Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
Editor’s note: The Journal continues a series examining contested statewide races.
SANTA FE – New Mexico’s next state auditor is all but certain to be chosen by Democratic voters next month.
And the two candidates vying for the party’s nomination – Joseph Maestas and Zack Quintero – are providing voters with plenty of contrasts and conflict to help them make up their minds.
In the run-up to the June 7 primary election, Quintero has filed an ethics complaint accusing Maestas of violating state law by including footage of him walking out of a state building – that features the state seal – in a television ad.
“This is an abuse of public trust here,” Quintero said in a recent interview.
In response, Maestas, a Public Regulation Commission member, said he’s made changes to the ad, but dismissed the ethics complaint as “frivolous.”
He also claimed Quintero has embellished his résumé on several occasions, including overstating his role as a Santa Fe city economist when the city provided a $60,000 grant to the arts collective Meow Wolf.
“Distorting the truth is a pattern for my opponent,” Maestas said.
Maestas, 61, has touted his experience as both a PRC member, former Española mayor and former Santa Fe city councilor in his campaign. He has also worked in the Caribbean and Latin America as a federal planner and program manager.
“I think the choice is clear in this campaign – voters look at the track record of leadership and experience,” he told the Journal. “If you don’t know how government works, how can you understand audits?”
But Quintero, 31, says his relatively young age belies his readiness for the job, citing his work for most of 2020 as New Mexico’s state ombudsman, a position he was appointed to by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, in addition to other positions.
“I can’t change how old I am any more than I could change the color of my skin,” he told the Journal. “You can be both young and well qualified.”
The Mesilla native, who ran unsuccessfully for an Albuquerque City Council seat in 2019, said his youth would also be a benefit in terms of updating the State Auditor’s Office’s handling of cybersecurity issues.
If elected, he said, he would help New Mexico local governments by launching rolling cyber audits of software shields to ensure they’re functioning correctly.
“This is the kind of internal security we’re going to be facing in the modern day,” Quintero said.
“We’re not running for a regulatory or engineering position here,” he added.
‘The best person for the job’
The two candidates are vying for the statewide office currently held by Brian Colón, a Democrat who is running for attorney general instead of seeking reelection.
There are no Republican candidates running for the $85,000-per-year job, meaning whoever wins the June 7 primary election would be opposed only – at least for now – by a Libertarian write-in candidate in the November general election.
Maestas has outraised Quintero in the race – with a total of $142,428 compared to $117,998 – and has received campaign contributions from several current and former PRC commissioners, including himself, and prominent state lobbyists.
However, Quintero won nearly 62% of the delegate vote at a Democratic convention held in Roswell in March and has landed endorsements from a dozen labor unions. He also recently got the public backing of U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, a fellow Democrat.
While Quintero says those endorsements have given his campaign momentum, Maestas said they stem from his vote as a PRC commissioner against a proposed Public Service Company of New Mexico merger with Connecticut-based energy giant Avangrid that at least some labor unions support.
“I don’t think regular voters really care that much about endorsements,” Maestas said. “They want the best person for the job.”
“I’m prepared to make the tough decisions, and I think that’s proof positive,” he added.
If elected, he said he would focus on auditing new and large programs – such as money flowing into New Mexico’s legal cannabis industry – and crack down on predatory adult guardianships.
That’s also something Quintero said he would pursue, while adding his experience with his grandfather, whose veteran benefits were managed by an out-of-state entity, gives him personal insight on the issue.
A political springboard
The State Auditor’s Office functions as a government watchdog of sorts in New Mexico, keeping an eye on state and local governments’ annual bookkeeping, and launching special audits to uncover possible fraud and financial abuse.
The office has served as a political springboard of sorts in recent years, with Tim Keller and Hector Balderas both winning election to new seats – Keller as Albuquerque’s mayor and Balderas as attorney general – after serving terms as state auditor.
While Quintero and Maestas both say they’re focused on the race at hand, they each have plans to put their own stamp on the office that already has a budget for the coming fiscal year of $4.2 million.
But first, it’s up to Democratic voters to decide which one of them should get the chance.