New managers arrive for candidates' third showdown

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Feb. 20—The leading contenders are back for a third time in one of New Mexico's fiercest political competitions. Even so, the race is already different.

After pulling out narrow victories in a pair of elections, state Rep. Ambrose Castellano is running for a third term with a fresh approach.

"I've never really had a campaign manager before. We're going to do something very different," said Castellano, a conservative Democrat from Serafina in San Miguel County.

He has hired Danny Maki to manage his campaign for reelection in House District 70. Maki previously was a paid staffer in campaigns to elect far more liberal politicians, most notably Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber.

Progressive Democrat Anita Gonzales, loser of primary elections to Castellano in 2020 and 2022, also has opted for a shakeup. She has hired Neri Holguin, one of the state's more successful campaign managers of liberal candidates.

Gonzales, of Las Vegas, N.M., said she hopes her fortunes will change with Holguin on her side and a stretch of difficult history behind her.

"I'm hoping for a new look after running during the COVID pandemic the first time, and being evacuated from my home during the terrible wildfires in the second election," Gonzales said.

Castellano in their first race defeated Gonzales by 62 votes, or one percentage point. His margin of victory in 2022 was 78 votes, or two points.

A 51-year-old general contractor, Castellano dominated in fundraising. The gap was widest in 2022, when Castellano collected $207,000 for the primary and general elections, according to state campaign records. Gonzales raised $34,000 for the primary.

One of Holguin's objectives is to close the gap in money. The two candidates are miles apart on high-profile issues, and that won't change.

Gonzales, 44, supports abortion rights. Castellano voted to keep on the books an unenforced 1969 law criminalizing abortion.

The Legislature voted to repeal the law in 2021, and Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham authorized the change by signing the bill.

Castellano says he nonetheless had the pulse of his district, which covers most of San Miguel County and a section of Torrance County.

"Planned Parenthood hit me with an abundance of mailers. The election came soon after, and it showed I was thinking about my constituents," Castellano said.

He also broke from most House Democrats by voting to maintain the 175% annual interest rate storefront lenders were allowed to charge in New Mexico. Gonzales favored cutting the maximum interest rate to 36%, something state lawmakers finally did in 2022.

Castellano said he worried about drying up credit for people who who couldn't get a loan from a bank or credit union to cover a medical bill or other emergency.

Credit unions played an important part in cutting the allowable interest rate, pledging to help people with poor credit. Interest rates at credit unions were already at 28%.

Gonzales works as deputy director of the pre-college program New Mexico MESA. The acronym stands for mathematics, engineering and science achievement. Her career aligns with her campaign themes.

"My emphasis is on education, health care and building our communities," she said.

Castellano's stated goals are similar. He says he's become a student of the state budgeting process in order to deliver improvements to his district. He awaits Lujan Grisham's decisions on budget items, but says he's optimistic about his area receiving $6 million for the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute and more than $3 million for a drug treatment center.

Maki resigned Dec. 15 from his job on the state auditor's staff to start his political business. In addition to Castellano, Maki is managing the reelection campaigns of two other Democrats, Sen. George Muñoz of Gallup and Rep. Linda Serrato of Santa Fe. Both are heavy favorites to win again.

Holguin has even more clients for the Legislature. She is managing the reelection campaigns of two freshmen, Sen. Siah Correa Hemphill of Silver City and Rep. Tara Jaramillo of Socorro.

Holguin also is working for Angel Charley, a challenger in Senate District 30. Charley, of Acoma Pueblo, probably is best known for her work in trying to stop domestic violence.

Former eight-year Sen. Clemente Sanchez, a conservative Democrat, also is exploring a run in District 30, his old seat. The incumbent is Republican Sen. Joshua Sanchez of Bosque.

The competition between Castellano and Gonzales might be more than a three-peat. It could be a harbinger of which wing of the Democratic Party gains ground this year.

As for the Republicans, minorities in both legislative chambers, they'll be cheering for Castellano, at least when no one's watching.

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