Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – The race to become New Mexico’s next state treasurer already has triggered three ethics complaints and a series of attack ads.
And that’s just the Democrats, with three weeks still to go in the primary campaign.
Seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination this year are former Sandoval County Treasurer Laura Montoya and Heather Benavidez, chief of staff to incumbent state Treasurer Tim Eichenberg.
The winner will face Republican Harry Montoya in the general election.
Three ethics complaints have been filed in the race – one targeting each of the Democratic candidates, plus another against Eichenberg.
Accusations aside, Laura Montoya and Benavidez each describe themselves as well-qualified to lead an office that functions a bit like a state bank, managing and investing the cash used to operate state government. The treasurer also runs an investment pool for local governments and serves on key state boards, including the State Investment Council.
Montoya is highlighting her eight years of service as treasurer in a fast-growing county as evidence that she is ready to step into the statewide job.
“I already have a proven track record,” she said. “I’ve lived in a fish bowl. There’s no hidden surprises.”
Benavidez, for her part, says she is well-positioned as chief of staff in the office to continue Eichenberg’s drama-free tenure.
“I feel very strongly that keeping integrity in this office is important,” Benavidez said.
But the sober duties of managing New Mexico’s cash belie the contentious race to succeed Eichenberg, a Democrat who cannot seek reelection because of term limits.
He has emerged as an important player in the race, filing an ethics complaint against Montoya and paying for radio ads that accuse her of accepting unemployment benefits while campaigning full-time, among other allegations – all of which Montoya describes as false.
Montoya also has been targeted by a radio ad alleging she was fired from the Children, Youth and Families Department and charged with domestic violence.
Montoya acknowledged the 2014 battery charge against her and notes that it was dropped. Her defense attorney at the time said it was a “serious self-defense issue.”
Montoya calls the ads sexist – one of which includes a narrator who says Montoya “sounds like a real … bully.”
Montoya, who served as Sandoval County treasurer from 2013 to 2020, said voters should ask themselves why Eichenberg is going to such extremes to tarnish her name.
“It’s all this hoopla – smoke and mirrors – to distract people,” Montoya said.
Eichenberg, for his part, told the Journal last month that he was motivated simply by Montoya’s character.
As for the substance of the accusations, Montoya said she accepted federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits in January and February 2021, shortly after she left office as a county treasurer. Work was hard to find in the pandemic, she said, and she didn’t announce a campaign for state treasurer until August. Montoya said she wasn’t fired from CYFD for misconduct. She was let go from a job at the agency years ago, she said, but only after she had reported wrongdoing by others, putting her at odds with a supervisor.
She is now a foster parent, she said, demonstrating that the agency didn’t substantiate any misconduct on her part.
“CYFD wouldn’t allow me to have children in my home as a foster parent had there been misconduct of any type,” Montoya said.
Eichenberg, meanwhile, released a document that he says shows Montoya was terminated for misconduct. He also filed a complaint with the State Ethics Commission in March accusing Montoya of campaign finance violations and of inaccurate financial disclosures, which she denies.
Montoya isn’t the only one rebutting allegations on the campaign trail.
Two complaints were filed with the ethics commission in late April against Benavidez and Eichenberg.
Rio Rancho resident Karen Schafer, a supporter of Montoya, filed a complaint accusing Benavidez of violating state law by campaigning on state time, among other allegations.
The complaint cites, as one example, that Benavidez was paid a full eight hours on the same day her Twitter account posted a picture of her at 9:26 a.m. collecting petition signatures.
In response, Benavidez said she is a salaried employee without set work hours and that she has the flexibility to fulfill her work duties outside of normal office hours.
Campaign supporters, she said, may also send tweets on her behalf.
“The complaint against me is without merit,” Benavidez said. “I’m not campaigning on state time.”
A separate complaint – filed by Roswell resident Richard Garcia – targets Eichenberg, accusing him of using his office to promote the candidacy of his subordinate, Benavidez, and of allowing her to campaign on state time.
The allegations include that Eichenberg purchased radio ads with Treasurer’s Office funds to broaden Benavidez’s name recognition under the guise that it was to promote a state program.
Eichenberg says the allegations are false.
“It was fabricated out of whole cloth,” he said.
Montoya has had a financial edge over Benavidez in the race.
Montoya has raised about $90,000 in contributions and reported $47,000 in cash on hand earlier this month. Benavidez has raised about $59,000 and reported $36,000 in cash on hand.
The two have plenty of ideas for the office if elected.
Benavidez, who’s 44 and lives in Albuquerque, said she would like to improve and expand a savings program for individuals with disabilities, establish a savings account program for children and explore the possibility of opening satellite offices to offer financial literacy and other workshops.
“I’ve been a proud public servant for the last 20 years,” she said, “and I want to continue that service.”
Montoya, who’s 44 and lives in Rio Rancho, said she wants to work with cities, counties and other governments to strengthen their financial practices; lobby the Legislature to create a state bank to help farmers, ranchers and small businesses; and promote financial literacy.
“For me, it’s about bridging the gap of inequity,” she said.
“The treasurer has great opportunity to expand resources and provide outreach to rural communities.”