The two candidates for First Judicial District Attorney, which covers Santa Fe, Rio Arriba and Los Alamos counties, have previous experience as prosecutors and both most recently served in the state Attorney General’s Office.
But the similarities don’t go much further. The two don’t quite see eye to eye on some big issues. They’re separated by age and background. One stresses being tough on crime, while the other emphasizes compassion for nonviolent offenders as the district fights a major drug problem.
Yvonne Chicoine, 60, took a long route to becoming the first Republican candidate for district attorney here in 40 years.
She was born in Ames, Iowa, but moved to Downers Grove outside Chicago when she was young. She got her undergraduate degree in international relations degree from Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., in 1977 and started working for a Congresswoman from Chicago in Washington, D.C.
From there, her career included high-ranking positions with the American Conservative Union, the oldest conservative lobbying group in the country whose foundation annually hosts the high-profile Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC; the International Trademark Association, a job that had her doing work overseas; and a forest and paper trade organization.Chicoine said a man who worked for the Department of Energy complimented the green dress she was wearing one day in Washington, D.C., and, two years later, in 1995, they were married. That man, Tom Starke, worked for Los Alamos National Laboratory. The couple moved to Santa Fe after they were married and have been here ever since.
Chicoine went to law school at the University of New Mexico in 2004 because she was “getting bored” and graduated in 2007. She was hired as a prosecutor by then-First Judicial District Attorney Henry Valdez and later worked for Angela “Spence” Pacheco when she was elected DA in 2008. Chicoine said she found criminal law to be her calling, but she said she was frustrated with policies that she believed protected defendants instead of victims.
“I was told I wasn’t making the judges happy because I wasn’t negotiating sweet plea deals,” said Chicoine, who cites her endorsements in the DA’s race from the local police officers union and the Fraternal Order of Police.
“It was all about how do we protect the defendants and that’s why part of my core message is standing with victims. They’re the ones who have suffered. Those who have violated the law have had tough lives, but they have made choices, and there’s a lot of people in our world that have had tough lives and have not committed crimes. Poverty is not an excuse and a tough upbringing is not an excuse.”
Chicoine started working in the Attorney General’s office in Santa Fe in 2011 and handled criminal cases that went before the state Court of Appeals before deciding to run for district attorney.
Democrat Marco Peter Serna, 33, was born and raised in Santa Fe and graduated from St. Michael’s High School in 2001. His father, long-time political figure and former state insurance superintendent Eric Serna, is from Española.
His mother, Barbara Serna, is from Santa Fe and runs a jewelry store in Española. Marco Serna went to the University of Arizona before getting his law degree from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas, in 2008.
He started working in risk management for the state’s General Services Division and later became a prosecutor for the 13th Judicial District, which encompasses Sandoval, Valencia and Cibola counties. Serna worked on domestic violence cases there before moving on to the violent crimes unit. Serna then moved to the Attorney General’s Office to work in the Medicaid Fraud and Elder Abuse division before resigning from that post earlier this year to run for District Attorney.
He said he got a “flood” of texts after Pacheco retired from the office, effective at the end of 2015, from people saying he should run, and he eventually decided to take the dive and momentarily live off money he’d saved up.
“After two weeks of discussion and my own inner reflection, I said, ‘I think I can do a good job,’ so I ran,” Serna told the Journal recently. “It’s a terrifying feeling at times because I resigned from the AG’s office but, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this with all of my energy.”
In the June Democratic primary, Serna won a tight three-way race, besting incumbent Jennifer Padgett – who’d been appointed by Gov. Susana Martinez to replace Pacheco – and another veteran of the AG’s Office, Maria Sanchez-Gagne.
Since becoming a candidate, Serna has raised a $77,358 – most of it spent on the primary campaign in the heavily Democratic district – more than doubling Chicoine’s total of $34,279, according to the last campaign finance reports filed Oct. 11. Serna had a balance $10,063 on that date to Chicoine’s $12,236.
Some of Chicoine’s latest big contributors include Santa Fe Federated Republican Women and Associated Builders and Contractors, who gave $2,500 and $1,000, respectively.
Serna recently received $2,500 from the Brewer Energy Company and $1,000 from self-employed Cesar Ornelas from San Antonio, Texas.
In his early campaign reports for the primary, Serna reported more than $18,000 from out-of-state donors, who he’s said were family friends who supported his vision. Some came from principals in the law firm of Barry Goldwater Jr., son of Republican icon and 1964 GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. The firm specializes in insurance law and includes Serna’s father as general counsel.
