Ronchetti vows to amplify new voices at Capitol - Albuquerque Journal

Ronchetti vows to amplify new voices at Capitol

Republican gubernatorial candidate Mark Ronchetti listens to Dorothy Rainosek, co-founder of Frontier Restaurant, and other business owners talk about the challenges they face. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Editor’s Note: The Journal this week is publishing profiles on the candidates for governor, focused on a single day on the campaign trail.

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

Mark Ronchetti sat down to a table of angry business owners.

They offered a harsh assessment of life in Albuquerque: Windows smashed on their property, trouble finding committed workers, closing early so employees can leave together safely.

Government benefits, outdoor encampments and taxation all came up.

Ronchetti spent more time listening than talking.

And when he addressed the group of about 10 people at the Frontier Restaurant in Albuquerque, he stuck to his message, the same one he shares elsewhere on the campaign trail: Crime, economic growth and education aren’t partisan issues. But fresh leadership is necessary to lift New Mexico out of its rut.

“You see what’s in Santa Fe now,” Ronchetti told the group. “You see that they have zero interest in our opinions. They have their mind set. They know better than everybody else in the room. They’re not living it, not like you guys are.”

It was a typical Saturday on the campaign trail for Ronchetti, a Republican and former television meteorologist challenging Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. Libertarian Karen Bedonie is also on the Nov. 8 ballot.

Ronchetti’s day started with a 45-minute workout at the gym and a walk with his family’s two Siberian huskies. He said he hugged his wife, Krysty, and teenage daughters and was out the door at 8:30 a.m., driving himself down to Valencia County for a 150-person rally, then back up to Albuquerque for a chat with volunteers operating a phone bank and a business roundtable at the Frontier.

He was set to finish the day with an evening event in Rio Rancho. At least one energy drink kept him going in the afternoon.

Throughout the day, a theme he returned to repeatedly was listening – the idea that some voices aren’t being heard at the Capitol.

“The longer a politician operates,” he said in an interview between events, “I think the more they get isolated, the more they don’t go out in rooms and talk to people and go back and forth. I think there’s an arrogance that comes with politics, and that’s something I want to avoid.”

‘Just like you are on TV’

Ronchetti, 48, was greeted like a celebrity as he made his way through Frontier Restaurant. A family from Arizona introduced themselves. People say they’ve seen him on TV.

It isn’t just campaign commercials that made Ronchetti a household name.

As a reporter and meteorologist, he’s appeared on New Mexico television screens off and on since 1998. He and Krysty starred in “Mark vs. the Mountain,” a 22-episode series documenting their efforts to build a home in the mountains of northern New Mexico. The two have a mountain home-building business. Ronchetti’s financial disclosures identify him as owner of Choose Adventure LLC, a real estate business.

He also ran for office once before – two years ago, for the open U.S. Senate seat now held by Democrat Ben Ray Luján, who won by 6 percentage points.

Ronchetti said he’s tried to be approachable as a meteorologist and as a candidate.

“I would always get asked, ‘You know, you’re just like you are on TV.’ And I was like, ‘Well, yeah, I can’t be two different people,'” Ronchetti said.

He’s obviously comfortable in front of the camera. He’s enlisted his younger daughter, Ella, who’s 13, in readings of “mean tweets,” short social media videos of Ronchetti and Ella responding to criticism, often from Lujan Grisham or her campaign staff.

In front of a crowd, he’s straightforward and business-like – a contrast with, say, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who egged on the crowd with blasts against “woke” leftists during a campaign rally with Ronchetti in Carlsbad this summer.

Ronchetti has sought to craft a more moderate image and avoid culture war and social issues, sometimes with mixed results, especially on abortion. He has called for new voter ID requirements, but he hasn’t echoed former President Donald Trump’s falsehoods about the 2020 election.

Ronchetti often trains his criticism on Lujan Grisham in particular or the “far left” more generally rather than Democrats as a whole – an acknowledgement perhaps that to win this election he must secure support beyond the GOP base. Democrats make up 44% of the state’s registered voters, with Republicans at 31%.

Mark Ronchetti talks with Cathy Evans and Devin Gray at the Frontier Restaurant in Albuquerque as he prepares for a roundtable meeting with business owners. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

He takes care to note that he believes there are plenty of Democratic legislators with whom he can find common ground on crime and other issues. He sees something similar in the electorate.

“I think there’s a fat middle in the state of New Mexico who – we all share the same values,” Ronchetti told the business owners at the roundtable, “and we have to bring people into that area. That’s our pathway forward.”

