'Not intimidated,' Block pitches himself as a fighter for NM - Albuquerque Journal

‘Not intimidated,’ Block pitches himself as a fighter for NM

Jay Block, a Republican candidate for governor, speaks with residents during a visit to Cafe Bella Coffee in Rio Rancho. He says he’s been called a “street fighter” as a politician but that he also has a compassionate side shaped by the challenges of his childhood. As governor, he said, a top priority would be to focus on mental health services. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

Editor’s note: The Journal continues a series profiling the Republican candidates for governor and examining other contested statewide races.

RIO RANCHO – Jay Block moved to New Mexico seven years ago and quickly won his first election.

He beat a Democratic incumbent in 2016 to join the Sandoval County Commission, putting him on the front lines as the county declared itself a Second Amendment sanctuary and passed other conservative legislation.

Block, a retired nuclear weapons officer, is now aiming for the Roundhouse, one of five Republicans seeking the nomination to challenge Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

He has brought to the race a combative edge. In February, for example, he declared that he’d “kicked the crap out of” another candidate by securing the most support at the Republican convention.

Block, who grew up poor in Manchester, New Hampshire, describes himself as honest and beholden to no special interest. He isn’t afraid to say he’s got a chip on his shoulder.

“I’ve been called a street fighter as a politician,” he said in an interview. “I’m not intimidated by anybody.”

But Block said he has another side, too, including compassion for veterans and homeless people who deserve help.

He said he believes he can find common ground with Democrats – who hold majorities in the House and Senate – on education, investments in behavioral health care, economic development and crime.

“I look at a lot of things through the lens of a kid and an adult who’s gone through a lot with drugs, alcohol and mental health,” Block said.

Like many veterans, he was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, he said, after serving in Afghanistan. As a child, his parents were arrested on drug charges and school was more challenging because he had dyslexia.

“Things come hard for a lot of people, and I’m no different,” Block said.

As he heads into the final three weeks of the campaign, Block faces his share of challenges. His campaign reported just $32,000 in cash on hand May 9, the fourth-lowest total among five candidates.

Block, as a member of the county commission, is also part of the board being sued over Sandoval County’s redistricting plan by the Pueblo of San Felipe, two Democratic legislators and others. They argue the commission’s map dilutes the voting strength of Native American and Hispanic residents – allegations Block calls ridiculous and frivolous.

Political roots

Block, who’s 51, joined the Air Force after high school, leaving his home in New Hampshire to serve in the Reserve Officer Training Corps as he earned a degree at North Dakota State University.

At one point, he was a nuclear launch officer with the codes to fire intercontinental ballistic missiles. He also served as a commander.

His military service took him to Germany, Afghanistan and Ascension Island in the Atlantic Ocean, among other assignments. Block also worked at the Pentagon and, eventually, at Kirtland Air Force Base.

After 21 years of moving all over the world, he retired from the Air Force in 2016 as a lieutenant colonel. He stayed in New Mexico, drawn by the food, culture and scenery.

“The longest I’ve lived anywhere in my adult life is New Mexico,” Block said.

He isn’t related to the Block political family, whose members have held office in northern New Mexico.

Jay Block has his own political roots.

At 10, he was a fan of President Ronald Reagan, who reminded him of his grandfather.

At 17, with New Hampshire the center of presidential politics, Block knocked on doors and worked on the primary election campaign of Republican Jack Kemp.

When it came time to launch his own campaign, Block didn’t choose an easy race. He took on and defeated Democratic incumbent Nora Scherzinger by 2 percentage points to represent southern Rio Rancho and Corrales on the County Commission.

With Block and other Republicans forming a majority, the county positioned itself at odds with Democratic leaders in Santa Fe.

In 2018, the commission adopted a “right to work” ordinance that prohibited employees from being required to pay union fees. Legislation passed at the state level later prohibited such local ordinances.

In 2019, as lawmakers in Santa Fe debated background check requirements and other firearms legislation, Sandoval County declared itself a Second Amendment sanctuary, saying it wouldn’t use county resources to enforce laws infringing on gun rights.

