Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of stories about contested New Mexico races
SANTA FE – Since first being elected to the Legislature in 2012, Republican Rep. Paul Pacheco, a retired police officer, has taken a leading role in pushing criminal penalty bills backed by Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration.
His Democratic opponent in the Nov. 8 general election, Daymon Ely, says he’d have a different focus – on jobs and state revenue levels – if he succeeds in knocking off the two-term incumbent in House District 23, a key battleground district that includes swaths of Albuquerque and Corrales.
“What I tell people is crime is important, but until you address jobs and revenue, you can throw as much money at crime as you want – at some point, you’re going to run out of money and we’re still going to have the crime,” Ely, a legal malpractice attorney and former Sandoval County commissioner, said in a recent interview.
Pacheco, who was also the face of the governor’s proposal to stop issuing driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, narrowly won election to the seat in 2012. He won by just 78 votes over his Democratic challenger in a race that had more than 13,000 votes cast. But he was re-elected by a comfortable margin in 2014, a non-presidential election year.
Pacheco told the Journal that high violent crime rates make out-of-state companies think twice about relocating in New Mexico, saying, “We can’t have people roaming the streets killing police officers.”
“We have a responsibility to ensure our communities are safe,” said Pacheco, who worked for the Albuquerque Police Department for more than 25 years and served as president of the Albuquerque Police Officers Association.
Pacheco agreed that he’s been closely aligned with the two-term GOP governor on crime issues, but said he’s tried to work with Democratic lawmakers when possible. As one example of bipartisan outreach, he cited work earlier this year on a proposal to expand the state’s “three-strikes” law for violent offenders that was approved in the House, but ultimately stalled in the Senate.
“I’ve worked hard to be a problem solver, not a problem creator,” said Pacheco, who insisted he was trying to address safety concerns while sponsoring bills to repeal the 2003 law allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain New Mexico driver’s licenses. A compromise plan that puts the state in line with the federal Real ID Act passed the Legislature and was signed into law this year.
Ely, who is married to former state Court of Appeals Judge Cynthia Fry, also said he’d be pragmatic and willing to work across party lines if elected to the Legislature. But he told the Journal he’d also be willing to shake up the system.
To generate more state revenue, he proposes using unspent capital improvement funds and enacting a Colorado-type system of legalizing and taxing recreational marijuana. He said revenue from legalizing marijuana could go toward policing efforts and behavioral health programs, including drug treatment.
“The question with marijuana is a question of when, not if,” Ely said.
Meanwhile, Ely also described the state’s current practice for funding capital improvement projects as “corrupt,” saying legislators should have to be more transparent about which projects they fund.
Pacheco has come under fire from a progressive nonprofit group over capital outlay spending, as a complaint filed in August alleged the two-term lawmaker failed to disclose his brother’s connection to a Rio Rancho charter school that, in recent years, received thousands of dollars in state infrastructure funds.
In a recent interview, Pacheco called the complaint, which is still pending at the Attorney General’s Office, a “smear campaign” and said it’s come up only occasionally on the campaign trail.
“There was nothing nefarious about that situation,” he told the Journal.
Ely said he hasn’t raised the ethics complaint against Pacheco with voters, but has discussed it when asked about it.
But Ely has blasted Pacheco on other issues, including the incumbent’s “yes” vote on a budget-cutting bill during a special legislative session that ended last week. Ely claimed proposed cuts in the bill for the AG’s Office and district attorneys statewide could hamper law enforcement efforts. Most House Democrats voted against the plan – one part of a larger solvency package – though all Senate Democrats voted in favor of it.
Meanwhile, Ely has outraised – by a 9-to-5 ratio – and outspent Pacheco during this year’s election cycle. Ely has spent $143,012, most of it on campaign mailers, compared with $71,980 for Pacheco, according to reports filed with the Secretary of State’s Office.
However, Pacheco reported earlier this week having $88,006 in his campaign war chest, some of it carried over from previous years’ campaigns, compared with $39,709 for Ely.
Pacheco has reported receiving contributions from a state homebuilders association and several petroleum or oil companies. He also got a donation from the National Rifle Association’s political committee.
For his part, Ely has reported getting big donations from labor unions, an environmental group’s political committee, Democratic legislators and various fellow attorneys.