But the state Democratic Party has seized on abortion to undermine Ronchetti’s moderate image.

After the U.S. Supreme Court ended the constitutional right to an abortion in June, putting the matter in states’ hands, Ronchetti proposed an abortion ban after 15 weeks, a measure he described as a compromise.

But Democrats have hammered him relentlessly, contending he’s more extreme than he lets on – bolstered by the pronouncement of a megachurch pastor who told his congregation that he spoke to Ronchetti for hours and that Ronchetti wants to end abortion in New Mexico. He just can’t say it, Pastor Steve Smothermon said, because it would damage his election prospects, so he has to attack the issue incrementally.

Ronchetti’s campaign maintains his position is consistent; that he supports a ban after 15 weeks with exceptions for rape, incest and risks to the life of the mother; and that Ronchetti told the pastor the same thing he’s said in his campaign commercials. Smothermon later released a written statement saying as much, that Ronchetti told him privately the same thing he’s said in his ads.

Ronchetti, for his part, has since called for a statewide election that would allow voters to decide the issue.

Policy plans

In a recent day of campaigning, Ronchetti rarely brought up abortion and even then only to refer to the TV ads attacking him on the issue.

What he’s eager to discuss is a series of policy plans – white papers of sorts outlining his ideas on the state budget and taxation; crime and the courts; an overhaul of the Children, Youth and Families Department; and education.

Amid the frustration expressed by business owners at the roundtable, Ronchetti responded, in part, by citing his proposals to expand New Mexico’s three-strikes law, appoint tough-on-crime judges and cut gross receipts and income taxes.

The policy ideas have been rolled out in news conferences and published on his website.

Specific plans are “what people should demand of me because I don’t have a history in politics,” Ronchetti said in between bites of a burrito before the business roundtable.

Some of the most intense criticism levied at Ronchetti, in fact, has focused on his lack of experience in government. He hasn’t held an elected public office before. He pitches it as a strength, not a weakness.

Ronchetti’s campaign team is a mix of new and familiar faces. One of his top consultants is Jay McCleskey, a combative force within the Republican Party who worked with ex-Gov. Susana Martinez and former Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry.

In any case, Ronchetti describes the policy plans as similar to his approach as the chief meteorologist at KRQE. He said he tried to make his weather reports explanatory – descriptions of the science, with honesty about the factors that create uncertainty in a forecast.

“You build trust that way,” he said.

Pep talk and pictures

Inside the Republican National Committee office in Albuquerque, a small group of volunteers spent part of the afternoon calling voters targeted by the Ronchetti campaign. The goal isn’t to reach staunch Republicans or Democrats, the campaign said, but rather voters who might be open to persuasion. Michael Shaver, a retired teacher from Albuquerque, said it’s a vital election. He spends a day or two each week knocking on doors or making calls.

Shaver said he likes Ronchetti because he “doesn’t try to tell you what you want to hear,” evidence that he’s more like an ordinary guy than a politician.

And “he does his homework. As a teacher, I like that,” Shaver said.

In the primary election campaign, Ronchetti faced some criticism that he wasn’t sufficiently loyal to Trump.

But Renie Thompson, a retired utility manager from Tijeras, said Ronchetti actually reminds her a bit of Trump in that he’s outgoing and genuine.

“He’s very nice and very transparent – authentic, I think, is the word I’m looking for,” Thompson said of Ronchetti between phone calls.

The volunteers at the phone bank posed for photos after Ronchetti arrived for a pep talk.

They laughed as he joked about who works harder – the door-knockers or the phone bankers.

“In this race,” he told them, “it’s coming down to a point or two, and your effort makes a massive difference.”

Listening

Later, after a quick lunch, Ronchetti made his way to the business roundtable held in a room at the Frontier.

Seven business owners, their spouses and others sat together. One man said he had so much to say he was afraid he’d get kicked out.

The complaints gushed forth as the group took turns sharing concerns about the generosity of government benefits, property damage, fear for the safety of their employees.

Ronchetti, wearing blue jeans and his trademark black-rimmed glasses, rarely interjected. He responded as things wrapped up, asking the business owners to talk to their friends about the need for change and listing off points in his anti-crime and economic plans, which include shortening the length of unemployment benefits.

After the roundtable meeting, Donna Buffet, part of the Buffet’s candy-store family, described Ronchetti as attentive and empathetic.

Ronchetti closed by telling the group they’re part of a movement – that their stories will be heard in Santa Fe when he’s governor.

“We can turn this around,” he said, “and we need your help in doing it.”

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