FOR THE RECORD: The office that Tim Keller was elected to has been corrected in this story.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of a Journal series on local and state races that will appear on the June 7 primary ballot.
SANTA FE – In 1992, then-incumbent state Sen. Shannon Robinson defeated Democratic challenger Mimi Stewart in a tight primary election, eking out a 63-vote victory in a race in which nearly 3,000 votes were cast.
Twenty-four years later, history has repeated itself with a twist – Stewart is now the incumbent in Senate District 17 and is facing a primary challenge from old foe Robinson in what’s been a reliably Democratic seat on Albuquerque’s east side.
Robinson served in the Senate until 2008, when he was ousted by Tim Keller.
Stewart ended up serving 20 years in the House of Representatives and was appointed to the Senate in 2014 after Keller was elected state auditor.
She said she’s wary of the election threat from Robinson despite having a commanding edge in early fundraising.
“I would like to just ignore this completely, but I can’t do that,” Stewart told the Journal . “He served in the Senate for (nearly) 20 years, so he does have a lot of name recognition.”
She also said she and Robinson have “never had a good working relationship” since the 1992 election.
Robinson vowed he will not run a negative race. In fliers distributed by his campaign, Robinson has also pledged not to accept campaign contributions from lobbyists, corporations or “Democratic Party bigwigs.”
In a recent interview, he said he’s had time to think – and change – since losing his seat in the Senate.
“If I go back and serve another term (in the Senate), I’d like people to say, ‘He learned a lot in eight years,’ ” Robinson said, adding that he would be a better communicator with constituents than he was before.
One wrinkle in the Senate District 17 primary is that Robinson ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for his old Senate seat in 2012. Although he’s running as a Democrat this time around, he opened eyes in March when he filed paperwork to take on Stewart, who immediately raised questions about her opponent’s party allegiances.
“I don’t know who he is,” she said in a March interview, before later adding: “I’m suspicious of people who go back and forth between parties.”
Robinson responded at the time by saying he’s always been a Democrat at heart.
The two candidates have shown different focuses during their time in the Legislature, as Stewart, a retired educator, has been an outspoken critic of Gov. Susana Martinez’s education initiatives – she was a plaintiff in a 2014 teachers union lawsuit that sought to strike down a teacher evaluation system – and has pushed in recent legislative sessions for higher pay for educators.
For his part, Robinson at times showed a conservative streak as a legislator, having, for instance, sponsored the state’s 2003 law permitting concealed carry of handguns.
During his tenure in the Senate, Robinson also headed what he called the “bull moose” alliance of Republicans and conservative Democrats in the Senate, which worked to protect outdoor traditions and rural life.
For this year’s race, he said he hopes to tap into younger voters’ excitement over the Democratic presidential primary to boost his chances of an upset.
“I think there’s going to be a flood of voters,” Robinson said. “People remember me and are positive about me.”
There’s no Republican in the race, meaning whoever wins the June 7 primary election will be in line for a four-year term starting next year.