Finish Line in Sight

Race for New Mexico attorney general has seen big dollars, negative ads, diverging visions for the office

The Democratic primary race for state attorney general has been a bruiser.

State Auditor Brian Colón and Bernalillo County District Attorney Raúl Torrez have been tossing haymakers at one another over the course of a high-dollar campaign for “the people’s lawyer” in New Mexico.

Colón, 52, has hit Torrez in television ads and in debates for falling down on the job as crime rates have soared in Albuquerque—and for a 2011 drug case in which Torrez, then an assistant United States attorney, was accused of doctoring evidence in his zeal to win a conviction.

Torrez, 45, has attempted to hang the dreaded “career politician” label around his opponent’s neck, while hammering him for accepting campaign contributions from out-of-state law firms that have received lucrative state contracts.

Torrez refused to be interviewed for this story, but SFR’s review of his public statements and comments he made during an endorsement interview with our publisher show his plan for the AG’s office, if elected, would be quite different from Colón’s.

The Harvard- and Stanford-educated Torrez says he would make wholesale changes to sharpen the office’s focus on crime and other issues. Colón, a University of New Mexico School of Law graduate, would largely stay the course set by his friend, UNM classmate and current AG, Hector Balderas, with a few tweaks around the edges and a deep-dive review of how things are functioning now.

Voters will, as they always do, decide at the ballot box whose vision they favor.

Early and absentee voting began May 10, and as of Tuesday, 58,143 ballots had been cast, according to the Secretary of State’s Office. (In Santa Fe, the county clerk will accept absentee ballots until 7 pm on Election Day.)

Primary election day is June 7, and the winner will be heavily favored come November against Republican Jeremy Gay, who is running unopposed. New Mexico has elected a long succession of Democrats to the Attorney General’s Office—from Jeff Bingaman in the early 1980s to Tom Udall in the ‘90s to Patricia Madrid to Balderas, who is finishing his second term—with only Republican Hal Stratton breaking the chain by serving a single term from 1987-1990.

This story, as do all of SFR’s looks at primary elections, focuses on competitive races during this stretch of the cycle. That’s why we didn’t seek an interview with Gay.

Comparatively, it’s been an expensive race for a $95,000-a-year job to lead 200 employees on an annual budget that stretches just north of $35 million. Torrez has raised a little over $1 million for the campaign, and Colón has topped that gaudy figure by more than $400,000, with a significant chunk of his contributions coming from the contract law firms for which Torrez has criticized Colón.

In an interview with SFR, Colón makes no apologies for taking money from firms that have helped the Balderas administration recover nearly $200 million in civil penalties from corporations such as Monsanto, Google and Volkswagen.

“In terms of fraud recovery, subject matter experts from around the country know that I embrace this model” of hiring high-powered firms to assist in cases against huge companies that have done New Mexicans wrong, Colón says. “My opponent does not, but attorneys general going back from Tom Udall on the tobacco settlement up through what we have now have shown this can work.”

The strategy has very little risk, Colón says, and a high upside for residents. He doesn’t believe it should come as a surprise that lawyers who have helped the model succeed would donate to candidates who want to keep it rolling.

However, the state’s watchdog on waste, fraud and abuse—elected to the auditor role in 2018—says he’d review the way all contracts with the AG’s Office are awarded if voters promote him. And he points out that he has long favored campaign finance reform, but the system is what it is for now.

Colón was born and raised in Los Lunas and has been a known quantity in New Mexico politics for nearly two decades. He served as chairman of the state Democratic Party from 2007 to 2009, then ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2010—a year that saw Republicans sweep into power at rates not seen since.

He ran for public office again in 2017, losing the Albuquerque mayor’s race to Tim Keller, then bounced back with an easy win in the 2018 auditor’s race.

Amid all of that, Colón worked in private practice, taking on personal injury and wrongful death cases at the Albuquerque-based firm of Robles, Rael and Anaya.

Balderas has ties to that firm, too, and though he hasn’t made a public endorsement in the race, he tells SFR he favors Colón—to whom his campaign committee has donated more than $10,000.

“I think both are strong candidates, but I support Brian because I know he comes from some of the same vulnerable communities I come from,” says Balderas, who was born in Wagon Mound and served two terms as auditor before being elected to the AG’s chair. “He will always answer the phone from my constituents.”

Balderas says he’s leaving the office in solid shape, with quality infrastructure built out for consumer protection, prosecuting corrupt and violent elected and appointed officials, and safeguarding the state’s natural resources. But he encourages his successor to fight for additional funding to professionalize the state’s public records custodian ranks and strengthen the Law Enforcement Academy Board, which judges police officers’ licenses and which the AG chairs.

Torrez, a native New Mexican, went to work in private practice in 2013. He had resigned the previous year from the US Attorney’s Office, about six months after a federal judge admonished him for altering transcripts presented as evidence in a drug case. He won the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s race in 2016, running as a “progressive prosecutor” who favored diverting crimes driven by mental health and substance abuse problems away from the criminal justice system. He even accepted a $107,000 contribution from billionaire George Soros’ super PAC, based largely on his stated approach to prosecuting.

He won re-election in 2020, and he’s taken a much harder line on crime and punishment since taking office, clashing with the Legislature and other officials over how best to tackle crime and pretrial detention.

He has said he’ll change the AG’s Office’s model for consumer protection cases and crank up the AG’s role in reviewing police shootings for possible prosecution.

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