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NM’s new Democratic chair looks to heal divisions

Richard D. Ellenberg

Richard D. Ellenberg

Retired lawyer Richard Ellenberg won election Saturday as chairman of the state Democratic Party, pledging to heal lingering divisions between the supporters of ex-presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.

Ellenberg, a Santa Fe resident, secured on Saturday the endorsement of a rival candidate for chairman – Rusty Pearce, a Las Cruces educator and Sanders delegate to the national convention last year – just as voting opened, helping seal his victory.

“I think I have the ability to pull this party together,” Ellenberg told the hundreds of Democratic Party volunteers, elected officials and others gathered for a daylong meeting on Albuquerque’s West Side.

Ellenberg defeated Juan Sanchez III, a graduate student at the University of New Mexico, on a 200-120 vote by members of the party’s state central committee. Pearce announced his withdrawal as a candidate as voting started and endorsed Ellenberg.

The vote was part of a day of speeches, rowdy cheering and harsh criticism of Republican President Donald Trump. Democrats met at Atrisco Heritage Academy, a high school on the southwest mesa.

“I promise you we will take advantage of this huge energy that’s flowing,” Ellenberg said.

He said he would bring strong organizational skills and experience as a past chairman of the Santa Fe County Democratic Party. Ellenberg said that Sanders and Clinton supporters within the Santa Fe party worked together after last year’s election and “that’s the way it should be,” he said.

Clinton narrowly won New Mexico’s primary, with 52 percent of the vote over Sanders.

As chairman, Ellenberg will serve as a volunteer but oversee a handful of paid staff members. It’s a two-year term.

He succeeds Debra Haaland, who didn’t seek re-election.

Also on Saturday, the Democratic Party’s central committee elected Neomi Martinez-Parra as vice chair and Katharine Clark as secretary. Robert Lara will continue as treasurer for a second term.

New Mexico Republicans likewise elected a new chairman recently: Ryan Cangiolosi, an executive at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center, took over in December.

Party organizations across the country have seen their influence diminish a bit with the rise of super PACs – or independent political action committees that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money, as long as they don’t coordinate with a candidate.

But party leaders still serve as public spokespeople of sorts, defending their elected leaders and attacking officials on the other side.

A top priority for both parties will be next year’s wide-open race for governor. Incumbent Susana Martinez, a Republican, cannot run for re-election because of term limits.

The state House of Representatives – which has flip-flopped between Democratic and Republican majorities – will also be up next year. Democrats now hold a 38-32 edge in the House, winning back control after two years in which Republicans had a 37-33 majority.