Block, nevertheless, describes his county record in nonpartisan terms. He points out that he won a 2018 award from the nonpartisan group Common Cause New Mexico.

He said he is proud of his sponsorship and passage of an ethics ordinance, the launch of a county animal shelter to improve the treatment of homeless pets and creation of an economic development fund.

“No other candidate has that level of experience and that record,” Block said.

He also touts the relocation of businesses from Albuquerque to Sandoval County and the renegotiation of incentives to promote hiring at Intel, which operates a massive manufacturing plant in Rio Rancho.

The county, Block said, is a “beacon of prosperity” in New Mexico.

Sandoval County Commissioner Dave Heil, a Republican, describes Block as enthusiastic, patriotic and fearless.

Heil said that as chairman of the commission, he found Block “a little difficult to control” – which he characterized as a compliment to Block’s independence.

“There’s a reason why Sandoval County is growing fast,” Heil said, “and it’s because we’re a business-friendly environment. He’s been a good part of that.”

Former Corrales Mayor Jo Anne Roake said she worked with Block as a fellow elected official from 2018-22.

Voters in the village lean more Democratic than other parts of Block’s district, but Roake said Block attended plenty of events in Corrales.

“I don’t think we agree on a lot of things politically,” Roake said, “but we did agree on wanting to do good things for the community.”

Block helped secure funding, she said, for firefighting equipment, trail improvements and a veterans memorial in Corrales.

Redistricting suit

Just last month, Sandoval County commissioners were sued over their redistricting plan.

The commission hired former state Sen. Rod Adair’s company to develop proposals, the lawsuit says, even though he is a Republican who “frequently expresses animosity toward Democrats on social media.”

The selected redistricting plan, the lawsuit alleges, dilutes the votes of Native Americans and Hispanics and inflates the electoral power of non-Hispanic whites. It also violates a legal requirement for consultation with tribal governments, according to the suit.

The plaintiffs include the Democratic Party of Sandoval County, state Sen. Brenda McKenna and Rep. Daymon Ely, both of whom are Democrats from Corrales.

Block said the lawsuit is without merit and pushed by partisan hypocrites who want to shape the districts to their party’s advantage. The map, he said, is a commonsense plan reflecting the size and influence of Rio Rancho.

Furthermore, Block said, Adair’s firm was selected by a bipartisan committee.

“We feel this is going to be a lawsuit that is thrown out,” Block said.

‘I had to fight’

Block retired from the Air Force in 2016 and now works as a nuclear operations consultant for the Department of Defense.

He has three children, all in their 20s. His fiance is Crissy Kantor, a business owner.

Block is clearly competitive. He pointed out that he hasn’t lost an election yet.

Earlier this year, in fact, he declared himself the frontrunner in the GOP campaign after securing the top spot on the primary ballot by drawing support from 29% of the delegates at a GOP convention in Ruidoso, about 1 percentage point ahead of second-place finisher Rebecca Dow.

Block raised eyebrows soon after by calling on fellow Republican Mark Ronchetti to drop out of the race.

“I kicked the crap out of him and it felt great,” Block told the Journal in February.

Ronchetti, who has raised more money than any of his opponents, had urged delegates at the convention to support other candidates because he had already submitted enough voter signatures to make the ballot. In a primary election, candidates can earn a spot on the ballot either by winning support from 20% of their party’s convention delegates or by submitting a certain number of signatures.

Block, in any case, is open about challenges he has faced.

As a kid, he said, his parents were arrested for drugs, and his dad lost his job. Block, an only child, grew up in a three-story apartment complex in what he describes as a rough part of Manchester.

Block said he also was diagnosed with PTSD after serving at Camp Eggers in Kabul, Afghanistan.

As governor, he said, his priorities would include a focus on mental health services and drug and alcohol addiction.

“I was discounted so many times growing up because of my severe dyslexia, my being poor, what happened to my family,” Block said. “It really just put a chip on my shoulder, and it just kind of made me fight. I had to fight for everything I got and where I’m at.”

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