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SFR’s 2022 Primary Endorsements for Santa Fe Voters

Democracy awaits, Santa Fe. While midterm elections often appeal more to the party faithful than the broader electorate, New Mexico’s June 7 primary has enough variables to draw in new participants. Let’s hope that’s the case. Early voting begins May 10 with the kickoff of mail balloting and in-person convenience centers across the state.

To start, although New Mexico continues to be one of just nine states with a closed primary system—meaning only voters registered with one of the state’s three major parties can vote in the primary—a new law makes participation easier this year. Voters who are unaffiliated or registered with a minor party can now register on the same day they cast ballots and, if they register as a Democrat, Republican or Libertarian, vote in the primary.

At last report, Santa Fe County’s 109,174 registered voters included 63.1% Democrats, 15% Republicans, 0.9% Libertarians and 20.1% unaffiliated. (Those not registered also can participate in same-day registration, but voters registered with a major party can’t change their affiliations on Election Day.)

>> READ MORE: 2022 Primary Election FAQs >>

Then there’s the ballot itself. In one of the most contested races, Republican voters will choose among five gubernatorial candidates to take on Democratic incumbent Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in November’s general election. Whoever wins that race will be the face of what Brian Sanderoff, the well-known New Mexico pollster and president of Research and Polling Inc., forecasts as a lively general election season.

“It’s a midterm cycle, with a Democrat in the White House and low approval ratings for President Biden,” Sanderoff tells SFR. “In a midterm election the party not in the White House will pick up seats in the general election because they are energized and maybe they will be more likely to participate in the primary.”

At the top of the Democratic ticket, the primary contests for state attorney general and auditor have been relatively quiet, while the typically low-interest race for treasurer has featured mudslinging and complaints over conduct from both sides. All are the staging grounds for contested races come November.

As for local races, the primary will decide many. In Santa Fe County the sheriff, two county commissioners and a magistrate judge seat are all up for grabs with no competition in the general election. In the state Legislature, only District 46 has a contest for Santa Fe voters, with two candidates challenging incumbent Rep. Andrea Romero.

Since the plurality of Santa Fe County voters registered as Democrats, many local races comprise only candidates from that party (and races that have another party candidate don’t have competition within the party), SFR’s endorsements below are for contested Democratic primaries in which Santa Fe-area voters may cast a ballot. To reach our decisions, we conducted endorsement interviews with candidates via video and reviewed their campaign materials, financial disclosures, backgrounds and qualifications; plus their public appearances and other news accounts.

However, and whenever you vote, please do.

Attorney General: Brian Colón

The attorney general gets a shorthand reference of being the “lawyer for the state,” but the position also requires enforcement of consumer protections and allows for special criminal prosecutions in areas such as human trafficking, child sex crimes and public corruption, as well as enforcement of the Inspection of Public Records Act, the state’s sunshine law known as IPRA.

Two lawyers going head to head for the Democratic nomination for AG come from diverse political backgrounds: Bernalillo County District Attorney Raul Torrez and State Auditor Brian Colón. Albuquerque voters may be more familiar with Torrez’s efforts to battle crime in Albuquerque, while Santa Fe voters likely know Colón as the person who recently called out the City of Santa Fe’s financial mess.

After one term as auditor, Colón is hoping to hop in the AG seat to replace Hector Balderas just as Balderas did after he served in the auditor’s role. Make no mistake: We are wary of Colón’s entrenchment in the political machine and of his close ties to a law firm Balderas is under fire for using too often at too much taxpayer expense.

Nonetheless, he’s a more well-rounded official who is a known entity in the halls of state government and has demonstrated competency. Colón makes a stronger case for being able to navigate the collection of partner agencies than does Torrez, a prosecutor whose confrontational style made him stand out in the recent legislative session’s pretrial-detention debate.

When it comes to IPRA, we hope Colón deviates substantially from the stance Balderas has taken. (In one case, rather than side with transparency when SFR sought to examine facts of discipline for police officers, Balderas left the newspaper to sue for the information on its own.) Colón says he’ll litigate on behalf of record seekers and we look forward to that. He also says he’s open to empowering an independent body to vet complaints and facilitate enforcement of the law.

