Handicapping the contenders to replace Haaland

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Milan Simonich, The Santa Fe New Mexican
·5 min read
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Mar. 17—Almost anything can happen now that Deb Haaland is a former congresswoman.

Haaland is running the Interior Department, and more than a dozen people are running to replace her in the Albuquerque-based 1st Congressional District.

New Mexico's screwball system of filling the vacancy leaves hundreds of thousands of voters without a voice in choosing the party nominees for a special election.

Instead, a few hundred members of the Democratic and Republican central committees will select the candidates. It's politics at its worst.

Who will carry the day before the small electorate of insiders? I've edited ruthlessly to narrow my handicapping to only those who could end up in Washington.

Democrats

—State Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez ran for the congressional seat in 2018. She finished third in a six-way primary, receiving half as many votes as Haaland.

Sedillo Lopez, a retired law professor, established ties to party insiders in that first congressional campaign. But her two years in the state Senate have been mostly forgettable.

The episode I remember was Sedillo Lopez ejecting a television reporter from a public hearing. Embarrassed senators then changed the rule that had enabled them to oust anyone with a camera. Sedillo Lopez's flub was one of naiveté, but a law professor should have known better.

—State Rep. Melanie Stansbury proved herself to be a terrific campaigner when she defeated a seven-term Republican incumbent in 2018.

Stansbury also has experience in Washington. She worked in the White House Office of Management and Budget and the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

In short, Stansbury is an excellent candidate. But this is the sort of competition where a select group can tell her to wait her turn for higher office.

—State Rep. Georgene Louis looks like the favorite for the nomination. She has a compelling, bootstraps biography.

A member of Acoma Pueblo, she was a teenage mother who became an attorney and a politician. Louis has been a legislator since 2013.

Haaland was one of the first Native American women to win a seat in Congress. Committee members might see Louis as her logical successor.

—Victor Reyes stepped down as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's legislative director to run for the vacant seat in Congress. He previously served as Lujan Grisham's deputy campaign manager.

At 28, Reyes is the youngest candidate in the Democratic field. His camp says he's been the target of ageism, though mostly in an undercurrent.

There was a time when a candidate's experience, or lack of it, could be discussed without complaint. It's still a fair question. Branding it as ageism is a diversionary tactic.

Reyes' staff this week publicly called him "the favored front runner" to win the nomination from the central committee. This claim was almost buried after a 23-year-old Democratic precinct chairman in Albuquerque's Northeast Heights attacked Reyes based on skin color.

"This bro is white," Sheridan Lund wrote on Twitter. "Yet in campaign material claims POC."

Lund deleted the tweet, told me he was ashamed of himself, and issued a written apology. As for Reyes, he called himself "a voice for those who rarely see themselves in the halls of Congress — young people, queer people, people of color."

—Trial lawyer Randi McGinn is well-known in New Mexico. Many of her cases could inspire movies.

She opened her congressional campaign by highlighting her representation of the children of a murdered convenience store clerk from Hobbs. The case settled as a jury was about to return a $51 million verdict for McGinn's clients. The amount of the settlement was not revealed.

McGinn didn't do as well as special prosecutor in the murder trial of two Albuquerque police officers who shot a homeless camper. The case ended in a mistrial.

Afterward, McGinn offered to drop the charges against one officer if the other pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit aggravated battery. The defense rejected her pitch. Both officers went free.

Republicans

This field of contenders is thinner. No Republican has won New Mexico's 1st Congressional District since 2006, and it doesn't look promising this time.

Skin color also is an issue for one of the candidates, Eddy Aragon, who this week accused state Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce of racism.

Aragon, CEO of the Rock of Talk radio station, also disparaged three-term state Sen. Mark Moores, a new but formidable candidate for the Republican congressional nomination.

"Moores has replaced Jared Vander Dussen as Steve Pearce's vision of what a Republican candidate should look like," Aragon wrote in a statement. "News flash for Steve Pearce: Racism against brown folks won't win in New Mexico."

Aragon's spokesman said Tuesday the candidate had agreed to be interviewed about this claim. Aragon, though, didn't follow through.

Pearce did not respond to a request for an interview.

Moores first won his Senate seat in Albuquerque's Northeast Heights in 2012. He defeated a candidate favored by then-Gov. Susana Martinez in the Republican primary.

Moores followed up by ousting Democratic Sen. Lisa Curtis, an incumbent by appointment. She spent a staggering $346,000 in losing to Moores.

Depending on the Democratic nominee, Moores might have given Republicans a slender chance of winning the congressional seat.

There's plenty of suspense in the Democratic competition. The Republicans favor drama — the kind typical of an organization that's about to implode.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080.