NM Senate leaders ousted in ‘monumental’ primary

Incumbent New Mexico legislators ousted in Tuesday’s primary include Sens. John Arthur Smith, left, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee; Mary Kay Papen, president pro tem; and Clemente Sanchez, chairman of the Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee. (Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico Senate titans John Arthur Smith and Mary Kay Papen were toppled by progressive challengers in this week’s primary election, part of a seismic shift that could reshape the Legislature and give new life to bills dealing with abortion and marijuana legalization.

Smith, the longtime chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said his defeat at the hands of fellow Democrat Neomi Martinez-Parra did not come as a total shock, adding that his fiscal restraint may have caught up to him in voters’ eyes.

“I’ve had to say ‘no’ to a lot of things,” Smith told the Journal. “I’m one of those who sort of stopped the train. I kept an eye on what we could pay for and what we couldn’t pay for.”

Smith also said he may resign from his Senate seat after a coming special session, so that other lawmakers could take the lead on crafting a new budget for the fiscal year that begins in July 2021.

“I don’t have any regrets, and I wouldn’t do anything differently,” Smith said Wednesday, adding that he would not miss the roughly 600-mile round trip drives from Deming to Santa Fe.

In all, five moderate Democratic incumbents, including three committee chairs and the Senate’s leader, were ousted by progressive challengers who targeted their past votes on legislation dealing with gun control, abortion and early childhood education.

Eric Griego, a former state senator and the state director of New Mexico Working Families Party, called the election results “monumental” and said the defeated incumbents were out of step with Democratic voters.

“Democrats had to get back to their core values,” Griego told the Journal.

He said a coalition of labor unions, environmental groups and reproductive rights organizations had worked together to help oust the business-friendly incumbents.

“We didn’t pick these guys out of a hat – we looked at their voting records,” Griego said.

While Martinez-Parra and the other progressive primary election winners will still face Republican opponents in the November general election, longtime New Mexico political observer Brian Sanderoff said many of the progressives are likely to win.

He also said the primary results are the latest evidence of the Democratic Party becoming more liberal, both in New Mexico and nationally.

“We’re having a changing of the guard in the Senate,” Sanderoff said. “The battle lines were drawn, and the progressive groups were highly successful in accomplishing their electoral objectives.”

The primary election results will likely shift the Senate Democratic caucus to the left, he added, and could bolster the chances of bills backed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham that would repeal a long-dormant state abortion ban and legalize recreational marijuana for adult users.

The governor did not endorse any of the targeted senators, although a Texas-based political committee funded largely by Chevron Corp. sent out mailers depicting the senators alongside her.

Several campaign insiders said Wednesday that those mailers might have backfired in the Democratic primary races, while also saying the progressive challengers were more aggressive in targeting voters who requested absentee ballots.

Leadership void

The five ousted Senate Democrats will leave behind a combined 82 years of experience in the Senate.

Their departure will also leave a leadership void that will be filled by other lawmakers, though those decisions will not be made until January.

For instance, Papen, a Las Cruces Democrat, has broad influence over determining committee membership and chairs in her position as Senate president pro tem.

But she was defeated by fellow Democrat Carrie Hamblen, the president and CEO of the Las Cruces Green Chamber of Commerce, by 199 votes, based on unofficial results.

Hamblen said many voters she talked to cited Papen’s vote last year against a proposal to repeal the 1969 state abortion ban, which allows women to get an abortion only under limited circumstances.

“It was very evident the voters wanted a change,” Hamblen told the Journal. “New Mexicans in general are tired of the status quo and want things to move forward.”

Other Democrats defeated Tuesday included Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, chairman of the Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee, who was ousted by retired educator Pam Cordova of Rio Communities.

Sen. Gabriel Ramos, D-Silver City, left, was defeated in Tuesday’s primary by Siah Correa Hemphill. Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Ojo Caliente, right, was felled by Leo Jaramillo of Española. (Journal)

In addition, Sen. Gabriel Ramos, D-Silver City, chairman of the Senate Indian and Cultural Affairs Committee, lost by a sizable margin – 61.8% to 38.2% – to fellow Democrat Siah Correa Hemphill of Silver City, based on unofficial results.

And Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Ojo Caliente, was decisively defeated by Leo Jaramillo of Española, though Martinez’s recent conviction for aggravated drunken driving played a key role in that race, Sanderoff said.

The only targeted Senate Democrat to win reelection was George Muñoz of Gallup, who rebuffed a challenge from Noreen Ann Kelly in Senate District 5.

GOP competition

The stunning election results could give Republicans the opportunity to pick up more seats in the November general election.

Sen. Jim White
Gregg Fulfer

Several GOP candidates in districts where progressive candidates posted primary victories were quick Wednesday to describe the results as an attempted progressive takeover of the Legislature.

“We are seeing an unprecedented attempt by far-left special interest groups to radically move the political landscape away from our traditional New Mexican values,” said Republican Crystal Diamond of Elephant Butte, who will face Martinez-Parra in the Senate District 35 general election.

Two Senate Republicans were ousted Tuesday by conservative rivals, with Rep. Gregg Schmedes of Tijeras defeating Sen. Jim White of Albuquerque and Rep. David Gallegos of Eunice defeating Sen. Gregg Fulfer of Jal, based on unofficial results.

In all, there will be at least nine new members in the 42-member Senate starting in January because there are also two senators not seeking reelection this year – Democrat John Sapien of Corrales and Republican Bill Payne of Albuquerque.

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