Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Greg Zanetti’s military background and work as a financial adviser have led him around the country – and the world.
Now back in his home state, Zanetti is seeking to put to use the lessons he learned as a commander of the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center and in other stops in his bid to become New Mexico’s next governor.
Zanetti, 64, says those life experiences make him better prepared to be the state’s chief executive than any of the other four Republicans running for the office.
But he has lagged behind GOP rivals Mark Ronchetti and Rebecca Dow when it comes to campaign fundraising, as he reported this month having raised about $220,000 for his campaign – or less than one-tenth the amount raised by Ronchetti.
Zanetti acknowledges frustration at the fundraising challenges and his lack of support from national GOP groups, but said he’s not naive to political realities.
“They don’t think in terms of governance – they think in terms of winning,” he said in a recent interview. “I understand their calculation.”
On the issues, Zanetti doesn’t shy away from policy proposals that might sound like a pipe dream to some residents.
For instance, he is bullish on New Mexico’s potential to utilize its vast deposits of brackish water, calling the state the “Saudi Arabia of brackish water” in reference to its billions of acre feet of subsurface water that is saltier than fresh water.
He said such a policy shift could create high-paying jobs in New Mexico, while also saying he would push to set up small nuclear reactors to take the salt out of brackish water and generate electricity.
Zanetti’s easy-going demeanor and proclivity to be wonky – he jokes he did not have many dates in high school – has meant he’s largely stayed out of the back-and-forth attacks levied by other GOP candidates.
He’s also largely kept his distance from hot-button culture war issues, and isn’t keen to answer questions about running as a Republican during the era of Donald Trump.
“Instead of uniting around a personality, let’s unite around some causes,” he said.
However, Zanetti makes no bones about his belief that he’s more qualified to be governor than at least one of his primary election foes.
“Nothing against Mark Ronchetti, but I don’t know how you go from weatherman to governing the state,” Zanetti said.
West Point cadet
A New Mexico native, Zanetti graduated from Valley High School in Albuquerque in 1976 and was accepted into the U.S. Military Academy in New York.
Donna White, an Albuquerque resident, attended West Point with Zanetti as part of the first class that included female cadets.
She remembers Zanetti as friendly and engaging, saying he gave dance lessons and was welcoming to women, unlike some male cadets who bristled at their presence.
White also says she was not surprised by his eventual ascension to the rank of brigadier general in the U.S. Army National Guard.
“If ever there was someone who I’d say was qualified because he’s extremely bright and not reactionary, he’d be the guy,” White told the Journal. “He’s just someone I trust implicitly.”
After six years of active duty that included stints in Europe, Zanetti obtained his master’s degree in business from Boston University and returned to New Mexico, where he began working as a financial adviser.
While Zanetti currently runs his own company, Zanetti Financial, his career included a previous stop working for Bill Gates’ charitable foundation in the Seattle area, though he did not stay long at the job.
“I wasn’t a very good fit with the Gates organization, let’s just say that and leave it at that,” Zanetti said.
But he said he learned from the experience how “big money” is moved by using credit default swaps and other financial instruments.
Even during his financial career, Zanetti did not abandon military life entirely, however, as he joined New Mexico’s Army National Guard shortly after returning to the state.
Zanetti was eventually promoted to brigadier general in 2005 and was deployed to Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba in 2007, where he served as brigade commander.
“The citizen soldier thing fit me really well,” he said.
The Guantanamo Bay detention facility was a military prison established after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, that held detainees accused of terrorism-related crimes. Allegations of inhumane conditions and torture eventually prompted lawsuits and a congressional inquiry.
Before the prison was largely closed by former President Barack Obama in 2009, Zanetti said he learned about politics, how to oversee complex organizations and some people’s deep hatred of the United States.
“For a boy from New Mexico, this was a real eye-opener,” said Zanetti, who did not oversee the facility’s day-to-day operations.
While this year’s race for governor is the first time he’s taken the plunge, Zanetti has dipped his toes in politics for the last several decades.
He served two stints as Bernalilllo County Republican Party chairman and also launched a short-lived 2010 campaign for governor, before withdrawing to spend more time with his family.
But Zanetti might be only the second most-accomplished politician in his own family – his wife Teresa Zanetti, served three terms in the state House of Representatives from 2003 through 2008.
He jokes when telling the story of how he demurred when former Lt. Gov. Jack Stahl called him about a possible legislative run – only to find out Stahl was calling to gauge his wife’s interest in such a campaign.
However, Zanetti says New Mexico’s current situation is no laughing matter.
When he launched his campaign for governor in June 2021, Zanetti described the state’s current economic development plan as being focused on “casinos, weed and personal injury attorneys.”
As for New Mexico’s southern border with Mexico, he said many other gubernatorial candidates do not understand the complexities and logistics of deploying National Guard troops to help federal immigration officials.
“If we don’t do this right, we will end up draining the treasury and not securing the border,” Zanetti said.