SANTA FE – It wasn’t too long ago that the New Mexico state treasurer’s office was mired in scandal, with two corrupt former treasurers on their way to federal prison and an operation that begged for cleanup. A candidate for the office used the slogan: “I will end the embarrassment.”
Eight years later, under the steady hand of Treasurer James Lewis, the office is back on an even keel. With Lewis unable to run again because of term limits, the two Democrats vying to succeed him promise to build on that foundation – although their view of the office is somewhat different.
The contest is between former state Sen. Tim Eichenberg of Albuquerque and Albuquerque lawyer John Wertheim, ex-chairman of the state Democratic Party. The winner of the June 3 primary faces Republican Rick Lopez, a veteran of state and federal government positions, in the November general election.
The race started out with three Democrats, but former Bernalillo County Treasurer Patrick Padilla was bumped off the ballot – in a challenge brought by Wertheim – for not having enough valid voters’ signatures on his nominating petitions.
Now Padilla is supporting Eichenberg, with robocalls to voters on his behalf.
The treasurer is New Mexico’s banker, investing the state’s short-term funds and sitting on numerous boards and commissions including the State Investment Council, the Board of Finance and the Public Employees Retirement Association.
Eichenberg, 62, a former two-term Bernalillo County treasurer and former property tax director in the Taxation and Revenue Department, stresses his experience and his record of public service.
Wertheim, 46, touts his progressive vision for an under-the-radar office that could be used “for something more than just counting money.”
Wertheim was outpacing Eichenberg in fundraising as of the most recent campaign finance report, with $208,241 to Eichenberg’s $178,261.
Eichenberg is a Realtor and a property tax consultant who helps people protest their tax assessments.
Active in the Democratic Party, he was elected Bernalillo County treasurer at age 22 in 1974, and re-elected in 1976. He worked for the Taxation and Revenue Department in the administration of then-Gov. Bill Richardson.
He also serves as an elected board member on the Albuquerque Metropolitan Arroyo Flood Control Authority.
Eichenberg was elected to the state Senate in 2008 and served one term before deciding not to run for re-election in 2012, citing family obligations.
While he was there, he chaired a task force on government restructuring and sponsored successful legislation expanding the Governmental Conduct Act to local governments.
He is endorsed by the Senate’s Democratic leadership and other current and former legislators who attest to his qualifications, professionalism and integrity.
Eichenberg says his years administering government agencies makes him the best candidate for the job.
“I have the credentials, the experience and the integrity in the race,” Eichenberg told the Journal.
In conversation and on the campaign trail, he stresses the importance of transparency in the treasurer’s office and safety in investments.
“As State Treasurer, my priorities will be: Safety, Liquidity and Yield – with safety being paramount regarding our investment program,” reads his campaign brochure.
He also says there should be more state investment in local infrastructure, such as roads, schools and libraries.
Wertheim says New Mexico’s economic problems “demand we look at offices like the treasurer’s office differently.”
Citing the state’s negative job growth and bottom-of-the-barrel ranking in child welfare, Wertheim says the treasurer could promote progressive economic policy and jobs creation.
“This is not a position where you have sole control or authority to do a lot of things I’ve been talking about … but you do have influence,” he told the Journal .
He favors a constitutional change that has been introduced in the Legislature for the past several years to take more money from the Land Grant Permanent Fund to establish early childhood education programs.
He also pledges to invest more state funds in businesses that advance “renewable, sustainable energy sources” such as wind and solar.
Wertheim acknowledges the office’s core function is being the state’s banker, “and in that regard I view myself as a conservative.”
“People know me from politics, but my professional background is really in finance and investment,” he said. He studied some of that at Yale, and then worked for investment banking firm Alex.Brown & Sons – now part of Deutsche Bank. He said his law practice is heavily focused on financial litigation.
He was the director of Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in New Mexico in 1992, and Gov. Bruce King’s unsuccessful re-election bid in 1994. He was the Democratic nominee for the U.S. House in the 1st District in 1996 – losing to incumbent GOP Rep. Steve Schiff – and unsuccessfully sought the nomination again four years later.
His union endorsements include the American Federation of Teachers New Mexico, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 18.
The race has taken on a negative tone in recent weeks.
Padilla’s phone calls on behalf of Eichenberg say that Wertheim has “a reputation of being a bully,” a “history of being deceitful,” and that he wanted “the only qualified Hispanic out of the race.”
Wertheim – who calls himself “the real Democrat” in the race – sent out a couple of mailings last week attacking Eichenberg on a variety of fronts.
He cited a bankruptcy and foreclosure, which Eichenberg has previously disclosed and which occurred more than 25 years ago after the death of Eichenberg’s partner in a business venture. He quoted a newspaper editorial from June 1975 that accused Eichenberg of making “a shambles” of Bernalillo County’s merit system; Eichenberg counters that the same newspaper later endorsed his re-election as treasurer.
Wertheim’s mailers also said Eichenberg “has a record of discriminating against Hispanics,” citing a New Mexico Human Rights Commission ruling on a complaint by an employee Eichenberg fired when he was county treasurer – whom Eichenberg says he fired for other reasons. And the mailer faults Eichenberg for missing two votes on the Hispanic Education Achievement Act and for voting against a bill prohibiting health insurance companies from discriminating against women.
CITY/TOWN OF RESIDENCE: Albuquerque
OCCUPATION: Realtor, property tax consultant, certified appraiser, general contractor
EDUCATION: B.A., University of New Mexico
EXPERIENCE: New Mexico state Senate, 2009-12; member since 1994, and former chairman, Albuquerque Metropolitan Arroyo Flood Control Authority; former director, Property Tax Division, New Mexico Taxation and Revenue Department; Bernalillo County Treasurer 1975-78.
CITY/TOWN OF RESIDENCE: Albuquerque
EDUCATION: B.A., Yale University; J.D., University of New Mexico School of Law
EXPERIENCE: Law practice in New Mexico, 17 years; chairman, state Democratic Party, 2004-07; special assistant to the New Mexico attorney general, mid-2000s; Democratic nominee, U.S. House, 1st District, 1996; directed N.M. campaigns of Bill Clinton for President, 1992, Gov. Bruce King re-election, 1994.