Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
Editor’s note: The Journal continues a series profiling the Republican candidates for governor and examining other contested statewide races.
SANTA FE – Even during his run as a television meteorologist that spanned roughly two decades, Mark Ronchetti always had a political itch.
While growing up in a “big Italian family” in Vermont and other states, Ronchetti idolized Ronald Reagan and took part in regular political discussions with his parents and four siblings.
“We would sit around the table and just battle back and forth,” he said.
The political pull persisted, and while Ronchetti, 48, came up short in his first run for elected office in 2020, he’s seeking to parlay his public profile and anti-status quo messaging into a victory in New Mexico’s governor’s race.
He’s significantly outraised his four Republican rivals for this year’s GOP nomination – raising nearly $2.5 million since announcing his campaign in October – and has launched television ads focused on crime and immigration issues.
University of New Mexico political science professor Gabriel Sanchez said Ronchetti’s television background provides him with crucial name recognition among voters, while still allowing Ronchetti to portray himself as a political outsider.
“This outsider frame has been very effective in the current political climate nationally,” Sanchez told the Journal. “Whether this holds in New Mexico will be a big factor in the primary.”
But Ronchetti’s run for governor has also encountered turbulence.
Several of his GOP rivals have questioned his readiness to be the state’s top elected official – with Rebecca Dow referring to him as the “weatherman” during one candidate forum – and Ronchetti posted a fourth-place finish at a Republican preprimary convention in Ruidoso in February.
Dow has also questioned Ronchetti’s conservative credentials and seized on past comments he made about former President Donald Trump.
Ronchetti has countered by blasting Dow’s voting record as a state lawmaker. He has also been critical of insider politics, including within his own party, and touted himself as a candidate unencumbered by establishment loyalties.
“Tell me what the experience has gotten us,” he said in a recent interview. “Especially right now in Santa Fe.”
“I haven’t run into very many people who say, ‘Gosh, I wish you’d been in government for years,'” Ronchetti later added.
He said New Mexico is currently in an economic and political “malaise,” comparing the state to the United States during the administration of former President Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s.
“If we don’t start pushing our leaders to listen to the people in this state, then I don’t think it’s going to change,” Ronchetti said.
Mark Ronchetti was born in Dallas and his family eventually settled in Vermont, where he played sports and attended Catholic Mass on Sundays.
He then attended Washington State University and graduated with degrees in communications and political science.
After graduating, Ronchetti got his first post-college job at a television station in Grand Junction, Colorado, where he said he made a salary of $12,000 per year.
In Grand Junction, he worked with his future wife Krysty O’Quinn Ronchetti. Though they were just friends at the time and didn’t start dating until years later, the two moved in together out of economic necessity.
“So I quickly found out I couldn’t afford my own apartment … and she couldn’t either,” he said.
Ronchetti moved to New Mexico after being hired by KOAT-TV as a news reporter in 1998. He subsequently began doing weather reports on weekend mornings, and the station later paid for him to get a meteorology degree.
Eventually, Ronchetti moved to KRQE-TV in 2006, where he became a well-known figure.
Ronchetti has made his daughters Ava, 15, and Ella, 13, a visible part of his campaign, featuring them in a recent TV ad that pushed back against Dow’s attacks and in recurring social media segments about “mean tweets” directed at Ronchetti.
“We put the girls in the middle of this because they’re a big reason we ran,” he said, when asked about the decision. “I want this city and this state to be a place they want to come back to, but I worry that’s not going to be the case.”
Ronchetti also said he and his family prayed about whether to run for governor for nine months after he lost a general election race for an open U.S. Senate seat to Democrat Ben Ray Luján in 2020.
Ultimately, he decided to run again, in part due to what he describes as a steady barrage of criticism and attempted intimidation after returning to work at KRQE-TV in early 2021.
Climate change questions
For his gubernatorial campaign, Ronchetti has reassembled much of former Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’s team.
That includes hiring Jay McCleskey, whose combative style at times stoked intra-party strife and led to a defamation lawsuit, as a political consultant and former Martinez communications director Enrique Knell as his campaign spokesman.
Meanwhile, Ronchetti’s weather background has also prompted questions about climate change, which Democrats have accused Ronchetti of failing to answer directly while on the campaign trail.
In response to a Journal question about whether New Mexico’s deadly 2022 fire season is attributable to climate change, Ronchetti cited weather phenomena such as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation – or recurring patterns of climate variability.
“No individual fire or storm is the result of climate change,” he said. “That isn’t the case.”
To prevent large fires, he said the most productive step would be to rejuvenate New Mexico’s logging industry – including opening mills in several communities – to provide work and remove deadfall in forests.
But he also acknowledged such efforts could face opposition from environmental groups.
As for his 2020 comments referring to Trump as the “orange one” at a University of New Mexico event that have drawn criticism from fellow Republicans, Ronchetti dismissed them as a distraction from more important issues.
“I made an off-the-cuff, you know, statement to a group of UNM students,” he said. “That’s what we’re talking about. That’s the big issue.”
UNM political science professor Sanchez said that while the past comments could hurt Ronchetti in the Republican primary election, they might not be a bad thing if he emerges as the GOP nominee.
“If he is able to survive the primary, Ronchetti’s distance from Trump will help him court moderates during the general election,” Sanchez told the Journal.
Promise of change
If elected, Ronchetti said his first order of business as governor would be passing a “Citizen’s Bill of Rights” aimed at stiffening criminal penalties, changing the state’s pretrial detention system for those accused of violent crimes and repealing the 2021 Civil Rights Act that barred the use of qualified immunity as a legal defense in cases involving law enforcement officers and other public employees.
Those proposals could face stiff resistance in the Democratic-controlled Legislature, which rebuffed Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s push to make it easier to keep defendants charged with certain crimes behind bars until trial during this year’s 30-day session.
However, Ronchetti insists he could get traction on the issues.
“I definitely think we can get Democratic votes,” he said. “Because I think there are plenty of Democrats who are frustrated about where we are.”
If Democrats were to block such a bill from advancing, Ronchetti said he would use his veto power to bar other items from being enacted.
“If they want to work with me, great,” he said.
“If they don’t, I’ll go to every county in the state and say, ‘We are on Day 61 where your representatives in Santa Fe will not protect you,” he added, referring to the 60-day legislative sessions that occur in New Mexico in odd-numbered years.
Former Bernalillo County Republican Party chairwoman Julie Wright was not among Ronchetti’s early supporters, but said she became convinced after hearing him speaking about crime, hydrogen energy and other current issues.
She compared Ronchetti to former Gov. Gary Johnson, a Republican-turned-Libertarian who was a businessman and political outsider when he was first elected governor in 1994, but also said there are differences between the two.
“He really knows what he’s talking about. He’s not going to have an ‘Aleppo moment,'” Wright said of Ronchetti, referring to a 2016 stumble Johnson made during his campaign for president.
Wright, who has hosted a campaign fundraiser for Ronchetti, said other Republican candidates have struggled to make an impression with voters.
“When you talk to John Q. Public, Ronchetti is the only name they know,” she said.