Eric Serna agreed to retire as insurance superintendent in 2006 amid disputes and investigations of contributions by insurance companies and a bank that did business with the state Insurance Division to a charity that Serna helped start. Eric Serna called the controversies “inaccurate rumors, innuendo and speculation.”
Marco Serna said this week, “What I tell people is, one, I’m proud of both of my parents for the work they’ve done throughout their lifetime. You can dislike my dad, and I understand that people do, but recognize that, in addition to my dad, whom I believe had a pivotal role in my career path, I say I’m also Barbara Serna’s son. If you’re going to paint me with my dad’s brush in a negative way and put a shadow on me, at least reflect some of that light from my mom on me, as well.”
How to handle investigations of officer-involved shootings emerged as an issue in the Democatic primary and the two general election candidates also have different views.
Serna said he wants to join with other district attorneys to assemble an independent “shoot team” that would investigate shootings by officers. He said he would bring in a special prosecutor if a case warrants criminal charges to avoid a perceived conflict of interest, since the DA’s office and local law enforcement work closely together on other cases.
“When an officer is involved in a DUI or any other case, that district attorney’s office inevitably always sends it to a different office because there’s a potential conflict of interest,” Serna said. “I don’t understand how that shouldn’t apply to any type of incident, specifically if there’s an officer-involved shooting and there’s a death, because there should be more scrutiny.”
The non-public investigative grand jury process that was used by former DA Pacheco to determine if police shootings were justified had come under scrutiny as the issue ballooned amid controversy over fatal police shootings in Albuquerque and nationwide.
In a controversial case on Pacheco’s watch, the grand jury process cleared State Police officer Oliver Wilson in the shooting death of 39-year-old Jeannette Anaya in Santa Fe in November 2013 after a car chase that started with an attempted traffic stop.
Serna said that, if charges are brought against an officer, the case should go to an open preliminary hearing in District Court so that the process is transparent. “Everybody gets to see the evidence,” Serna said. “It also protects rights of everybody involved, which is key, in my opinion. I completely disagree with the investigative grand jury and I understand why the public disagrees with it.”
Chicoine said she would review the evidence and make the determination herself as to whether the officer should be charged. She disagrees with Serna’s assertion that there’s a conflict of interest in such cases.
“It basically says you can’t trust the DA to be fair and objective,” she said. “Officers are involved in every case so, if the simple fact that an officer is involved in something means you can’t handle it, then what does the office do? I think it is the DA’s job to do that.”
“I would not ‘conflict out’ cases simply because officers used force in protecting and serving the interests of our community,” said Chicoine in response to a Journal candidates’ questionnaire.
She said she hopes there are law enforcement protocols in place to ensure that an investigation by the police of officer-involved shootings is thorough. Asked if State Police should investigate whether a State Police officer has used excessive use of force, as in the Jeanette Anaya case, she said, “That’s not the DA’s choice.”
If Chicoine believes an officer crossed the line, she could take the case to a grand jury or to a preliminary hearing. “It would depend on the facts and the circumstances, just as it would in any other case where there was a question whether there was probable cause to proceed with prosecution,” she said.
Both candidates agree that incarceration isn’t the best method for punishing nonviolent drug offenders, saying treatment for their addiction is the best way to keep them out of the judicial system. Chicoine would send addicts to treatment after they are charged for their various crimes and does not support Santa Fe’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program (LEAD), which allows a Santa Fe Police officer to send a nonviolent drug offender to treatment instead of pressing charges. She said it’s the district attorney’s job to enforce the laws, and not pick and choose which to prosecute.
“The Legislature decides what’s criminal conduct, the DA does not,” Chicoine said. “There’s discretion involved, but you don’t get to practice selective law enforcement and say for my own personal and political beliefs I don’t think they should be prosecuted.”
Serna strongly supports the LEAD program’s pre-booking diversion to treatment programs for eligible offenders and said he would like to see more government entities adopt the practice.
“I think it’s a great program, and … we need more programs like it that think outside the box,” he said. “If we look at the numbers from Seattle, where it started … the program does work. What better message to the public than officers recognizing that this individual needs help? Let’s put them in this program because we believe they can defeat their addiction. I get goose bumps when I think about that.”
See Chicoine’s answers to the Journal’s campaign questionnaire at: https://www.abqjournal.com/872595
See Serna’s answers to the Journal’s campaign questionnaire at: https://www.abqjournal.com/872613