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He’s not declaring candidacy, but Cervantes is not not running either.
Matt Grubs

Man With a Plan

Long rumored to have his eye on higher office, Sen. Joseph Cervantes is sketching designs to reach the governor’s mansion

February 15, 2017, 12:00 am

Joseph Cervantes went to school to become an architect.

“You see a building, as an architect, before it’s built,” he says of his draw to the discipline. “You see people in the building and you see it in use. And it’s just in your mind. It’s a dream that you then begin to make happen.”

At age 56—three decades on from his life as a professional architect—he looks for all the world like he’s still designing, still sketching out a dream that would be the capstone for a political career. It’s a long way from then to now; from an architecture student to a presumptive Democratic candidate for governor.

In 1983, Cervantes took his bachelor’s degree from the University of New Mexico and headed west. A few years later, he had a license and a job working for modernist architect Dale Naegle in his studio north of San Diego. Then, though Cervantes admits it was hard to trade in the mild rays of the La Jolla coastline for the baking sun and unrelenting glare of the Chihuahuan Desert, he went home to build elementary schools in the town of Gadsden, south of Las Cruces.

The plan was always to come back to New Mexico, he says. Six years of study and a handful of years as a practicing architect left their mark on Cervantes: “I don’t do anything without a plan.”

He was soon headed to law school—a plan born from an attraction to the legal side of getting a building constructed—and building a successful 25-year career as an attorney. He served a few years on the Doña Ana County Commission and won stints as a Democratic legislator in both the New Mexico House of Representatives and the state Senate.

Now, Cervantes sounds an awful lot like a guy who plans to run for governor.

“The most important qualification of a governor is a vision,” he tells SFR in an interview between a Senate floor session and late afternoon meetings at the Roundhouse. “An ability to create a vision for our state. And then the second step of being governor is developing a plan to execute that vision.”

"The most important qualification of a governor is a vision."
-Joseph Cervantes

Primary elections for governor are 16 months away, in June 2018. With Gov. Susana Martinez termed out, the field of contenders for the next executive is already starting to unfold. Cervantes is in a good position. He has done well for himself as an attorney. A jury recently granted one of his clients a $165.5-million wrongful death award, a state-record payout of which he’ll get a big piece. While the money won’t roll in before campaign season—the defendant, FedEx, is appealing the decision—along with other legal victories and real estate investments, it gives Cervantes the kind of freedom needed to wage a lengthy, expensive primary campaign against a significant slate of challengers.

Cervantes thinks New Mexico’s next governor should focus on what works: natural advantages like the state’s border location and its wealth of renewable energy resources. “Those things are never going to change,” he says.

If it’s worth betting on those resources, it’s also worth acknowledging when the bet doesn’t come in as hoped. For example, Cervantes eventually supported the construction of Spaceport America, but says a $225-million investment in renewable energy programs at New Mexico State University and UNM would have been a smarter play for the state’s money. “There’s no doubt in my mind that we would have programs at the forefront of those industries without wondering if it was going to pay off.”

The Maybes

The field is by no means set, but these names are often mentioned by the political class as likely candidates for governor in 2018.


RJ Berry The current Albuquerque mayor has a legislative résumé and strong business backing, but will have to work hard to distance himself from Albuquerque’s beleaguered police department. There’s also the question of whether his vaunted bus rapid transit system will flop or fly.

Steve Pearce Representing the 2nd Congressional District, Pearce has proven his statewide appeal to Republican voters by besting Heather Wilson in the 2008 US Senate primary. But he was trounced by Tom Udall in the general election. Pearce’s office says he’ll make a decision on a run in the next few months.

John Sanchez The current lieutenant governor says he’s weighing his options. Sanchez lost to Bill Richardson in 2002, so the party faithful may decide he’s had his chance at governor. But Sanchez might be the man Republicans favor to retake the 1st Congressional District seat being vacated by Michelle Lujan Grisham.


Jeff Apodaca If the surname is familiar, it should be. The son of former Gov. Jerry Apodaca is a longtime media executive who says he’s “strongly considering” a run. He currently operates a venture capital consulting firm. It would be his first elected office, though calling him a political outsider would be a stretch.

Hector Balderas New Mexico’s attorney general has been targeting higher office since winning a state House seat in 2004, then two terms as state auditor and finally AG in 2014. He lost a 2012 bid for the Democratic US Senate nomination to Martin Heinrich. A spokeswoman says Balderas “believes a robust primary benefits the Democratic Party.”

Michelle Lujan Grisham The 1st Congressional District representative is the first one at the party. She used a slick internet video to announce her candidacy for governor in December. The former New Mexico Health Department Secretary and Bernalillo County Commissioner may have winnowed the field by planting her flag early.

Javier Gonzales Santa Fe’s mayor has confirmed he’s been talking to people about a potential run. He’s outspoken, progressive and to say Gonzales warms to the spotlight is like saying summer warms to the sun.

Alan Webber The co-founder of Fast Company magazine ran an unsuccessful race for the Democratic nomination in 2014. Since then, he’s turned his policy attention toward 1NM, a nonprofit focused on innovation and business. He tells SFR he’s gauging potential support statewide before deciding on a run.

Cervantes’ politics are at times progressive, but he’s not reflexively liberal. His view of recreational marijuana legalization, for example, seems to be evolving. He was concerned that early adoption would turn the state into a destination for those looking to get high. “I think as we see other states this last year enacting that choice for adults, any reservations I had in the past are being resolved.”

Still, he says just passing a law legalizing pot could catch New Mexico off guard, leaving employees who test positive for marijuana in workplace drug tests wondering if they’ll lose jobs or leaving police uncertain how to properly cite someone who they suspect of being too high to drive.

Former colleagues say Cervantes is known for that kind of careful consideration. Dan Foley, a former Republican state representative who frequently sparred with Democrats during his time as House Minority Whip, says, “He’s a very cerebral human being and not emotional about issues. He’s highly approachable.”

While Foley says the pair disagreed on plenty of issues, an often pragmatic approach to dealmaking served Cervantes well.

“In a body of 112 elected officials where the most dangerous place to be was between a legislator and a camera, Joseph was happy to be in the background working on deals,” Foley says.

Perhaps because of that legislative experience, Cervantes is slow to criticize governors who have worked hard to convince lawmakers—and the public—that their agenda is worth pursuing.

But not having that leadership, Cervantes warns, can lead to a state that’s treading water. That’s how he sees the last eight years—slyly including the post-presidential run years of former Gov. Bill Richardson in the figure he cites.

Decades as a lawyer and legislator have given Cervantes a deft touch for criticism. An understated delivery lets harsh words wash over you almost before you realize what’s been said.

Of Gov. Susana Martinez’ tenure, he wonders: “Is the most that can be said for the vision of the last six years that we have a state where we don’t issue driver’s licenses to undocumented citizens?”

When asked if US Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s December entry into the race gave him second thoughts about running, he says, “I thought it was important, since we were just elected this last November, that we show the public a willingness to do the job that we were elected to do for a period of time before starting a run for the next race. … I really do believe that the people who elected me to the Senate deserve better than that.”

It’s lining up to be a crowded field for Democrats, with names such as Attorney General Hector Balderas and Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales in the conversation, but there is no one, Cervantes says, whose mere entry into the race could force him out. That is, of course, assuming he decides to get in at all. So much of politics is timing. Talking to Cervantes, you get the feeling that he thinks his time is now. He has a vision, and he’s working on that plan.


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