SANTA FE — Michelle Lujan Grisham and Mark Ronchetti traded insults and harsh jabs in their final televised debate Wednesday as they offered competing visions for New Mexico amid an increasingly bitter governor’s race.
They clashed on policy proposals — abortion, government spending and crime, among them — but also questioned and criticized each other bluntly.
Ronchetti, the Republican challenger, accused Lujan Grisham of hypocrisy for saying she supports and believes the victims of sexual harassment, yet she agreed to a $150,000 settlement with a former campaign spokesman who had alleged she grabbed his crotch while laughing in a 2018 campaign meeting.
“You’ve never come clean,” Ronchetti said. He added: “You are a hypocrite.”
Lujan Grisham, the Democratic incumbent, called it a false attack and said her campaign disclosed the settlement publicly. It was reached, her campaign has said, to avoid the cost and distraction of litigation at the apex of the pandemic.
“You have spent your entire campaign attacking my character and my integrity,” she fired back. “They’re baseless attacks.”
“You’re a TV personality,” she added, “with no experience.”
The combative debate — aired by KOAT and jointly sponsored by the Albuquerque Journal and KKOB Radio — came as the race turns increasingly negative in the final weeks before Election Day.
The candidates devoted much of their time Wednesday to contrasting their policy ideas and plans, but with plenty of barbs aimed at each other.
Lujan Grisham, a former congresswoman and state Cabinet secretary, touted her experience and leadership during difficult times over the last four years as she made the pitch for a second term.
Ronchetti, a former meteorologist for KRQE, blasted her for New Mexico’s high violent crime rate and poor academic outcomes, arguing it’s time for new leadership at the Capitol.
“The government in Santa Fe has never been bigger, never been richer,” Ronchetti said.
And the spending, he said, isn’t making a meaningful difference in the lives of ordinary New Mexicans.
Lujan Grisham acknowledged challenging times — in the pandemic and amid the largest wildfire in state history — but she said New Mexico is recovering. The unemployment rate, she said, had fallen to its lowest level in 14 years.
“Progress isn’t promised,” she said. “The threat of going backward is real.”
Abortion was an immediate flash point. Lujan Grisham highlighted her signing of a bill that repealed New Mexico’s criminal abortion law.
“Women have a choice in New Mexico today because I’m governor,” she said.
Ronchetti described himself as “pro-life” but said voters should decide the issue through a constitutional amendment.
“The values of the people in the state of New Mexico have to be taken into account,” he said.
Ronchetti has faced negative ads on the issue, some of which highlight the comments of an Albuquerque megachurch pastor who announced from the pulpit that — after talking to Ronchetti for hours — he believes Ronchetti wants to end abortion in New Mexico but can’t say so publicly because it would damage his election chances.
Ronchetti’s campaign maintains his position has been consistent and that he told the pastor the same things he’s said on the campaign trail. The pastor later released a written statement saying as much.
Ronchetti has called for a 15-week abortion ban with exceptions for rape, incest or risks to the mother’s life, and he has also proposed the issue be decided by voters in a special election.
The debate gave each candidate a chance to ask the other a question.
Lujan Grisham asked Ronchetti if he knew what misoprostol is — a drug for treating stomach ulcers but also used in medication abortions.
Ronchetti didn’t answer directly but suggested it was intended as a “gotcha” question.
“This is what 25 years in government gets you,” he said. “This gets you a governor who wants to play Jeopardy. … People have had enough of the political games. It’s garbage at this point.”
Ronchetti used his question to ask about the allegations levied by James Hallinan, the former campaign spokesman. He asked the governor why Hallinan shouldn’t be allowed to speak about what happened.
The governor didn’t answer the question directly but said her campaign has been transparent about the issue. She called the question a baseless attack.
An attorney for Hallinan earlier this year said the governor and Hallinan had “resolved any differences or issues to their satisfaction” and that she couldn’t provide any more information.
The governor’s campaign contends the allegations are false and that the case was settled to avoid the expense and distraction of a lawsuit.
Ronchetti has launched TV ads highlighting the settlement.
The 60-minute debate was the last TV debate scheduled in the race. The candidates participated in one other televised debate last month.
In Wednesday’s debate, the candidates faced questions from Journal Capitol Bureau chief Dan Boyd, Bob Clark of KKOB Radio, and KOAT anchors Shelly Ribando and Doug Fernandez.
Libertarian candidate Karen Bedonie wasn’t invited to participate.
Visit KOAT.com to view video of the debate.