OPINION: Former senator hits comeback trail for a fourth time

Feb. 22—If onetime state Sen. Clemente Sanchez weren't 65 years old, I'd call him the Heartbreak Kid.

No politician this century in New Mexico has had more nerve-wracking wins and losses than Sanchez. He also is the candidate who most likely was a victim of election fraud.

Sanchez first ran for the Senate in 2008. Under circumstances so fishy they let loose a stench, he lost the Democratic primary to incumbent David Ulibarri by five votes. A recount was mandatory under state law, but it proved to be useless.

Somehow, 182 ballots cast in the Senate race had vanished from two precincts in Cibola County. Poof, and they were gone. How could it happen? Sanchez asked.

Cibola was a good county for Sanchez. He carried it in the three-way Senate race. The ballots that disappeared probably would have lifted him to victory. No one ever discovered which incinerator or trash receptacle they landed in.

Though hurt and downcast, Sanchez launched the first of a series of comebacks that continue to this day.

He ran in 2012 for the same Senate seat. That race was almost as tight as the one four years earlier, but it was cleaner.

Sanchez and his niece, Maxine Velasquez, led the field of four candidates. Though related, they were not friendly rivals.

Sanchez edged Velasquez by 11 votes after another recount. The sitting senator, Ulibarri, finished a distant third, and Randy Collins trailed the field.

The general election proved easier for Sanchez. He bested the Republican candidate by a decisive margin.

For a time, Sanchez's political career ceased being a roller-coaster ride. He served two terms in the Senate, rising to the chairmanship of the Corporations and Transportation Committee.

His fortunes changed when he sought a third term in 2020. The Working Families Party and other groups mobilized to defeat Sanchez, saying he was a senator who looked out for moneyed interests.

Pam Cordova crushed Sanchez in the Democratic primary. She then lost the general election to a Republican.

Sanchez in 2022 veered from state to city politics. He lost another close one in the election for mayor of Grants, finishing eight votes behind the winner.

Back on the comeback trail, Sanchez is running again for the Senate seat in District 30.

"I just feel I have a lot more I can do," he said in an interview. "I'm pretty much a pragmatist, paying more attention to my district than I do to party."

He had more on his mind Thursday than politics. Sanchez, who lives in the village of Acomita in Cibola County, had just driven a 78-year-old friend to the man's cancer doctor in Albuquerque. Sanchez regularly transports his pal to medical appointments.

Knocked by the Working Families Party for looking out for titans instead of underdogs, Sanchez is more complex than that. He believes neighbors should help one another, and it's not a campaign jingle.

But corporations have donated heavily to Sanchez, who begins this election cycle with a campaign account of almost $127,000. It would be even larger, except he spent some $20,000 on his unsuccessful mayoral campaign.

Still, Sanchez as a senator wasn't so easy to define as his political enemies claimed. He stirred colleagues by assailing a longstanding legislative practice of siphoning federal money intended for Native American schools and distributing it to wealthier districts.

"I finally got that changed. The money goes to the districts it's targeted for," Sanchez said.

He worked in banking and economic development before retiring. Sanchez said he and his wife moved from Grants to Acomita a year ago, though he did not change his voter registration until last month.

He will have at least one opponent for the Democratic nomination in District 30, now composed of parts of Cibola, McKinley, Socorro and Valencia counties.

Angel Charley, best known for her work in trying to stop domestic violence, is seeking the seat. She has hired Neri Holguin, a high-powered manager of progressive candidates. Sanchez has not yet selected a campaign manager.

Perhaps the biggest reason Sanchez lost the 2020 Senate primary was his vote to retain New Mexico's dormant 1969 law criminalizing abortion.

"I'm pro-life, but I've always been a Democrat," Sanchez said. "I don't just look at party. I'm going to look after my district and the state of New Mexico."

Sanchez sees himself as a good fit for the people he hopes to represent.

"This district is very moderate to a little bit conservative. I just gotta get out there and work hard," he said.

Sen. Joshua Sanchez, R-Bosque, holds the seat in District 30. Clemente Sanchez figures he would match up well in the general election with the one-term incumbent.

Political realities don't escape Clemente Sanchez. Progressives in the Democratic Party will try to stop him again. He says they knocked him down, but not out.

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