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Mark Ronchetti faced harsh questions in a debate televised Friday as his Republican competitors suggested he isn’t loyal enough to Donald Trump and lacks the experience to serve as New Mexico’s next governor.
Ronchetti, a former TV meteorologist, pushed back forcefully, telling one rival candidate that the reason that candidate’s “campaign has not gone anywhere” is because he’s too focused on himself rather than ordinary New Mexicans struggling with inflation.
“All this political garbage – enough, nobody cares,” Ronchetti said at one point in response to a pointed question about his campaign consultant. “People cannot afford to buy groceries. They cannot afford to fill their tank with gas.”
The clash came in a debate sponsored by KOAT-TV, News Radio KKOB and the Albuquerque Journal, whose journalists took turns questioning the candidates.
It’s the only televised gubernatorial debate planned before the June 7 primary.
The tensest moments came when the candidates had a chance to confront each other directly.
Three of the candidates – Jay Block, a Sandoval County commissioner; state Rep. Rebecca Dow; and former Cuba Mayor Ethel Maharg – targeted Ronchetti with questions and criticism. Ronchetti and Greg Zanetti, a financial adviser and retired brigadier general, directed their questions to Maharg.
Dow took aim at Ronchetti over his remarks during a 2019 climate symposium at the University of New Mexico, when he described himself as a “conservative Christian who used to be a Republican until the orange one,” a reference to Trump.
“Were you being dishonest and disingenuous to a room full of climate change advocates,” Dow asked, “or now to the Republican conservatives that are choosing the next leader of our party?”
Ronchetti said his remarks were a joke and demonstrated his willingness to engage with people who hold opposing viewpoints.
“What I was doing was making a joke to a group of UNM students,” he said, “and if we get to a point where we don’t talk to anybody that we disagree with and decide ‘no, no I’m not talking to these people … because they’re on some other side,’ then I can’t help you with that.”
Maharg asked Ronchetti – entirely in Spanish – about his lack of experience and ability to communicate with New Mexicans. Ronchetti responded by saying experienced politicians hadn’t proven successful at addressing crime and other long-standing problems.
Block and Ronchetti also had a tense exchange after Block suggested Ronchetti wasn’t as free from political entanglements as he makes it sound.
Block pointed out that Ronchetti’s campaign employs Jay McCleskey, a longtime Republican consultant who has faced a defamation lawsuit from a candidate and a federal grand jury investigation that ended with no charges.
“You have said you would surround yourself with good people,” Block said.
Ronchetti put up his hands and said he hadn’t heard an actual question.
“You sit here and you talk about these inside baseball, ridiculous issues,” Ronchetti said. “This is why your campaign has not gone anywhere – because you don’t take the time to ask people what they’re going through. You take more time to list off your alleged political accomplishments versus the everyday struggles that people in this state have.”
Airing of the debate comes as New Mexico enters the final 2½ weeks before the June 7 primary election. The candidates participated in the debate remotely because not all of them were vaccinated against COVID-19.
Zanetti touted his experience in the military, including the fact that he was promoted to brigadier general in the Army National Guard and served as a commander at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
Block pointed to his experience as county commissioner for Sandoval County, where crime went down, he said, even as it climbed elsewhere in the state.
Dow described herself as a lifelong conservative and the only candidate who had never disrespected Trump or conservative values.
The candidates had plenty they agreed on. They said improving border security would be a priority, perhaps through deployment of the National Guard or creation of a new law enforcement agency or task force dedicated to the border with Mexico.
Maharg was particularly forceful when it came to the border and immigration, saying anyone who crossed the border illegally should immediately be sent back – “no discussion, period.”
Asked about the draft opinion suggesting the U.S. Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade, the candidates touted their anti-abortion positions.
“I would sign a ban on abortion totally,” Maharg said. “It’s time to get rid of it forever.”
Dow said: “I will sign pro-life bills when they make it to my desk.”
Ronchetti, describing himself as “firmly pro-life,” said New Mexico’s lack of restrictions on abortions is making it a destination for abortion providers from other states – and is a sign of “how out of step this policy is with the morals of the people of the state of New Mexico.”
Block and Zanetti each said they would oppose any government funding of abortion services.
The candidates were also asked whether they believed the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, a falsehood spread by the former president and his supporters.
An investigation by The Associated Press last year found no widespread, coordinated voter fraud. The news agency examined every potential case of voter fraud in the six battleground states disputed by Trump and found nowhere near enough votes to make a difference in the election outcome.
In their response to the debate question, Dow, Maharg and Zanetti said they believe there is strong evidence the election was stolen.
Block and Ronchetti didn’t answer the question.
Instead, Block said it was wrong to focus on the 2020 election given that Democratic candidates hadn’t faced a similar question after Trump’s win in 2016. He said he was taking action to eliminate ballot drop boxes and would focus on issues of importance to New Mexicans.
And Ronchetti slammed an elections bill backed by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham earlier this year – one version of which called for allowing 16-year-olds to vote in local elections – and he said he would push for a statewide voter ID requirement.
‘Fighting like this’
The winner of the Republican nomination will take on Lujan Grisham and a Libertarian candidate in the Nov. 8 general election.
Lujan Grisham, a former congresswoman and state Cabinet secretary, is seeking her second term.
The hour-long debate wasn’t always contentious. Ronchetti used his question to ask Maharg for her ideas to help rural communities.
Zanetti asked Maharg whether she thought the campaign friction was good for the state.
“I think it’s wrong for us to be fighting like this,” Maharg said. “It’s not going to help with all this acting like we’re 3-year-old children.”
The Democratic Party of New Mexico released a statement during the debate saying the GOP candidates’ performance “confirmed that their views are incredibly out of touch with the majority of New Mexicans.”