SANTA FE – The huge swath of northwestern New Mexico that makes up Senate District 22 is largely Indian country, and the Democratic primary race this year features an incumbent from Jemez Pueblo and a Navajo challenger.
Sen. Benny Shendo, D-Jemez Pueblo, who is wrapping up his first, four-year term, is facing former Rep. Sandra Jeff, D-Crownpoint, in the June 7 election.
Jeff, who went to court to get on the ballot after initially being disqualified, is a freewheeling Democrat who had a rocky relationship with party leaders when she served in the House from 2009 to 2014.
With no Republican on the ballot in November, the primary winner would get the seat.
The rural district – which is about two-thirds Native American – stretches from Rio Rancho to the Colorado state line and over to near Farmington, and takes in six pueblos as well as the Jicarilla Apache Nation and a portion of the Navajo Nation.
Shendo, who was the state’s first secretary of Indian Affairs after the agency was elevated to Cabinet level in 2004, just started working as tribal administrator at Jemez Pueblo. He formerly was a consultant with the Jemez Community Development Corp.
Jeff formerly worked for the Public Regulation Commission.
Jeff frustrated leaders of the Democratic majority during her House tenure. She broke with them and voted with the GOP on key issues including legislative redistricting, the state budget and driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. She didn’t vote on a key Democratic-backed minimum wage measure, despite a personal call from Vice President Joe Biden urging her support.
Jeff contends she was putting the interests of her district’s rural communities over the wishes of party leaders.
“I’m not going to be a puppet to the leadership,” she said in a recent interview.
Her re-election bid in 2014 was thwarted when courts kept her off the primary ballot because she didn’t have enough valid voters’ signatures on her nominating petitions. She then ran unsuccessfully as a write-in candidate in the general election.
This year, she was disqualified by the secretary of state because she hadn’t paid fines for late filing of a campaign finance report. She challenged that in court – with a Republican legislator as her lawyer – but while the case was pending, she struck a deal with Secretary of State Brad Winter’s office, agreeing to pay $100 rather than the more than $1,000 elections officials said last year that she owed under state law.
Senate Democrats criticized the deal and accused Jeff of campaign finance violations.
The 2014 challenge to Jeff’s candidacy was funded by Conservation Voters New Mexico, which has labeled her “anti-conservation,” saying she sides with the uranium industry. The group is endorsing Shendo, who has sponsored legislation for a study of the impacts of uranium mining pollution on public health.
Shendo ousted incumbent Sen. Lynda Lovejoy, D-Crownpoint, to win the Senate seat in 2012. He had run unsuccessfully in 2008 for the Democratic nomination in the 3rd Congressional District.
Shendo’s background is in higher education, including managing Native American programs at Stanford University – where he was an assistant dean of students – and at the University of New Mexico.
He left Stanford and returned to New Mexico to organize the first public charter school on Indian land in New Mexico, at Jemez Pueblo.
Shendo says voters in the district “want a good, qualified candidate – which I am.”
On the campaign trail, he touts his role in the creation of the state’s Tribal Infrastructure Fund in 2005. The fund provides money to tribes for water and wastewater systems, roads, power lines and other projects.
“Jobs are huge. … When we talk about economic development, we have to talk about infrastructure,” Shendo said.