The winner of this race appears on the general election ballot against Gallup Republican Jeremy Michael Gay.

State Auditor: Zach Quintero

In the field of two, we choose Zach Quintero, a lively first-time statewide candidate whose energy for the office is effusive. He faces Joseph Maestas, who has held various municipal elected offices and earned a seat on the Public Regulation Commission in 2020 that expires this year.

Though Maestas has administrative chops, Quintero’s career so far has him well prepared for this post in many ways and we think he deserves a chance. In addition to a stint in the US Treasury Department where he reviewed audits, Quintero holds a law degree from the University of New Mexico with a specialty in constitutional rights and health care as well as bachelors degrees from New Mexico State University in economics and government. At the age of 31, he’s already held a job in Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration as an analyst and legislative liaison, then as a state ombudsman investigating Medicare fraud claims, including those for COVID-19 services.

The state auditor position requires supervision of a team that now includes about 35 employees. Quintero, who lives in Albuquerque and is from Las Cruces, wants to modernize its operations and says he has “strong technical knowledge of the laws that govern the office.” He aims to establish a position for a chief data officer who will help compile an innovative and overdue project: a cost and benefit analysis he dubs a Climate Accountability Audit. His idea is to consolidate data collected by seven state agencies including the Oil and Gas Conservation Division to the State Land Office.

Current Auditor Brian Colón is leaving the job after one term as he attempts to step up to the state attorney general post. Colón has continued to hike the office’s visibility, and we expect Quintero to follow through by putting his excitement into action.

Though no other major party candidate qualified to be listed on the ballot, write-in Libertarian Robert Jason Vaillancourt is also campaigning for the seat in the general election.

State Treasurer: Heather Benavidez

The race for state treasurer has surprisingly surfaced as the most contentious among Democrats. With the outgoing official playing an outsized role in advocating for his successor and official complaints flying from both sides, it’s also the most difficult to parse out the best candidate.

Laura Montoya, who finished near the bottom in a crowded primary field for congressional district 3 in 2020, says the state treasurer job is the one she wanted all along. She brings a background as a two-term Sandoval County treasurer and advocate with the treasurer’s affiliate group that largely suits the needs of this office. Heather Benavidez has worked in the treasurer’s office since 2017 and Treasurer Tim Eichenberg hired her to fill a newly created chief of staff position last year.

Montoya says Eichenberg is working harder to get his protege elected than the candidate is, and she has filed a complaint with the attorney general alleging Eichenberg is misusing the power of his office to that effect. To wit, Eichenberg paid for an early series of radio commercials slamming Montoya. He also wrote a complaint to the secretary of state alleging Montoya failed to correctly report all campaign contributions.

Since neither complaint has been resolved, we lean toward continuity rather than change for this endorsement.

Benavidez, who grew up in Belen, worked for 16 years in the judiciary, including two terms as an elected magistrate in Rio Communities, and one year as an appointed magistrate in Valencia County before losing her re-election race. She points out, and we agree, that a person who is already part of the office culture and is familiar with its daily operations could be successful.

The treasurer sits on 12 boards and commissions, including the State Investment Council, and Benavidez sits in for Eichenberg on two of them. She’s also an advocate for the office’s ongoing education programs for youths and adults and she aims to open satellite offices in Albuquerque and Doña Ana County. In both our endorsement meeting and candidate forums she appears calm and composed, which seems about right for the state’s banker.

The winner of the race goes on to face Republican Harry Montoya in the general election.

House of Representatives District 46: Andrea Romero

Romero is the only contested incumbent Democrat to earn an SFR endorsement in this primary. We watched her in action during what felt like countless legislative sessions over her last term (eight between 2020 and now) and admit we’re impressed with her poise, persuasiveness and longsuffering—in particular as she worked to secure passage of the Cannabis Regulation Act that legalized adult use of the plant in New Mexico. (Romero also supported a companion bill that called for the automatic expungement of criminal records associated with marijuana possession.) We’d like to see her carry on with what she calls the “unfinished work” of that effort: the allocation of new state dollars that are pouring in from sales taxes on newly legal cannabis.

