He’s a young Latino Democratic politician who won a six-way race for his party’s nomination. He shares the same name as his prominent power-broker father, espouses the benefits of renewable energy and is often criticized as lacking experience.
That description fits two different candidates in northern New Mexico: third congressional district candidate Ben Ray Luján and Jerome Block Jr., the Democrat who aims to replace Luján as the third district representative on New Mexico’s Public Regulation Commission.
The chief difference between the two is a matter of support: Luján has yet to endorse his fellow Democrat.
Following the primary, Democrats united behind Luján, son of New Mexico Speaker of the House Ben Luján. Meanwhile, a series of scandals emerged regarding Block’s criminal record, educational resumé, campaign-finance reporting and refusal to debate [Aug. 20: “
”]. Consequently, some Democrats began distancing themselves from the nominee, son of former PRC Commissioner Jerome Block Sr. Many now support Block’s Green Party opponent, Rick Lass.
After the first story broke about Block’s previously undisclosed arrest for riding with an intoxicated driver and citation for urinating in public [June 25: “
”], Luján’s campaign stood by Block, telling the New Mexico Independent: “Ben Ray Luján supports a strong Democratic ticket with candidates that will stand up for New Mexico and that includes Jerome Block Jr.”
Indeed, earlier in the general election cycle, Luján and Block appeared at joint campaign events. Now, however, Luján’s campaign says it has not endorsed and has no plans to endorse in the PRC race
Block’s campaign did not return e-mails regarding this story.
Caught between a rock and a hard place—supporting a flawed Democratic candidate or splitting from the straight-party ticket and endorsing a third-party candidate—Luján has opted to keep a low profile.
“Ben Ray does not want to act as a referee,” Luján campaign spokesman Mark Nicastre tells SFR, specifically in regard to suggestions that Luján pressure Block to publicly debate Lass.
Luján would not grant an interview about the PRC race and instead requested that all questions be posed via e-mail. After deliberating over SFR’s e-mailed inquiry for more than a week and screening the questions with the Democratic Party of New Mexico, Luján did not answer any question regarding the PRC race.
“I’m focused on my own race for Congress and reaching out to the people of New Mexico,” Luján says via e-mail. “The voters of the district will decide who will succeed me at the Public Regulation Commission.”
Luján’s general-election opponents say this indicates a flaw in the candidate’s character.
“[Luján] is skirting the issue because of his limited background, limited history and limited ability,” Dan East, the Republican nominee for the third congressional district, tells SFR. “He keeps talking about how he has cleaned up corruption in the PRC. If he’s cleaned up corruption and Block has this serious misrepresentation going on, then [Luján] needs to stand up against it and endorse the candidate who is better qualified.”
There is no Republican in the PRC race and East says he is open to voting for a Green Party candidate.
As for that Green candidate, Lass also believes Luján should have an active interest in his race.
“I think it’s really important that who follows in [Luján’s] footsteps continues to push for more renewable energy and to keep our utility rates affordable,” Lass tells SFR. “I would think [Luján] would have an interest [in the PRC race] because he’s very proud of the work he’s done up there.
Luján also has an Independent opponent in the congressional race, Carol Miller, who received help from Lass in collecting signatures to get on the ballot (though Lass has not endorsed Miller). Miller says voters should not ignore the similarities between Block and Luján.
“I think there are more similarities between the two campaigns than there are differences,” Miller tells SFR. “As far as I can see, the position of the [Democratic] party and all of the candidates is that they’re going to encourage everyone to vote straight-party.”
The Democratic Party of New Mexico also would not comment for this story. This lack of transparency, Miller says, is a problem.
“There are days I feel like I’m running against the Wizard of Oz…I want to know who’s behind the curtain,” Miller says. “[My] opponent has [raised] so much money but takes really no positions or doesn’t state those positions in public if they haven’t been written down first.”
Luján’s campaign declined to respond to his opponents’ accusations.
Bernie Logue Y Perea, who recently stepped down as chairman of Ward 47-A of the Santa Fe Democratic Party in order to lead the political-action committee Democrats for Rick Lass, says he can sympathize with Luján’s predicament.
“I think Ben Ray has done exactly what he should be doing,” Perea tells SFR. “I think it would be great if he would make an endorsement. I think [Lass] could use that kind of endorsement, but I don’t think Ben Ray should feel any pressure to endorse.”
But Perea was surprised to learn that Luján did not consider his earlier statement to the Independent an endorsement.
“He should make that clear,” Perea says. “I hear people, people who are voting for Ben Ray, say that they are concerned that he did endorse Jerome Block Jr.”
Although Luján would not comment on the PRC race, he did have advice for his successor.
“You have to continue to work with the public and make the commission open and accessible to the public,” Luján writes in his e-mail to SFR. “Your job is to represent the people; you have to do that by visiting with them, going to their communities and getting their input. You need the courage to stand up to corporate interests and put the people of New Mexico first.”