The June 2020 primaries could well go down in history as the weirdest set of election circumstances in modern history. While in-person voting on election day was already slumping in popularity compared with early voting, public health orders to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 have pushed voting by mail into the forefront for the state's electorate. More than 108,000 voters in the state's three major parties have already requested absentee ballots by mail.
Santa Fe County has had the second highest number of absentee ballot requests behind Bernalillo County, and those 18,000 voters here who are already planning to vote comprise about 22% of 82,458 who are eligible. Voters have until May 28 to request an absentee ballot, which election officials statewide are encouraging. Election Day will still have meaning,though, because tabulation of all the ballots—including those mailed and hand-delivered—won't commence until that day, June 2.
Aside from logistics, candidates themselves have changed in a variety of ways. They've had to run races in virtual spaces and forego knocking on doors and appearing at public gatherings. At the national level, the Democratic primary slowly winnowed throughout the pandemic as contenders ceded to Joe Biden.
But several components of the 2020 primary season remain constant. SFR's endorsements for this election, as per usual, focus on local races. And with nearly two-thirds of Santa Fe County voters registered as Democrats, we evaluated only those candidates in contested races within the party. Watch for analysis of donkey vs. elephant (and even some porcupine) in advance of the general election.
With online forums replacing long hours at the Democratic Party HQ and Santa Fe Women's Club, we had plenty of time to review them and study up. Even before the public health lockdowns, we were attending events, reading position papers and cruising finance reports. In most races, we conducted "in person" interviews with video conference computer voodoo. We've done our homework and always strive in our endorsements to be transparent with our reasoning.
Finally, here's the most important factor for eligible voters: Once you complete your ballot, make sure you return it. Mail ballots could translate to higher "turn-out," given the added time everyone has at home to hunker down with their choices. On the other hand, habitual in-person voters may stay away from the whole process. Let's hope and try for the former scenario.
We recommend checking out the Santa Fe County League of Women Voters guide for more details straight from the candidates' mouths.
Teresa Fernandez Leger
Serving New Mexico's 3rd Congressional District has always required a balancing act, given the diversity of its geography and constituents. Seven Democrats hope to replace outgoing US Rep. Ben Ray Luján, who is seeking to succeed retiring US Sen. Tom Udall. The winner of the Democratic primary will face one of several Republicans vying for that party's nomination.
This crowded race made for robust discussions on health care, the environment, the economy and, of course, COVID-19's impact on those issues and more. Indeed, whomever wins this nomination needs to make a compelling argument for understanding the district's needs across intersectional spectrums of race, poverty and gender. Teresa Leger Fernandez makes that case. A staunch defender of reproductive freedom, Leger Fernandez won endorsements in this race from Emily's List, NARAL and Planned Parenthood's Action Fund. She supports a single-payer health care system with reasonable caveats. As an acequia commissioner, she understands and will protect New Mexico's resources. As a Homewise board member, she has hands-on knowledge of the local housing crisis. And as a lawyer who has represented tribal interests for decades, she has earned relationships and expertise that will be crucial in representing Gallup and portions of McKinley County—part of District 3—so devastatingly hit by the pandemic.
Make no mistake: Several candidates made strong impressions in this race. Former New Mexico Deputy Secretary of State John Blair's government experience, emphasis on transparency and service to LGBTQ youth made him our close second choice and hopefully this is not his last run for public office. Environmental lawyer Kyle Tisdel successfully kept climate change at the forefront of this race and his commitment and mastery of the issue should become the standard for public office holders. Sandoval County Treasurer Laura Montoya's commitment to constituent services and financial accountability has earned her broad support in this district, but we were not swayed by her arguments against single-payer health care, among other issues. State Rep. Joseph Sanchez' opposition to women's reproductive freedom made him a non-starter for our endorsement, as did District Attorney Marco Serna's lack of transparency in his current role. Former CIA Agent Valerie Plame clearly has government experience and connections—we have no doubt she can find another route back to Washington, DC if she wishes.
Teresa Leger Fernandez mounted one of the most inspiring campaigns we can remember. She deserves your vote and will service the 3rd Congressional District well.
Both candidates vying to become the next head prosecutor in Santa Fe, Los Alamos and Rio Arriba counties mentioned a "leadership vacuum" in the office during endorsement interviews. We're not sure who said it first—and it's not uncommon for opposing candidates to start sounding very much alike by this time in the election season—but we agree with them.
Local DAs heretofore have stuck with the job for long periods of time. However, Marco Serna's quest to run for Congress started half-way through his first term as district attorney, and the candidates are not the only people wondering if this part of the justice system in the district seems to have suffered as a result of this one-foot-out-the-door strategy.
