Hanisee is also the first publicly financed candidate to be elected to an appellate court since public financing became available to statewide judicial candidates in 2008.
For those concerned about the influence of money in politics – and polls show most voters are – Hanisee’s use of public financing to win election to the New Mexico Court of Appeals was a patch of high ground in an election flooded with campaign cash from private interests.
The former federal prosecutor from Albuquerque narrowly defeated Democrat Kerry Kiernan, also an Albuquerque lawyer, in the Nov. 4 election, according to unofficial results from the Secretary of State’s Office.
Kiernan’s campaign was also publicly financed. It was the first time both candidates in a contested appellate court race opted to fund their campaigns with public dollars, rather than contributions from fellow lawyers, PACs, unions, corporations or other private interests.
Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, appointed Hanisee to the Appeals Court in 2011. He failed to win election to the job the following year, but Martinez appointed him to another vacancy on the Appeals Court, setting up a second bid for election this year.
Supporters say public financing of campaigns is a means, albeit a sometimes imperfect one, to combat the influence of money in politics or the appearance of influence that political donations can have.
Public financing of campaigns is limited in New Mexico to candidates for the Appeals and Supreme courts and candidates for the Public Regulation Commission. Two of the three candidates elected to the PRC this year were publicly financed, although both were unopposed in the general election.
Only candidates in partisan elections for the appellate courts are eligible for public financing. Not eligible are judges who have been previously elected and are running in retention elections, in which voters cast “yes” or “no” ballots on keeping them on the bench.
From 2008, the year that public financing became available to statewide judicial candidates, through 2012, there were five contested primary or general elections for the Appeals or Supreme courts, but most of the candidates in those races opted for private campaign financing.
Of the three Appeals Court judges and one Supreme Court justice elected from 2008 to 2012, none chose public financing.
Hanisee has been the exception to the pattern, accepting public financing for both of his campaigns to stay on the Appeals Court.
“It keeps lawyers’ money out of judicial races,” he says. “To me, that is the main thing you are trying to accomplish.”
Judicial candidates who opt for public financing receive distributions from the Public Election Fund, which is financed in part by proceeds from unclaimed property, such as abandoned personal bank accounts, stocks and insurance policies.
The Public Election Fund has been so flush with cash in recent years that the Legislature and governor have raided it to pay other election-related expenses of the Secretary of State’s Office.
How much candidates receive in public financing is based on numbers of registered voters eligible to cast ballots in their races.
Hanisee received $29,768 for the primary election and $189,948 for the general. Kiernan received the same amount for the general, but he was given $44,773 for the primary because there are more Democratic registered voters statewide than Republicans.
The bottom line is that Kiernan received $15,000, or 7 percent, more for the primary and general elections. Public financing for a primary election must be spent during that election or refunded, meaning you can’t carry over money to the general election.
Hanisee and Kiernan each spent all but about $100 of the public financing received for the primary. They haven’t filed final reports on how much they spent of their general election money.
Hanisee has some ideas for improving public campaign financing, including limiting such financing to contested races. Both he and Kiernan were unopposed in the primary.
Hanisee says the money saved by limiting financing to contested races could be used to expand public financing to include candidates for state district courts, allowing them to also get out of the business of raising money from lawyers and others.
“It’s just unseemly,” he says. “While we’re fixing one thing, why don’t we fix the other?”
Hanisee also doesn’t like the requirement that to receive public financing, a judicial candidate must collect $5 contributions each from one-tenth of 1 percent of voters in the state. For him and Kiernan, that amounted to $5 donations from 1,266 voters each this year, or a total of $6,330 each.
Hanisee says the total amount of money that has to be collected is minimal and the process of collecting it can be awkward because a candidate can end up with a wad of cash after a fundraising event.
He has an idea for improving the process: Allow judicial candidates to have links on their websites so supporters can make the $5 donations directly to the Public Election Fund.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Thom Cole at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-992-6280 in Santa Fe. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.