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GOP hopes to retake Heights Senate district

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of stories about New Mexico election races.

SANTA FE – Albuquerque’s Senate District 15 was a solidly Republican seat for nearly three decades, until 2009. Now, Democrats are trying to keep their hold on it in a volatile election season as the GOP minority takes aim at the swing district.

The incumbent is first-term Democratic Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, a lawyer who has represented the near-Northeast Heights district since 2013. He succeeded Democrat Tim Eichenberg, who served one term, decided not to run again, and is now state treasurer.

Ivey-Soto’s Republican opponent is newcomer Eric Burton, a lawyer and business owner.

Senate District 15 candidate Eric Burton

Eric Burton

Democrats currently have a 24-18 edge in the Senate, and for Republicans to turn that around is a long shot.

But District 15 is among a handful of seats the GOP is pinning its hopes on, despite the Democrats’ edge in voter registration and recent voter performance.

Ivey-Soto has been under fire from the Republican super PAC run by Gov. Susana Martinez’s top political adviser, Jay McCleskey, as well as the state Republican Party.

State Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto

State Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto

Ivey-Soto is a moderate Democrat, a former prosecutor and teacher who describes himself as pro-business and has the backing of labor and conservation groups as well as the Association of Commerce and Industry.

He also is a former New Mexico elections director in the Secretary of State’s Office.

He currently is the executive director of the county clerks’ affiliate of the New Mexico Association of Counties.

Burton practices law in the areas of trust, estates and federal income tax, and co-owns a licensed trust company and an insurance company management firm.

He worked during this year’s legislative session as the chief of staff for the Judiciary Committee in the GOP-run state House.

“I would put myself in the category of a free-market capitalist conservative who leans libertarian on social issues,” he said.

In fact, in what may be a bellwether of where New Mexico is headed someday, both candidates in the District 15 race support legalizing recreational marijuana.

Issues

Ivey-Soto touts a range of bills he got passed in his first term. Among them: a comprehensive criminal records database for background checks; prosecution for not reporting child abuse; dual credit for high school students taking college classes; and electronic campaign reporting.

He also successfully sponsored legislation allowing the developer of Albuquerque’s Winrock Town Center to restructure existing tax increment districts, reviving the project and, according to Ivey-Soto, ensuring 2,000 jobs.

The Legislature passed Ivey-Soto’s constitutional amendment to allow school elections to be held with other local, nonpartisan elections – which he says would boost voter turnout – but it was deemed to have failed statewide because it lacked 75 percent voter approval. Ivey-Soto took the issue to the state Supreme Court on behalf of the League of Women Voters and won. The high court ruled that it and another constitutional change from a previous year had passed after all.

Burton tells voters that New Mexico is in economic peril.

“We really need to focus on turning our economy around and creating some jobs, and through that economic growth we’ll be able to expand the tax base and generate revenues” to address education, crime and the state’s social ills, Burton said.

He would start with “baby steps”: enacting right-to-work legislation, repealing the law requiring the prevailing wage – effectively, the wage paid under collective bargaining agreements – for government-funded projects, and deregulating business by reducing the number of occupations that are required to be state licensed. He also would speed up the state’s permitting process and reduce the permit cost for hard rock and copper mining.

He also favors repealing the state’s gross receipts tax and replacing it with a lower-rate, broad-based sales tax.

Criticism

Burton, as well as the Republican Party in a complaint filed with the attorney general, contends that it’s a conflict of interest for Ivey-Soto to work for the clerks while he sponsors election-related legislation they support.

Ivey-Soto said that although the clerks did support election law cleanup and other proposals, the Association of Counties opposed other bills he sponsored – for example, making agendas public 72 hours before a meeting and requiring oral public comment at meetings.

“I’m not sure it benefits the people of New Mexico to have legislators park their knowledge at the door,” Ivey-Soto said.

He said he consulted with a lawyer specializing in conflicts of interest before he was elected who determined no conflict would exist, but that no part of his evaluation, continued employment or pay could depend on what happened to legislation.

Ivey-Soto says the complaints are groundless and were filed for their publicity value.

The GOP is also criticizing the Democratic candidate on the matter of an ethics commission. A House-passed constitutional amendment creating a commission ran into a barrage of questioning in a Senate committee this year, with Ivey-Soto among the most outspoken critics. The House sponsor said proposed Senate changes would unacceptably weaken the measure, and he backed off.

Ivey-Soto said he is working now on his own version of an ethics commission bill for next year.

The incumbent has outraised the challenger, according to campaign finance reports filed last week. Ivey-Soto reported raising $155,930 and spending $101,675, and Burton reported raising $107,182 and spending $86,888.

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