Mary Carmack-Altwies has now served as deputy in the office for more than a year, running its special victims and violent crimes unit. Her years of courtroom trial experience as a public defender, private criminal defense lawyer and now prosecutor give her a good foundation to lead the office.
We also appreciate that she's knowledgeable about an issue we believe needs close supervision for the safety of the community: how the district attorney reviews police shootings. While the current DA has asked a panel of DAs from other districts to investigate whether police committed crimes when they killed people on the job, Serna has then let those recommendations sit on his desk. Carmack-Altwies vows not only to always send shootings to outside teams for review, but then to adopt their findings and take appropriate action. Her plan to divide the office into two large divisions with an emphasis on pre-prosecution programs in the first seems like a solid strategy.
Scott Fuqua also brings relevant experience to the job after working in supervisory positions with Attorneys General Gary King and Patricia Madrid, and he's also a huge proponent of prosecutorial diversion programs. But Carmack-Altwies wins out for us because her recent experience is closer to the task at hand, and her learning curve about how the office functions today won't be as steep.
(Watch a forum of these candidates hosted by Santa Fe County Federation of Democratic Women here.)
Santa Fe County Clerk
The job of county clerk is no longer "just a little person who sits behind a desk writing lists like it was when the position was first created." That's how Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver began to describe the position she held adeptly in Bernalillo County before moving up the statewide office. "Now, a county clerk is an IT project manager, is a logistics specialist…So much of how we run elections now is technology based."
Katharine Clark, she says, has those modern skills. We agree she's a solid choice among a crowded field.
Clark has been active in the local Democratic Party, including working on winning progressive campaigns such as Stephanie Garcia Richard for land commissioner and Christine Chandler for Legislature. Those experiences matter for a county clerk who needs to understand the practical and logistical facets of a successful election process serving both voters and candidates.
Clark is also articulate when it comes to explaining how she hopes to apply her job history in technical project management to the elected position that's about 40% elections and 60% other recording duties. She holds an MBA with a focus in public policy and human resources and seems to have a clear understanding of how the large office should work. Toulouse Oliver has been an effective leader, and her support of Clark is noteworthy, along with that of departing County Clerk Geraldine Salazar.
Second in our mind is Sarah Guzman, whose interest in true outreach to Spanish speaking voters gives her campaign an appeal that none of the other four names on the ballot touched. Clark, however, seems more dialed in with the big picture of what the office needs.
Santa Fe County Treasurer
Lucinda Marker is ready to take on a new job, and she appears to have the potential to be a quality leader for the future of the county treasurer's office. Marker spent her career in the private sector with an expertise in real estate and investment.
If Marker's name rings a faint bell for you, it's probably because she and her now late husband John Tull contracted the plague and were hospitalized in New York City in an event that grabbed national headlines in 2002. That's not normally a story you'd hear from a county treasurer candidate, but it's one with resonance during a pandemic election season. When Marker says resilience will be important in the days to come, she speaks from experience. Tull died six years ago and then Marker cared for her mother during the last years of her life. Now, she says, she has time and energy to devote to service, and she set her eyes on the treasurer's office because it's an extension of what she's spent her career doing.
Her eye for transparency is promising, and not just as a buzzword, but with practical guidance and ideas. She points to the information available on the Bernalillo County treasurer website compared to Santa Fe's as an example of what's easily possible. Marker says she wants to explore how the county can move toward more socially responsible investments, and we think the electorate here values that.
Current Deputy County Treasurer Jenn Manzanares comes in second in the field of three. While Manzanares demonstrates knowledge of the office's innerworkings and an emphasis on taxpayers who need help navigating the system, Marker's outside perspective appears more useful.
No candidates from other parties appear on the general election ballot, so the winner of this race is likely the next county treasurer.
Santa Fe County Commission District 5
This race ends with the primary and either of the two candidates who want to represent Santa Fe County's central district would do so with heart.
Hank Hughes, however, captures our nod for the job because we are sure he will also do his homework. An engineer by training, Hughes figured out early in his first career that he was more of a people person. He went on to work at St. Elizabeth's Shelter and then lead the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness.
In our endorsement interview, we never stumped Hank with a question about the county's current practices and, furthermore, he had clearly spent time marinating on some topics that aren't fun for campaigns, such as management of the county jail. Hughes understands public responsibility, and that health care and other elements of the detention program need help.
It's also exciting to think about what could happen if the county prioritized housing in more innovative ways, and Hughes won't let this issue fall through the cracks. He's up to speed on the possibilities for development on county land as well as efforts to increase solar energy use on county buildings and for homeowners.
