SANTA FE – It’s not easy to miss Mark Moores.
The three-term Republican state senator cuts an imposing physical figure and is known at the Roundhouse as a gregarious and vocal legislator with a penchant for leading the singing of the University of New Mexico fight song on the Senate floor.
But the former UNM football player faces a quest for voter visibility as the Republican nominee for a vacant Albuquerque-area congressional seat that will be filled in a June 1 special election.
A Republican has not won the 1st Congressional District seat since Heather Wilson narrowly defeated Democrat Patricia Madrid in 2006.
Democrat Deb Haaland, who stepped down after being appointed U.S. interior secretary, won last year’s race by more than 16 percentage points over her GOP opponent.
In his bid to buck the recent trend, Moores is portraying himself as a political pragmatist while touting his Hispanic roots in northern New Mexico.
“I’m conservative, and my record reflects that, but I have a healthy respect for government,” Moores told the Journal.
He also cited his past collaborations with Democratic lawmakers, including bills this year’s 60-day legislative session that dealt with changes to New Mexico’s redistricting process and allowing college athletes to get paid for endorsements.
“I’m willing to work with anyone in either party to get things done,” Moores said.
The senator, who is a partner in a state medical laboratory, has occasionally butted heads with state Republican Party leaders.
For instance, he blasted state GOP Chairman Steve Pearce in 2019 after Pearce criticized bills to legalize recreational cannabis use – including one pushed by Moores and two other Senate Republicans.
“Failed and out-of-touch politicians should speak for themselves and not an entire party,” Moores said at the time, referring to Pearce’s unsuccessful 2018 gubernatorial campaign.
But Moores ultimately voted against a Democratic-backed cannabis legalization bill that won approval this year during a March special session.
By that time, Moores had already been picked by Republican Party insiders as the GOP nominee for the open congressional race. He announced his campaign for the seat just two weeks before being selected.
Despite the late start, he said his experience raising campaign funds and winning competitive races could give him a healthy chance in the race against Democrat Melanie Stansbury and two other opponents.
Moores, who represents a Senate district in the Northeast Heights, is one of just two Albuquerque Republicans left in the Legislature – out of roughly 30 seats – after a blue wave in 2018 and 2020 swept other GOP incumbents out of office.
Lived in several states
As a child, Moores spent time in several different states, because his parents both taught deaf education and worked jobs in different college towns.
However, he spent summers and holidays in northern New Mexico – his grandparents lived in the Lower San Pedro area of Española – and said he’s proud of his family roots in the state.
His mother, Julia Maestas, said Moores had the run of the family farm as a child on such visits, often leaving the house in the morning to play with neighborhood kids and not returning until late in the day.
“He was always bigger than the other kids, but he was never a bully,” his mother recalls.
Moores went to high school in Maryland, and he jumped at the chance to return to play football at the University of New Mexico after being offered a scholarship.
After graduating from college, Moores went to work for former U.S. Rep. Steve Schiff, a Republican who served in Congress from 1989 until his death in 1998.
“He’s been someone I’ve always looked up to as a mentor,” he said of Schiff.
Moores, who described elected office as a way to give back to a state that provided him with a free college education, also worked as chief of staff to former Lt. Gov. Walter Bradley before being elected to the state Senate in 2012.
Former Lobos teammate Brian Baca, now a deputy school superintendent in Los Lunas, said he wasn’t surprised that Moores had pursued a political career, saying his football background had prepared him in a way for elected office.
“As an offensive lineman, you basically are there to serve those skill guys,” Baca said. “You have to do your job so others can shine.”
He also described Moores as a hard-nosed competitor on the field, but a good-natured and garrulous friend during weekend trips to eat meals with Baca’s family.
“Mark Moores is a tough guy, but he also has a gentle side to him,”Baca said.
While some Republicans downplayed COVID-19 concerns during the early days of the pandemic, Moores donned protective gear and spent part of last summer personally conducting what he estimates were “thousands” of nasal swabs.
He said he could tell some New Mexicans were infected by the virus even before test results came back because they had a distinct “look” in their eyes.
The unexpected work came about due to Moores’ role as a partner in Pathology Consultants of New Mexico, a Roswell-based medical laboratory that helped expand the state’s coronavirus testing capacity by collecting and testing swabs.
Moores, whose wife is the company’s CEO, said he was called by legislative colleagues last year to provide testing so they could safely gather in person.
He also credited Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office for helping the company obtain protective masks and other equipment, although he said PCNM never contracted directly with the state Department of Health to provide testing.
Although he voted in favor of several state pandemic relief bills, including a proposal to give $600 tax rebates to low-income workers and enact a four-month tax holiday for restaurants, Moores said his views of such measures changed over time.
“I did see as the pandemic moved on, (businesses) didn’t want the handouts; they just wanted to get back to work,” he said.
He also said New Mexico schools remained closed to in-person learning for “too long” before Lujan Grisham allowed school districts to reopen their doors in February.
A personal loan
Moores has outraised Stansbury and other candidates for the vacant congressional seat, based on federal election reports.
But that’s primarily due to a $200,000 loan that Moores gave his own campaign.
He and his wife decided to make the loan because other candidates had already been raising campaign cash for weeks before he entered the contest, Moores said.
“Since I did start the race so late, we made a personal investment in the campaign to catch up,” he added.
In particular, Stansbury had a big advantage raising campaign funds for the congressional race during this year’s legislative session, Moores said.
While state law bars lawmakers from soliciting campaign funds during legislative sessions, that “blackout” period does not apply to funds raised for federal offices. But Moores called the fundraising “unseemly” and “unethical,” even though it was legal.
In addition to his personal loan, Moores’ other campaign donors include several fellow GOP lawmakers, Legacy Church Pastor Barry Bitzer and Albuquerque developer Ben Spencer.