SANTA FE — Republican Mark Ronchetti and Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham intensified their attacks on each other Friday as they tangled over crime and abortion in their first televised debate.
Ronchetti — who trailed by seven percentage points in a late-summer Journal Poll — seized the chance to slam the incumbent governor on New Mexico’s high violent crime rate and shutdown of in-person schooling during parts of the pandemic.
Lujan Grisham pushed back sharply, offering herself as battled-tested leader willing to make tough decisions in contrast to an opponent who’s never held office.
They wasted no time blasting each other.
Ronchetti immediately faulted the governor on crime and public safety, saying she had appointed judges who are “soft on crime” and made it more difficult to be a police officer. He accused her of not trying hard enough to secure legislative approval to revise the state’s bail system for criminal defendants.
“There has to be a change here — she hasn’t taken crime seriously,” Ronchetti said.
Lujan Grisham shot back: “Bold words from someone who’s never even been to a legislative session.”
It proved to be a recurring theme of the night. Lujan Grisham repeatedly highlighted her experience and suggested Ronchetti had only superficial plans for tackling complex problems.
Ronchetti, in turn, ridiculed the governor as out of step with the struggles of ordinary people. He bristled at the idea that he hasn’t spent enough time at the Capitol to understand New Mexico’s problems.
“Are you kidding me? Everybody in Albuquerque lives it. We live it — we live the crime everyday,” he said. “You don’t have to go to the Roundhouse.”
The clash on KOB-TV came as the two well-funded candidates open the final 39-day sprint to Election Day. Absentee voting begins Oct. 11 with Election Day set for Nov. 8.
The debate was moderated by veteran journalists Tessa Mentus and Matt Grubs.
Ronchetti, a former meteorologist for KRQE, looked comfortable on cameras as he aggressively questioned and criticized his opponent.
Lujan Grisham, a former congresswoman and veteran of TV debates, parried his attacks and pitched her experience in office. She delivered a few zingers of her own, saying at one point that Ronchetti shifted positions on abortion “more than the weather changes right here in New Mexico.”
Ronchetti leveled his own attacks.
“You’re out of touch with the people of your own state,” he said.
Ronchetti also focused on New Mexico’s high violent crime rate — second in the nation in 2020 — and the dismal academic proficiency rates for students.
“New Mexico is at a crossroads, no doubt,” Ronchetti said. He added: “If you think the system is broken, she is the head of the system.”
Lujan Grisham, in turn, acknowledged the pain of the pandemic and state’s largest wildfire. But she said an experienced leader is needed.
“We’ve come a long way in four years,” she said. “As New Mexicans we’ve been through a lot. I remain steadfast in my optimism about what comes next.”
Lujan Grisham, 62, turned the conversation to abortion periodically, highlighting her signing of a 2021 bill that repealed the state’s criminal abortion law, which she said could have been enforced following the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.
She accused Ronchetti of wanting to ban abortion, saying, “If Mark Ronchetti was governor today, abortion would be illegal in the state of New Mexico.”
While Ronchetti has not said how he would have acted on the bill, he has insisted on the campaign trail that he would not seek to ban abortion entirely despite his personal anti-abortion views.
Instead, Ronchetti, 48, pitched his idea of putting the abortion question before voters in a constitutional amendment. He has supported a 15-week abortion ban — with exception for rape, incest and threats to the mother’s life — but said voters should decide.
Lujan Grisham shared that she had once had a medical emergency during a pregnancy and expressed thanks she did not have to make a life-changing decision.
“The fact that anyone should get to vote about my personal health care decision is quite frankly outrageous,” she said.
Ronchetti responded: “I’m not deciding anything for you. I think you should vote on it.”
When asked about education, both candidates agreed that smaller class sizes would help boost New Mexico student outcomes.
But neither Ronchetti nor Lujan Grisham laid out a plan to respond to the Martinez-Yazzie case, a landmark 2018 court decision that found New Mexico was failing to meet its constitutional obligation to provide an adequate education to all students, particularly Native Americans and English-language learners.
On the issue of the state’s projected $2.5 billion in “new” revenue for the coming budget year, Lujan Grisham attributed the windfall to her administration’s efforts on the economy.
“These record revenues are because our economic policies work,” Lujan Grisham said.
However, legislative economists have said that roughly two-thirds of the projected revenue growth is expected to come directly from oil and natural gas receipts.
Meanwhile, Ronchetti cited a Lujan Grisham executive order that authorized inmates to be released early from prison if they met certain criteria.
More than 700 inmates were released under the order that was rescinded by the governor this week — after Ronchetti targeted it in a campaign ad.
But the Lujan Grisham administration has said only nine individuals released under the order reoffended during the time period between their release date and when they would have been paroled.
Libertarian candidate Karen Bedonie, the third candidate on the general election ballot, was not invited to participate in Friday’s debate.
The prime-time debate marked the first of two scheduled debates between Lujan Grisham and Ronchetti. The two candidates will also face off at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 12 in a debate sponsored by KOAT-TV, KKOB Radio and the Albuquerque Journal.