We admire Floyd Trujillo's 20 years of service on the Turquoise Trail Governing Council, and we think that kind of dedication matters. We look forward to seeing him in more public service posts soon.
NM House 45
Retiring Rep. Jim Trujillo's announcement he would not seek re-election in District 45 naturally translated to a crowded five-person field of contenders.
Santa Fe has an opportunity to send a fresh face to the Roundhouse in Linda Serrato, 34, who has relevant experience, progressive viewpoints and, as a working parent of a child just under the age of 3, represents an underserved demographic in the Legislature.
Serrato knows where her priorities are for the district that encircles Santa Fe's south and western region. Her first act in the Legislature, she says, would push for paid sick leave and family leave for all. Her endorsements from Planned Parenthood and the Sierra Club are among reasons she's likely to resonate with the local progressive electorate. She advocates, as does contender Pat Varela, for legislators to follow through with one of this session's failures: a measure to exempt Social Security earnings for seniors from state income taxes.
A Stanford-educated California native, Serrato and her husband made their home here after she worked in Washington DC for US Rep. Ben Ray Lujan. She's not at a loss for ideas, and enthusiastically hits on topics from transit to statewide broadband. She says she's a quick study, and we believe it.
Former City Councilor Carmichael Dominguez might have her when it comes to name recognition and basic agreement on the left-leaning side of the party platform, and we think he'd make a fine legislator as well. But we suspect voters can learn to remember Serrato. In the general election, no Republicans are on the ballot, but don't rule out Libertarian Helen Milenski: She performed well on the SFR pop quiz.
NM House 50
New Mexico House District 50 remains in good hands with Matthew McQueen. The incumbent legislator understands the legislative process well and is in league with local leadership who also currently control both chambers of the Legislature. Galisteo resident McQueen, a lawyer who also holds an MBA, has represented the district since his election six years ago.
There's no doubt rancher Rebecca King Spindle (of Stanley, and emphasis on the King; she's Bruce's granddaughter) would bring a rural perspective to the seat that swings all the way south past Moriarty and into the Rio Communities on the western edge of the Manzanos. It's an argument McQueen's general election challenger also made during the last go-round. But McQueen has broad support and, as chairman of the House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee, has influence in spheres that matter to both his urban and rural voters. For example, he sponsored the House-passed Public Corruption Act in 2019 that would have removed pension and other benefits from elected officials who commit certain crimes while in office, and has backed transparency measures and free speech. He supports increasing the state minimum wage and understands energy policy. We need him to stay put.
While McQueen said he was still worried about how New Mexico could safely legalize cannabis during his 2018 endorsement interview with SFR, he now says the current set of proposals has fixed loopholes. He voted to legalize in the House in 2019 and says he will do so again when he gets the chance. King Spindle, as it happens, did not respond to requests for an endorsement interview, but told the Albuquerque Journal she does not support legalization. The same survey says she wants New Mexico law on abortion to mirror "any of the federal court rulings" while McQueen stands with a woman's right to choose.
One Republican and one Libertarian qualified to face the winner in the November general election.
Public Regulation Commission – Position 3
If there's one job on this list that benefits from technical knowledge, it's this one. New Mexico's Public Regulation Commission is a five-member body elected from geographic districts that oversees utilities, transportation, telecom and other consumer services. That's why we recommend Brian Harris, who has worked for the last 13 years in some facet of the PRC sphere, including as a ratepayer advocate from his job as an assistant attorney general, an expert witness, and the agency's staff economist.
Fraught with peril since its inception via the state constitution in 1996, the PRC could be in for another change. Voters in November's general election will weigh a constitutional amendment to change the board to an appointed versus elected panel. Harris supports that change.
Of all the issues the PRC tackles, voters are probably most familiar with its regulation of electricity generation and distribution. Harris counts among his supporters the lawmakers who sponsored the Energy Transition Act and its push toward renewables for the state's biggest power producers. We appreciate his ability to explain complicated concepts that have long timelines. The current PRC, he says, has been taken to the Supreme Court too many times because of its lack of adherence to procedures.
Joseph Maestas, the other candidate in the race, was Española city councilor and mayor, then Santa Fe city councilor, then Santa Fe mayoral candidate, and now this. Maestas is a civil engineer, which gives him some good footing for the post, but Harris isn't prospect hopping and has long paid attention to the intricacies of the PRC.
(Watch an online forum between the candidates by Retake Democracy here.)
Correction: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong town of residence for Matthew McQueen and gave the wrong information about contenders in that race in the general election. SFR regrets the error.