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."
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.”
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.