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Robust field of Democrats vie for Luján’s seat in Congress

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Former state Democratic Party chairman Richard Ellenberg of Santa Fe says any one of the so-called “Magnificent Seven” mostly progressive Democrats running for New Mexico’s 3rd Congressional District seat are capable of picking up the mantle of Ben Ray Luján, who is giving up his seat to run for the U.S. Senate in place of the retiring Tom Udall.

Ellenberg said all of them are committed, intelligent, hard-working people who would do a good job of representing the Land of Enchantment in Congress.

“I think it is an extremely strong field,” he said. “There are a couple I’d prefer they not choose to run, but any one of them would be a strong representative and work well with members of Congress.”

The early front-runner in the race was former CIA operative Valerie Plame, who made a splash early on with an 80-second online movie-trailer style advertisement that had her driving a Camaro backwards down a dirt road at high speed – a metaphor for where the country is headed – that pre-dated COVID-19 in going viral.

In it, she vows to work for New Mexicans as she settles an old score.

“My CIA career was cut short by partisan politics. I know what it’s like to be betrayed by your government,” says Plame, whose cover was blown when her name was leaked to the press by a Bush administration official. “The Trump administration has betrayed us, and I’ll never stop fighting to build a fairer and more equitable America in Congress.”

A more recent ad has her running an obstacle course.

Plame has capitalized on her national name recognition, raising nearly $1.7 million for her campaign through the first quarter of 2020, much of it coming from out-of-state donors.

But beyond the glitz and glamour, Plame has shown herself to be equally polished when speaking on issues impacting residents of northern New Mexico and remains a leading contender.

Santa Fe attorney Teresa Leger Fernandez’s campaign has gained a lot of traction, though, and while there has been no external polling in the race she has emerged as the new favorite.

It was not surprising, then, that she was called out by two opponents last week when it came to light that Leger Fernandez was benefiting from a pair of so-called “dark money” groups that paid for $300,000 worth of TV ads on her behalf.

John Blair and Marco Serna both sent out news releases calling out Leger Fernandez for failing to denounce the support she’s been getting from Perise Practical Inc. and Avacy Initiatives Inc.

Her spokeswoman responded to the criticism by saying the campaign had nothing to do with the ads and didn’t see them until everyone else did.

In her own commercials – airing with frequency on local stations, especially during the news hour – she highlights traditional northern New Mexico culture and values, clearing the acequia in the spring, making tamales and spending time with family.

“Community, family, tradition,” she says in one ad hailing her support for protecting Social Security and Medicare and reducing health care costs.

An Obama appointee who advised the president and Congress on cultural and historic preservation policy and a native of Las Vegas, New Mexico, Leger Fernandez cemented herself as a top contender by winning the state party’s pre-primary convention by a wide margin in March. Her campaign surpassed the $1 million mark in fundraising, according to campaign finance reports through the end of that month.

She’s also garnered a slew of endorsements, including Emily’s List, Planned Parenthood and U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland of the 1st Congressional District.

The aforementioned Blair and Serna are also in the mix, with TV spots in the rotation.

Serna, the 1st Judicial District Attorney, has transitioned from a campaign video mocking Plame’s Camaro commercial, featuring him riding a horse, to ads showing him straight-talking into the camera, telling voters he will provide strong leadership, take a tough stand on issues and that he’ll work for comprehensive health care reform.

However, both of the candidates seeking to replace him as DA, including one of his assistant DAs, told the Journal last week that the office suffered from a lack of leadership.

Serna touts the fact that he is the only candidate in the election who has written comprehensive position papers on issues, like education, immigration and economic policy.

Defeating opioid addiction has been a central issue in his campaign.

“As 1st Judicial District Attorney, I have worked tirelessly to treat nonviolent drug offenders with a treatment-oriented approach to our deeply entrenched drug problems,” he said.

Serna was third in the fundraising race at last count, having raised more than $640,000.

John Blair, whose campaign raised $340,000 through the first quarter, is also airing commercials. The Santa Fe native’s message emphasizes that he is the only candidate in the race who has worked on Capitol Hill. He previously worked as director of Intergovernmental and External Affairs in the Department of Interior and also has extensive governmental experience, having worked for Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, Attorney General Hector Balderas and U.S. Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Martin Heinrich.

Blair gives out his cellphone number, “Because as your member in Congress, I’ll be on call,” he says.

Blair, who is gay, gets that message across in his ads with his husband.

The other three candidates in the race have fewer resources.

Joseph Sanchez, a state representative from Alcalde, has raised about $120,000. He is a moderate Democrat and the only Democrat in the race who opposes taxpayer funded abortions.

In response to the Journal’s questionnaire, which can be found in the 2020 election guide on the Journal’s website, he says he fully supports the Second Amendment.

“The focus should be on more mental health resources and education for responsible gun ownership. We also need to pay closer attention to societal factors such as bullying, shaming and other behaviors that contribute to violence,” he says.

Laura Montoya, Sandoval County treasurer, said she does not support a federal ban on military style semi-automatic rifles.

“No, all you will do is create a black market. I think people are trying to resolve one problem by going after the consequence and effect instead of the root of mass shootings,” she said, adding that she does support universal background checks and taking away guns after convictions of domestic violence or any felony.

Montoya, who had the lowest fundraising total of the group at $37,000, was runner-up at the pre-primary convention, collecting 20% of the delegate vote, just enough to get her name on the ballot without having to collect additional signatures.

Taos attorney Kyle Tisdel’s campaign centers around environmental issues.

“We need members of Congress with the courage and vision to meet the climate crisis and transition away from fossil fuels, to preserve a livable planet for our children and to fight for justice and equity,” he said in response to a question asking why he wanted to run for Congress.

A public interest environmental attorney, Tisdel notes that he is the lead attorney in federal litigation to protect Chaco Canyon archaeological sites from oil, gas and mineral development.

Tisdel’s campaign had raised about $65,000 through March of this year.

Ellenberg, the former state party chair, said the field in the Democratic primary is so strong that it’s possible someone could win with only about 25% of the vote.

“It very easily could,” he said. “I think that’s a reflection of the energy that has been percolating in the Democratic Party, producing candidates that, as a group, are far superior to what we’re used to seeing.”