Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
Editor’s note: The Journal today begins a series profiling the Republican candidates for governor and examining other contested statewide races.
SANTA FE – An unexpected pregnancy at age 19 shook up Rebecca Dow’s life.
She was a student on scholarship at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and had no money in the bank.
After seeing an ultrasound, Dow dropped plans for a bachelor’s degree, pursued an associate’s instead and took a job in early childhood education. At 26, she returned to New Mexico and founded a nonprofit group in Sierra County.
“I saw my daughter’s heartbeat and I knew that her life was in my hands,” Dow said in a recent interview. “I chose life.”
The ripple effects can be seen in Dow’s political career.
Now 48, she is seeking the Republican nomination for governor, drawing on her legislative record as a sponsor of bills on early childhood education, foster families and abortion limits. Cutting taxes and crime also have been priorities.
It was advocacy for early childhood education – where Dow built her career – that first brought her to the Roundhouse, before she ran for office.
An early pregnancy “was a pivot in my life,” Dow said, “but it also gave me empathy toward the families I’ve been serving the last few decades. A lot of times Republicans are pigeon-holed or defined as people who only care about life until birth, but I’ve spent 22 years enabling women to choose life and career, and work and school – and succeed.”
Dow, a six-year member of the state House, is one of five Republicans seeking the nomination June 7 to take on Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham this fall.
Dow’s record in public service, she says, demonstrates the strengths she’d bring to the Governor’s Office – a voice for conservative values, but also knowledge of how to work with Democrats to get things done.
But her legislative tenure has also been a source of criticism.
One of her opponents in the governor’s race, Mark Ronchetti, has launched a series of ads characterizing Dow as a “liberal politician” who is less conservative than she says she is, highlighting a handful of legislative votes.
A complaint pending before the State Ethics Commission also accuses her of violating state law by failing to properly disclose her income from a nonprofit early childhood group that received state funding.
At one point, documents released in the case say, Dow refused to sit for a court-ordered deposition, resulting in sanctions of $50 a day.
She has vigorously fought the ethics allegations – contending she disclosed more than required – and her attorney has disputed that she had to sit immediately for the deposition.
Dow won election to the Legislature in 2016 in a district that encompasses Truth or Consequences, and rose through the ranks to become chairwoman of the House Republican caucus, a leadership role that includes presiding over private meetings in which members discuss legislative strategy and similar matters.
She is also a prominent voice in House floor debates, clashing often with Democrats, who heavily outnumber Republicans at the Capitol.
Dow has sponsored or helped push for a number of GOP priorities – including bills to make it easier to hold defendants accused of certain crimes in custody before trial, eliminate taxes on Social Security income, and limit the governor’s emergency powers.
Democrats have generally blocked the proposals, though, this year, they agreed to exempt more Social Security income from taxation.
Dow said her record demonstrates that she can work across the aisle when needed. In recent years, she has successfully carried legislation extending a deadline to give small businesses more time to apply for recovery loans, establishing accountability standards for early childhood programs and requiring schools to report financial information online.
Dow also helped establish rules prohibiting the use of partisan data for New Mexico’s citizen redistricting committee, which made nonbinding recommendations to the Legislature.
Another legislator “may be someone I disagree with 90% of the time, but if they are an advocate for victims of domestic violence, and that’s the 5% of the time we agree, I’m all in,” Dow said of her work at the Roundhouse.
But she has faced criticism in the Republican primary that her voting record isn’t conservative enough.
Dow, for example, voted for at least one version of the proposal to withdraw more money from New Mexico’s largest permanent fund to pay for early childhood education. She has generally opposed the legislation – questioning whether the money would be spent effectively – but joined one other House Republican in support of the measure last year.
The bill was later revised and Dow said she didn’t support the final version.
Dow also has faced criticism over votes in favor of a pandemic relief measure that included a fund for low-income households, regardless of immigration status, and legislation clarifying that people in New Mexico are eligible for professional and occupational licenses, also regardless of immigration status.
Ronchetti’s ads have harshly questioned Dow’s voting record, describing her as liberal.
“Politicians love looking tough, especially on border security,” the narrator of one ad says, “but their records tell the truth.”
Dow describes the ads as a false attack on her record.
House Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, said it’s “off base” to suggest Dow isn’t truly conservative.
“Obviously, when you’re pushing to get very important legislative items across the finish line, you’re going to have to get some Democrats to work with you,” he said. “There are times when she maybe had to hold her nose on certain parts of legislation to make sure she can get other very important issues through, especially concerning education.”
Dow said she opposed allowing undocumented immigrants to be eligible for cash relief, but that she had to vote on the bill as a whole, and she supported other parts of it.
Loren Lujan, a foster parent from Bernalillo County, said Dow is an important voice at the Roundhouse for foster families and an effective advocate for reforming the Children, Youth and Families Department. Dow understands the practical impact of the agency’s policies for families on the frontlines, Lujan said.
“She’s not afraid to buck the system,” Lujan said, “especially when nobody else will.”
An attention-grabbing television ad by Dow also has triggered some pushback. In the commercial – which touts Dow’s proposal to ban critical race theory in schools – images of children appear on screen while Dow asks, “Would you talk to her about explicit sex, teach them to hate each other, force girls to compete against boys?”
It drew a public rebuke from the founder of the Gathering of Nations, who told Dow the ad was hurtful as he introduced her at the powwow last month.
After returning to Truth or Consequences in 1999, Dow founded AppleTree Educational Center, a faith-based nonprofit that provides prekindergarten and other services to families in Sierra County.
Her career, she said, includes “taking families who can’t see beyond government dependency … into self sufficiency.”
AppleTree has also been a source of controversy for her. Much of its revenue comes from state grants and contracts.
The ethics allegations against Dow accuse her of failing to properly disclose her income from the group and of representing it before state agencies in violation of a law restricting when legislators may do so.
Dow bluntly contests the allegations. She says she met every requirement to disclose income, consulted with legislative and other state officials on how to fill out disclosure forms, and is entitled to represent constituents before state agencies.
The general counsel of the ethics commission found probable cause to conclude Dow violated the law, but there’s been no final judgment. The allegations include a complaint that Dow violated the state Financial Disclosure Act by failing to report over $5,000 in gross income from AppleTree Educational Center in 2019.
The case is pending.
Dow’s campaign manager, Josh Siegel, said Dow “has been open and transparent,” and looks forward to a July hearing on the case.
“Make no mistake,” Siegel said, “this case came from her progressive opponents and their big government lawyers because they see Rebecca as a threat.”
Dow is now listed as a volunteer ambassador for AppleTree.
Dow also has faced some litigation. In 2016, she was among the defendants sued for negligence after a former employee at a Boys & Girls Club she ran was sentenced to prison for sexually abusing two boys.
Police who investigated the program’s hiring practices found that it had “three levels” of background checks, including fingerprinting and screening sex offender registries. The background checks did not flag the former employee for past convictions.
Siegel said the perpetrator was arrested within two hours of Dow’s knowledge of the first incident, and he confessed quickly.
Dow was later removed from the lawsuit, Siegel said, and the Boys & Girls Club, not Dow, paid a settlement to end the case.
News of the case surfaced during her 2016 run for the state House.
Dow, for her part, says her life story shows grit. She returned to Oral Roberts University as an adult and graduated in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree, walking across the stage with her son and daughter, who are now in their late 20s.
She and her husband, Aaron, have been married about 30 years. Aaron and Rebecca Dow also have a multimedia company, Dow Technology.
Montoya, a Republican legislative leader and supporter of Dow’s campaign, describes Rebecca Dow as “on the go, just constantly. She’s tireless,” he said.