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‘Sometimes you’ve just got to take a leap’

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Debra Haaland’s little Honda Civic – the “perpetual campaign car” – is stuffed, as usual, with fliers and banners and signs. But this time, they’re for her.

After years of volunteering on other campaigns, the Democratic Party activist and organizer is now the candidate, running for lieutenant governor on the ticket headed by Attorney General Gary King.

“I don’t think voting is enough. You have to do more. … Sometimes you’ve just got to take a leap,” Haaland said. Armed with endorsements from prominent Democrats, she announced her candidacy early and ended up with no opponent on the June 3 primary election ballot.

There’s another possible first for Haaland on the horizon: If the Democrats were to win on Nov. 4, the Laguna Pueblo member would apparently be the first Native American to hold statewide office.

Winning is a tall order. King and Haaland are running against Republican Gov. Susana Martinez – the nation’s first female Hispanic governor – and Lt. Gov. John Sanchez. Martinez is considered a rising national star in the GOP and has millions ready to spend.

Already, King is taking a daily drubbing from the Martinez campaign and the GOP, his long public career including nearly eight years as attorney general providing plenty of ammunition.

“You’ve got to be positive. That’s my whole thing,” said Haaland, a single mother who didn’t start college until 28, graduated from law school at the University of New Mexico, and is now a tribal administrator at San Felipe Pueblo, as well as chairwoman of Laguna Development Corp., the tribe’s business arm.

Haaland, 53, a member of the 2014 class of Leadership New Mexico, describes herself as “kind of a workhorse.” She has labored on countless campaigns, including in Indian country for President Barack Obama’s election and re-election, and formerly chaired the state party’s Native American Caucus.

She says she brings to this campaign a passion for the state and an understanding of its people and their problems.

“I know what it’s like to be on food stamps. I know what a lot of New Mexicans go through,” she said.

Odd assignment

Lieutenant governors are second fiddles, with murky job descriptions and unwritten rules starting with this one: Don’t steal the spotlight or embarrass the governor.

At best, they’re loyal soldiers, champions of administration policy and effective surrogates. At worst, they turn on their bosses and run against them for governor.

The job has historically been a political dead end; since statehood, no lieutenant governor has gone on to be elected governor.

And their relationships with the governors they serve with can be iffy.

In New Mexico, governors don’t choose their lieutenant governors. Rather, the winner of the primary election for lieutenant governor is automatically matched with the winner of the gubernatorial primary.

“Lieutenant governors get to the dance on their own,” and they’re rarely a part of the governor’s inner circle, said Albuquerque pollster and political analyst Brian Sanderoff.

Even when the governor and lieutenant governor are on the same page politically and policy-wise, that doesn’t mean they’re close.

Former Democratic Lt. Gov. Diane Denish was a hard-charging advocate for the administration, but her relationship with Gov. Bill Richardson was often prickly. Among her complaints: He wouldn’t notify her when he headed out of state, leaving her in charge.

Former three-time Gov. Bruce King – candidate Gary King’s late father – had two lieutenant governors who ended up running against him.

Casey Luna was in the office when he unsuccessfully challenged King in the 1994 gubernatorial primary. That same year, a former two-time lieutenant governor of King’s, Roberto Mondragon, ran against King in the general election as the Green Party nominee.

King lost that three-way race to Republican Gary Johnson, but not before his running mate, Patricia Madrid – later the attorney general – made headlines when she told a largely Hispanic crowd in Las Vegas that Johnson “will surround himself with nothing but Anglos,” and that newcomers to New Mexico “don’t appreciate your values.”

Sanderoff said that, in a gubernatorial campaign, the candidates for lieutenant governor can play an important role as a surrogate for the gubernatorial nominee, allowing the campaigns to cover more territory. And they may bring to the campaign their own particular constituencies or bases of support.

But Sanderoff also said, “At the end of the day, people vote for the gubernatorial candidate, not the lieutenant governor candidate.”

Sanchez role

State law says the lieutenant governor is supposed to promote “cooperation and understanding” between New Mexicans and their state government, and help them deal with government agencies.

John Sanchez – Martinez’s running mate in 2010 and again this year – says that’s been an important part of his work ever since the governor dispatched him on a “listening tour” around New Mexico, just after they were elected, to hear from small businesses.

“We have continued with that as one of our main focuses,” said Sanchez, who has taken his “mobile office days” to nearly every county to help small businesses and others navigate the government bureaucracy.

The 51-year-old lieutenant governor also presides over the state Senate during its annual sessions – although he doesn’t vote except to break a tie – and he makes a steady stream of public appearances, including speaking at commencements and conferences.

He serves on boards and commissions including the Board of Finance, the Spaceport Authority, the Border Authority and the Mortgage Finance Authority.

Sanchez has never been close to Martinez, and their relationship got downright chilly when, just five months after they took office, Sanchez announced that he was running for U.S. Senate. Martinez immediately curbed his official duties; he got out of the race nine months later.

Similarly, he had been in the state House just briefly – after his upset of longtime Democratic House Speaker Raymond Sanchez in 2000 – when he set his sights on the 2002 governor’s race. He won the Republican nomination, but Richardson clobbered him in the general election.

Sanchez has a much lower-key approach to the job than did Denish, his immediate predecessor. He also has a drastically reduced staff: two full-time staffers, whereas Denish had as many as nine. Two other of his staff positions have ended up in the Governor’s Office, which Sanchez said helps the offices work more cooperatively.

“It’s a very cost-efficient and effective way of providing the services that the people of this state need from the executive branch of government,” he said.