Seeking to unseat Romero are Henry Roybal, a Santa Fe County commissioner who is termed out of the job representing a district that roughly overlaps with House District 46; and political newcomer Ryan Erik Salazar, who works at Los Alamos National Laboratory. While Roybal would be our second pick in this race, we believe Romero’s experience and potential for growth in the House leadership is important, especially in the face of Santa Fe losing the clout and institutional knowledge of House Speaker Brian Egolf as he steps down in neighboring House District 47. (Although Egolf’s chief of staff since 2014, Reena Szczepanski, is unopposed in the Democratic primary to replace him.)

Romero doesn’t have a spotless record. She took it on the chin before her first election for questions about spending as she served as executive director of the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities and she admits her legislative sponsorship of a bill aimed at cyber bullying that also would have required news organizations to delete “irrelevant materials” from archives was a misstep. We’re glad she’s been willing to try to learn from both. She has also recently begun law school, an education that will no doubt serve her in the House.

The winner of the Democratic Primary will face Republican Jay Groseclose in the general election.

Santa Fe County Commission 1: Jon Paul Romero

Jon Paul Romero has done his time learning about Santa Fe County government and its northernmost district, which stretches from the north central part of Santa Fe’s city limits to the southeastern side of Española. In a race against two worthy candidates to fill the empty seat that’s been held since 2015 by Henry Roybal, we land on JP Romero because he’s already extremely well versed in two issues that are important to the region: road engineering and water infrastructure.

Both city resident and Dashing Delivery founder Justin Greene and Orlando Alfonso Romero are also qualified to do the job and have good ideas (especially Greene’s proposal to bury fiber optic lines along with the new pipeline for the Pojoaque Basin Regional Water System). But JP Romero has proven a steady commitment in his 16 years of elected service on the Pojoaque School Board and current service on the Northern New Mexico Local Workforce Development Board—and that, along with his hands-on work and degree in civil engineering, should give him an edge.

We think his idea to establish satellite public works yards shows logic: staging road maintenance equipment for use in far-flung regions of the county rather than the costly and time-consuming practice of moving it from the Santa Fe central region across the nearly 2,000-square-mile area. With so much of the county’s responsibilities centered on infrastructure, Jon Paul Romero has relevant knowledge of the Aamodt settlement and the subsequent regional water system that’s still under construction and is intended to eventually serve the pueblos of San Ildefonso, Nambé, Pojoaque and Tesuque as well as other county residents within the Pojoaque Basin.

He also has specific proposals about affordable housing that seem quickly do-able, two of which involve working with Jacona Land Grant near Pojoaque to purchase land that could become a mixed-use development and crafting a master plan for the county’s former public works yard on Galisteo Road within the city limits.

As a rural resident who has led construction projects all over the region, JP Romero should be able to build a place as a solid commissioner.

Santa Fe County Commission 3: Camilla Bustamante

Santa Fe County Commission District 3 encapsulates the southern part of the county with a northern boundary that includes La Cienega as well as the southwestern region of the city limits on both sides of Airport Road.

Two candidates taking on incumbent Commissioner Rudy Garcia for the job bring different benefits to the table. Garcia, who did not return requests for an interview, is wrapping an unremarkable first term on the commission while also serving on the Santa Fe Public Schools Board. He’s listed as “out of compliance” with the state Elections Bureau and has no campaign finance reports on file.

We think it’s time for a fresh start for the district. City Councilor Chris Rivera wants to switch from his city seat to one on the County Commission, which would leave a vacancy for the mayor to fill by appointment. The former city fire chief is qualified for the job and would bring an inside perspective from the other government and a specialty in public safety, but for voters who chose him to represent them in the city seat, that does not seem like a strong enough reason to switch jobs. And, he notes he has a steep learning curve on rural topics.

