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Four years ago, Democrat Stephanie Garcia Richard grabbed what had been a longtime Republican state House of Representatives seat in a district based around Los Alamos.
In 2016, it’s Los Alamos County Clerk Sharon Stover – also a former county councilor – who’s trying to put the swing seat back in GOP hands.
The race is considered among those crucial for deciding control of the House, where Republicans currently hold a slim 37-to-33 advantage, and that translates to a lot of money being sent the candidates’ way.
Garcia Richard had raised $135,000 for the campaign through Oct. 11, when the last reports were filed. Stover has raised a still-substantial $85,000.
The candidates have also gotten help in other ways. The state Republican Party has attacked Garcia Richard for voting against a bill that would have made it easier for people with subject-matter expertise to teach in public schools.
And a Democratic super-PAC, Patriot Majority New Mexico, has put out mailers hitting Stover for how she, as county clerk, initially declined a marriage license application from a same-sex couple as the issue played out in courts around the state in the months before the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that gay marriage was legal in December 2013.
Garcia Richard, curriculum coordinator for Pojoaque Valley schools, has broken ranks with her Democratic House colleagues in a few areas, notably when she voted with Republicans to repeal driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.
“The district I represent is where true democracy happens,” she said in an interview. “I don’t have a cushion; I don’t have a margin to hide behind. I have to be representative, I have to be as truly representative as I can be to the people I serve … .
“I truly believe that these swing seats represent true electoral politics, true representative democracy. This is where you can’t vote with interests.”
Stover emphasizes her public service in Los Alamos, which, besides her elected roles as county clerk and a Los Alamos County councilor, includes working with community groups like Leadership Los Alamos, along with her roots in northern New Mexico as a self-described “coyote” – half-Hispanic, half-Anglo – whose parents ran the popular La Mesita restaurant in Pojoaque.
“I’ve been invested in this community for 33 years; I’ve built programs,” she said. “… I think I have a track record where I bring factions or issues to closure.” Stover notes that she was in County Council leadership positions when two huge wildfires burned into or near Los Alamos. “So I know what it is to serve during a crisis,” she said.
House District 43 encompasses Los Alamos but, with about 25 percent of the precincts scattered among parts of Sandoval, Santa Fe and Rio Arriba counties.
It was considered a Republican stronghold during the long tenure of Rep. Jennette Wallace, who died in 2011. Garcia, who’d lost a close race to Wallace in 2010, narrowly beat James W. Hall, appointed to succeed Wallace by Gov. Susana Martinez, in 2012, and followed up with an easy win – 57 percent to 43 percent – in 2014 against Republican County Council chair Geoff Rodgers.
The district’s voter registration now trends Democratic, with 42 percent of voters registered as Democrats and 33 percent Republican, but with 25 percent either independent or registered with other parties.
Stover downplays the idea of a partisan battlefield. “For me, it doesn’t come up at all,” she said. “I’ve always believed it’s what that person stands for, what they are going to do, what they’ve done in their community.” Conversations with the two candidates reveal splits between them:
- Stover criticizes Garcia Richard for “voting along party lines” for Senate Bill 10 in the recent special legislative session “to take $25 million from schools,” specifically from savings accounts used to “cover essential services.” The bill, which didn’t become part of the enacted budget solvency plan, would have had a “huge impact” on Los Alamos schools and other school districts, Stover said.
Garcia Richard responds that Stover’s critique is “a perfect example of expertise versus non-expertise.” She said school district superintendents themselves, expecting to take a hit as the Legislature considered ways to balance the stressed state budget, proposed taking money from cash balances as an alternative to “above the line” operational funding. The superintendents were saying “we understand that we need to take our fair share of hits, we do not want it to impact our ability to keep our doors open, our ability to keep our lights on,” said Garcia Richard.
- Garcia Richard and campaign manager Tarin Nix said they asked Patriotic Majority, the pro-Democratic super PAC that has sent out mailers against Stover on the same-sex marriage issue, to stay out of the race. But Garcia Richards said she is friends with the lesbian couple that tried to get a marriage license in Los Alamos in 2013 and that the issue “is one thing that really sets me apart from my opponent.”
During the tumultuous months of legal wrangling before the Supreme Court settled the legality of gay marriage in New Mexico, the couple applied to Stover’s county clerk’s office for a marriage license. Stover rejected the application on the grounds that the existing state law called for a “bride” and “groom” on the application. The couple sued and a district court judge ordered Stover to either grant the license or appear in court to say why not.
Stover noted then in a statement that she had joined in with other county clerks with the New Mexico Association of Counties to seek guidance from the Supreme Court on the issue and that “piecemeal litigation across New Mexico is not good governance.” After a hearing, the district judge stuck with the order that Stover issue the license to the lesbian couple, and Stover did so.
This week, Stover noted that Bernalillo County Clerk Maggie Toulouse Oliver – now the Democratic candidate for secretary of state – also was sued after refusing to issue a same-sex marriage license, and county clerks as a group intervened in that case and filed a petition asking the Supreme Court for clarification.
“Our duty as county clerks is to uphold the law, not interpret the law or resolve legal ambiguities,” Stover said in email. “There was a tremendous amount of legal uncertainty surrounding the issue and we asked the Supreme Court to establish one standard for all of New Mexico rather than having a patchwork of up to 33 different interpretations or approaches.
“As I said back in 2013, I respect and value the rights of each person to be treated equally and fairly as an individual as our Constitution states,” Stover added. “I have friends who have been able to marry their partner and are now enjoying happy lives with the person they love.”
- Stover attacks Garcia Richard for her vote in the regular legislative session this year against House Bill 145, of which the Republican Party has also made an issue. The bill would have allowed local school boards to contract up to half-time with “adjunct” instructors for grades seven through 12. The adjuncts would be required to have a bachelor’s degree and three years’ experience in the subject area, pass a state teacher assessment in the subject matter and complete a state-approved “pedagogy course” of unspecified duration.
Stover said the bill, which passed the House and stalled in the Senate, would have been particularly helpful in Los Alamos and could help plug hundreds of teacher vacancies across the state with experts in various subject areas. “Instead of substitute teachers, you could use the brain power of our national laboratories,” she said. “… We need to be serving our kids and this is one tool to serve them.”
Garcia Richard said the state already has an alternative teacher certification program with teacher-training requirements. “This would be anyone with a bachelor’s degree, after a week of 40 hours of whatever boot-camp training, whatever that is, putting them in a classroom to handle classroom management,” she said of the bill.
“The one thing I have fought the hardest against is lowering of standards for kids, especially,” Garcia Richard said. “This has nothing to do with teachers, this is lowering standards for kids, and every shred of evidence I’ve seen on unqualified teachers results in lower student achievement.”
Stover said she wants to be in the Legislature to continue her public service work. “When I started this campaign, I knew living here so long and knowing so many people, at the end of the day, I wanted to walk into our grocery stores and restaurants, and look people in the eye and be proud of the work that I’ve done,” she said. “… New Mexico is at the bottom of so many of those lists, and I think I have the skills and the commitment and the dedication to do something about that.”
Garcia Richard said she has been an independent voice for District 43. “The reason I stand apart in this is my expertise,” she said. “I first ran as a classroom teacher to bring the teacher voice to the Legislature and to educational policy. And so I have a lot of in-the-trenches, on-the-ground experience with how educational policy impacts the classroom.”