Two candidates competing for the seat in the House of District 41 in New Mexico debated Monday night (May 9) at a forum hosted by the Taos County Democratic Party.
Incumbent Susan Herrera and newcomer Marlo Martinez both compete for representation of House District 41, which while primarily encompassing Rio Arriba County, also includes western portions of Taos County including Tres Piedras, Carson, portions of Arroyo Hondo and Ojo Caliente.
A rift between the two candidates became more apparent as they discussed issues ranging from renewable energy to gun regulation.
Herrera, who was elected to office in 2018, said she was strongly opposed to continuing long-term oil and gas development in New Mexico, but added that “it’s a careful needle that we need to thread.” She said she hopes to build up the state renewable energy fund and put more money into rural infrastructure development.
She said the way to get this through legislation is to look at examples like the Kit Carson Electric Cooperative. “You have to have leadership at the local level… [KCEC] is not just a model in the state, but a model in the nation,” she said, adding that she would encourage all rural cooperatives to pursue similar goals.
Martinez agreed that a transition was needed, but said, “The state of New Mexico’s budget is about 40 percent of the budget dependent on oil and gas. I think we need to carefully transition from oil and gas to renewables and maybe subsidize solar for homes.” He noted that promoting solar at the federal level would also go a long way in helping that transition.
Taos County Democratic Party leader and host Darien Fernandez asked each candidate if they had accepted campaign contributions from oil or gas companies. Martinez affirmed, reiterating the importance of a slower transition. “We just abruptly shut off the oil because they’re a lifeline to New Mexico,” he said.
Herrera said she didn’t take any fossil fuel contributions that she was aware of and said she was primarily self-funded for her campaign. “I never wanted a lobbyist to look me in the eye and say, ‘Hey, I paid so much, where’s my refund?’ I really haven’t needed their money in the past and I don’t expect to need it in the future,” she said.
Martinez replied: “[Representative] Javier Martinez and the narrator [of the House, Brian Egolf] donate money to my opponent and they take money from oil and gas… I think oil and gas can invest in renewable energy. I don’t understand why they can’t.”
When asked about their legislative priorities and what they would focus on, the candidates again differed.
Martinez said his top priority is to make more resources available to the district. “Like Arroyo Hondo [has] a center there that needs kitchen facilities to be active,” he said, referring to the defunct Arroyo Hondo Community Center. “There are also many complaints about the roads in this area that need repairs.”
He said his other priorities would include funding youth programs and broadband access, as well as addressing behavior problems, low graduation rates and criminal justice reform.
“I’m really looking at millions and millions of dollars for water infrastructure in the state. I think that’s the number one issue for our rural communities,” Herrera said. “My big push is rural water infrastructure, and that’s gearing up for this massive amount of infrastructure [money] that comes from the federal level.”
Herrera also said she remained focused on fixing the Arroyo Hondo Community Center after the title was transferred to the appropriate party.
Although Taos County makes up only a small portion of District 41, it still includes several local communities, and each candidate was asked how much time they spend looking at the Taos County portion of the district. Herrera said she always provides legislative updates to the various municipal bodies in her district and said she tries to work with their respective state senators and representatives from surrounding districts on investment projects.
“I think the capital outlay is really a fraction of the amount of money needed in my district,” Martinez said. “I think we need a lot more money, as I mentioned, to do some of the things that we need to do in this district.” However, he agreed that the right approach “is based on needs and goes hand in hand works with every community”.
When it came to water and the allocation of funds for water rights, acequias and sustainability, both candidates agreed that more funds had to be sought, especially at the federal level.
The issue of state rebate reviews also came up, with Martinez saying he thought the money could be better spent on infrastructure. “One trip to the grocery store and your $500 is gone,” he said. “I would say it’s better to invest $700 million and put that $700 million in the federal government or other agencies to get over $1 billion so we can solve our state’s problems.”
Herrera, who voted in favor of the law to give discounts to families, said she recognizes the poverty in her district. She said when faced with a budget surplus, she thought about helping families immediately. “I think right now we have to look after poor working families and that’s what I represent – working families. Five hundred dollars might not mean the world to everyone on this zoom, but it sure means a lot to a family trying to pay the rent or the grocery bill.”
Gun control revealed another divide among the candidates. Herrera said she has had many discussions that have brought up gun violence. “In every single one of those meetings someone said, ‘What are you going to do about gun violence? What are you going to do and how are you going to correct it?” She said. “We just have to stop this crazy system that we have.” She said she supports background checks and proper registration.
Herrera clarified that “no one is talking about banning hunting … I have a hunting family and we’re moving to get a moose and it’s a big family tradition.”
Martinez admitted his district is quite “gun-heavy” and said he wasn’t sure how he would vote on legislation banning assault rifles and extended magazines. “I don’t know if that’s going to solve the problem if you don’t deal with behavioral health issues… We just put people in jail and we don’t pay attention to them,” he said.
The candidates were allowed to ask the other a question, after which Herrera questioned Martinez about the reason for his candidacy. “I’m really curious as to why you’re up against me because we actually agree on 95 percent of the points,” she asked.
“It’s not against you. It’s for the job. I think voters deserve an election. I think with my life experience I would do a good job… Money is being spent where it shouldn’t. We have needs like fire victims and our infrastructure and our schools and our water,” he replied.
He then asked Herrrera why she was telling credit unions that he was pro-payday loans. “I’m not for payday loans,” he clarified.
“I didn’t tell anyone you were pro-bootleg,” she replied, adding that she heard Martinez was endorsed by someone who practices bootleg.
In closing, Herrera said she thinks she’s done a good job representing the 41st District over the past four years. She noted her progress regarding drug treatment facilities in Española and a detox center in Taos County. “I’m proud of what I’ve achieved so far.”
Martinez said he felt like a man for the job. “I think I can do a better job because I have the business experience, I have common sense, I know people’s needs, I’m a native of northern New Mexico and I know Taos County. As a small business owner, I travel to Taos every week… I just don’t think we’re moving fast enough to move in the right direction.”