Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – After an election cycle marked by the erosion of previous GOP gains in the Legislature, New Mexico Republican Party activists will gather this weekend in Albuquerque to select a new party chairman amid a backdrop of discord.
The race between Ryan Cangiolosi, who holds a high-profile position at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center, and businessman John Rockwell comes after a period of infighting within the party and the loss of seats in both legislative chambers.
Cangiolosi, a former state GOP official and officer in the Navy Reserve, has touted his broad range of experience. Rockwell has cited his business acumen and compared his candidacy to that of President-elect Donald Trump.
Due to his position at the Health Sciences Center, Cangiolosi has faced questions about the appearance – and appropriateness – of simultaneously holding a high-paying job there and, if elected, a state party chairmanship.
Cangiolosi’s job as project director for the Health Sciences Center involves community outreach, managing key projects and advising on the center’s legislative strategies. He said Thursday that his job does not include lobbying duties – Cangiolosi is not a registered lobbyist – and that he would do all his work as state GOP chairman on his own time.
In a statement, the center said that while UNM policy allows employees to participate in political activity on their own time, it would develop a conflict-of-interest “management plan” with Cangiolosi, should he win election, to avoid the potential for perceived conflicts.
The UNM Health Sciences Center also said in its statement that university policy allows employees to engage in political activities, so long as they do so on their own personal time and do not use UNM resources. The policy also bars UNM employees from serving in the Legislature but does not mention other elected offices. The Legislature appropriates millions of taxpayer dollars to UNM and the Health Sciences Center each year.
“Mr. Cangiolosi is a valued asset for the university, and his willingness to assume a leadership role in this manner brings greater value to the community as a whole,” the statement also said.
Meanwhile, Cangiolosi says his connections with county-level GOP officials around the state would allow him to quickly start preparing for the 2018 election cycle, in which New Mexico will elect a new governor. Several other statewide offices will also be on that year’s ballot.
“It’s time for all Republican leadership to work together so we’re victorious in 2018,” he said in a Thursday interview. “I understand what it takes to win.”
Rockwell had a different take on the race: “The choice this time is going to be between a political operative and a businessman, and there are differences. I think this is the year for change.”
Rockwell, who has previously run to be state GOP chairman, owns and runs two Albuquerque-area manufacturing businesses – Sierra Peaks and Marpac, which together have about 100 employees.
In a letter to GOP central committee members, Rockwell blamed intraparty divisions for this year’s GOP losses at the ballot box – Democrats retook control of the state House and expanded their majority in the Senate – and called on Republicans to “turn the tide against progressive liberalism” in New Mexico.
And in a recent interview, Rockwell said he is not aligned with any faction of the state party, adding, “When we’re working against each other, it makes it harder to share our values.”
Before landing the UNM Health Sciences Center job, Cangiolosi worked as a deputy chief of staff for Gov. Susana Martinez and worked as her campaign manager in 2010.
But he has close ties to Harvey Yates Jr., a former state Republican Party chairman who has been critical in recent years of both Martinez’s governing style and her political adviser, Jay McCleskey. Earlier this year, Yates defeated longtime incumbent Pat Rogers, who has been closely linked to the Martinez administration, for a state post on the Republican National Committee.
In addition to support from Yates, Cangiolosi has received endorsements from U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce and former U.S. Rep. Bill Redmond, among other New Mexico Republicans.
The campaign fundraising influence of political parties in New Mexico has waned in recent years, due in large part to the proliferation of political committees, especially so-called super PACs, which do not have to abide by the state’s contribution limits.
However, parties still play a key public relations role, in addition to organizing efforts to get out the vote and other duties.
The election of the state Republican Party chairman will happen Sunday in Albuquerque. There are roughly 540 members of the GOP central committee, though not all of them are expected to be present. As of the start of this month, 31 percent of New Mexico’s registered voters – or slightly more than 400,000 – were Republicans, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.
Outgoing state GOP Chairwoman Debbie Maestas, who has held the position since late 2014, announced after the Nov. 8 election that she would not seek election to a second two-year term.
Democrats will elect state party leaders of their own at an internal meeting in April 2017.