Camilla Bustamante presents a chance for a person with a more rural background and a relevant education to serve on a board that must keep rural interests at heart, including water planning focused on conservation and food production. She grew up splitting time between the city and La Cienga, where she has lived as an adult and where she serves as president of the La Cienega Valley Association. She retired from the Santa Fe Community College as the dean of the Schools of Trades, Advanced Technologies, and Sustainability; and Business, Professional Studies and Education, a job she began in 2014. She holds a doctorate in health education and a master’s degree in public health from the University of New Mexico among other degrees. Those professional and academic experiences mean she’s intensely interested in the county’s sustainability planning and would have a strong hand in leadership when it comes to pushing that critical envelope. She’s our pick.

Santa Fe County Sheriff: David Webb

The Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office was thrust into the international spotlight last year when a bullet struck and killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on a movie set south of Santa Fe. Actor Alec Baldwin says his shooting of Hutchins during rehearsal for filming of the movie Rust was accidental and evidence shows there was real ammunition loaded into a gun that the actor thought contained only dummy rounds.

Six months after the event, as of press time, Sheriff Adan Mendoza still had not concluded the investigation. The state Environment Department’s Occupational Health and Safety Bureau has fined the production company its maximum six-figure penalty over “plain indifference” to employee safety, and we’re not the only ones wondering whether there will be criminal charges filed.

Challenger David Webb, a Santa Fe Police Department lieutenant who has been a cop for 19 years, decided to seek the sheriff job long before the Rust shooting. But he also questions whether Mendoza belabored his handling of the high-profile case.

Beyond the Rust incident, both candidates are seasoned police professionals and Mendoza has led the department through a county-enforced staff shortage due to pandemic-driven budgetary concerns. Nonetheless, Webb appears a versatile commander, having tackled a variety of the city department’s investigation units including those targeting crimes against children and internet crimes, and currently overseeing all patrol sections.

If he gets a chance to lead the county department, he aims to impose ballistics testing requirements on all firearms seized by the agency to create a database with assistance from the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. He has a strategy for how to map crime data next to community input records as a way to encourage commanders of geographic districts to work toward codified goals. We also put some stock in the rank and file officers, not just the sheriff’s department but also city cops in Española and Santa Fe, endorsing Webb over the incumbent.

With no Republicans on the general election ballot, the winner of the primary is the presumptive next sheriff.

Santa Fe Magistrate Division 2: Dev Atma Khalsa

As Santa Fe County Magistrate George Anaya prepares to retire after nearly three decades in the job, a deep field of candidates has lined up to replace him in the nondescript courthouse on Galisteo Road. Among the four, Dev Atma Khalsa carries the distinction of being the only one with a law degree. While being a lawyer is not a requirement for the job, the efficacy of the judicial system depends on educated, experienced judges. While other candidates (including our second pick, Melissa Mascarenas) have a heart for service and relevant court administration experience, Khalsa’s job as an assistant district attorney will best prepare him for the judge duties.

Magistrates are typically referred to as “county courts” and adjudicate low-level crimes such as traffic and animal code violations, plus landlord/tenant cases, as well as misdemeanors such as domestic violence and drunken driving. Khalsa earned a masters at St. John’s College before entering UNM law school. He started his job with the DA in 2019 and says he would be taking a risk moving into the lay court position. “If you are a career-minded lawyer, this option is not necessarily the direct path. It’s a lateral move.”

But he wants to make the shift because he sees a way to effect change by being at ground zero “where health policy and criminal policy converge.” He has an excellent idea about employing some of the same theories at work in the successful Drug Court that Anaya established into domestic violence cases. Treatment, case management and other interventions have a more lasting impact than punitive ones, he explains, and that same strategy would work to build peace in households. Sounds like it’s worth a try.

>> READ MORE: 2022 Primary Election FAQs >>

Editor’s note: We’ve clarified to an early version of this story to explain where Zach Quintero grew up and to note this is his first statewide race. He also ran for office in Albuquerque. We also corrected the first name for Henry Roybal.

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