groom a successor, preferably a Latina candidate, during her second term.

“I believe politics shouldn’t be a career, and I believe 19 years is a career,” she said, referring to Papen. “I feel my job is to open the door and then step aside.”

Hamblen also said health care access, job creation and infrastructure improvements would be among her other top priorities in the Senate.

District strong for Dems

For a while, it appeared Papen would face two challengers in the June 2 primary election.

However, the third Democrat, Tracy Perry of Las Cruces, suspended her campaign this week due to health issues and threw her support behind Hamblen. Her name will still appear on the ballot, however.

Senate District 38 encompasses parts of Las Cruces and a large swath of southern Doña Ana County, including the community of Mesquite.

Hispanics made up 61% of the district’s population as of the 2010 census, and it’s a solidly Democratic seat – Hillary Clinton got nearly twice more votes within its boundaries than Donald Trump did in the 2016 presidential election.

From a fundraising standpoint, Papen has an edge over her rival, as the incumbent has raised $96,500 to date for her reelection bid and spent roughly $84,000.

Specifically, Papen has reported hefty contributions from several large oil companies, a state car dealers’ association and two horse-racing tracks – the All American Ruidoso Downs and the Sunland Park Racetrack and Casino.

In addition, Papen is one of several incumbent Senate Democrats who have received support from New Mexico Strong, a Texas-based independent expenditure committee that recently reported spending $445,677 in a recent four-week period on mailers and TV ads.

For her part, Hamblen has reported raising nearly $37,000 and spending about $15,000. She has actually received more individual contributions than Papen, though generally for smaller dollar amounts.

Whoever wins the Democratic primary race will face Republican Charles Wendler of Las Cruces in the November general election.

Name recognition

As the incumbent in the race, Papen said, she’s already a recognizable figure for most Democratic voters in the district.

“I do think I have good name recognition,” Papen told the Journal. “I hope it’s a plus, not a minus.”

However, Hamblen’s work with locally owned business could give her inroads with registered Democrats in New Mexico’s closed primary system.

She has also touted her experience building support on social media for the creation of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument.

On the issues, Papen and Hamblen have divergent views on the subjects of legalizing recreational marijuana and requiring more disclosure from lobbyists, according to their responses to a Journal questionnaire.

Hamblen said she supports both proposals, while Papen expressed opposition.

With both candidates saying they oppose negative campaigning, the race could come down to a competition of ideas – and whether Papen’s views still match those of voters.

“I am who I am,” Papen said. “What you see is what you get.”

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