By Steve Terrell | The New Mexican

Los Alamos-dominated House District 43 again is a key battleground as both major political parties try to establish firm control of the New Mexico House of Representatives.

The district, once a Republican stronghold, has been held by Democrat Stephanie Garcia Richard since 2013. She’s facing a formidable challenger in Republican Sharon Stover, the Los Alamos County clerk. Stover also has served on the Los Alamos County Council.

Democrats need Garcia Richard to hold the seat if they are to regain control of the House. They lost the majority two years ago, giving Republicans control of the chamber for the first time since Dwight Eisenhower’s presidential landslide in 1952.

For their part, House Republicans see District 43 as one of the few Democrat-held seats that they have a chance to put into their column.

But it’s possible that the district might not be as ripe for Republicans as it used to be.

For the first time in at least decades, Democrats have edged ahead of Republicans in voter registration in Los Alamos. According to the most recent figures compiled by the secretary of state, 38 percent of voters in the county are registered Democrats and 35 percent are Republicans. That’s a change from January, when Los Alamos Republicans held an advantage of 37 percent to 36 percent.
The registration numbers for House District 43 — which also includes parts of Santa Fe, Rio Arriba and Sandoval counties — are 43 percent for Democrats and 32 percent for Republicans as of Sept. 30.

“We shall see,” Garcia Richard said Thursday when asked if the registration advantage meant she would have an easier race this year.

Stover, in an interview Thursday, downplayed the importance of party registration in her race, saying she’s used to working with people of all political stripes.

On at least two issues, she’s in line with current Republican philosophy. Stover said she supports the return of capital punishment for “narrowly defined” crimes. And she favors legislation to to outlaw compulsory union fees.

But Stover, 57, goes against the GOP grain on abortion, saying that’s a decision “between a woman, her doctor and her God.”

Garcia Richard has voted against the death penalty, outlawing compulsory union fees and more restrictive abortion laws.

But she once broke with fellow Democrats on a controversial issue. She backed Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’s effort to repeal the law that allows undocumented immigrants living in New Mexico to obtain a driver’s license. That position caused headaches for Garcia Richard for years.
District 43 has seen some close races in recent years. In 2010, the first time Garcia Richard ran, she lost to longtime Republican incumbent Jeannette Wallace by 190 votes. Two years later, after Wallace’s death, Garcia Richard won the seat. She defeated Republican Jim Hall by 331 votes. Martinez had appointed Hall to fill out Wallace’s term.

Two years ago, Garcia Richard defeated her GOP opponent by a comfortable margin of more than 1,400 votes.

Garcia Richard’s support for Martinez’s driver’s license legislation won her no favors from the governor. Martinez is backing Stover. Martinez made a personal appearance at a Stover rally in White Rock last month. And the governor’s political action committee gave Stover’s campaign $5,400.

But Garcia Richard, 42, is used to the governor’s political allies gunning for her.

During her first legislative session in 2013, Garcia Richard found herself the target of Martinez’s political organization after she opposed a procedural move that would have forced a floor vote on that year’s driver’s license bill. Garcia Richard said the measure needed to be heard by committees, and she hoped there could be a compromise on the bill.

Republicans responded by running automated phone calls in Garcia Richard’s district denouncing her for “flip-flopping.” Martinez herself appeared on Los Alamos radio, accusing Garcia Richard of breaking her campaign promise to repeal the driver’s license law.

“I’ve caught heat from both sides,” Garcia Richard told The New Mexican in 2013.

One fellow Democrat to publicly criticize her stance on the driver’s license issue was former Santa Fe Mayor David Coss, who, in a 2015 letter to The New Mexican, praised House Democrats for standing against Martinez on this issue. But Coss added, “I was embarrassed by Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard’s yes vote on repeal. Her repeal vote hurts families on the south side of Santa Fe in her own district.”

Garcia Richard said Thursday her main reason for backing the repeal was the possibility that her constituents would not be allowed into Los Alamos National Laboratory with a New Mexico driver’s license, as the federal government had threatened.

“All those folks who were criticizing me, they don’t live in my district,” she said. “They’re not the people who sent me to Santa Fe to represent them.”

A compromise driver’s license bill finally passed the Legislature this year. It still gives undocumented immigrants driving privileges.

While she’s taken heat from the governor, Garcia Richard has given plenty of it back. Earlier this year, she criticized Martinez’s veto of nearly $1 million for 25 acequia projects.

“This is the political age we live in,” she wrote in an opinion piece published in March in The New Mexican. “Where our traditions and culture are no longer valued or supported. Where our way of life becomes a political football to those who are trying to send a message.”

Garcia Richard, who grew up in Silver City, teaches third grade at Pablo Roybal Elementary School in Pojoaque. She’s also taught in Ohkay Owingeh, Española, California and Korea.

As a House member, she serves on the Appropriations and Finance Committee and the Education Committee.

Conservation Voters New Mexico gives Garcia Richard an 85 percent lifetime score on environment issues. In the last regular session, she received a 94 percent grade.

This month, she received the endorsement of the Los Alamos Firefighters Association, a union that’s backed her in all her previous campaigns. She’s also supported by both major teachers unions and several labor groups, the Sierra Club and the Conservation Voters New Mexico Action Fund, a political committee.

Garcia Richard’s major contributions include New Mexico Freedom, a political committee associated with Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Las Cruces, $8,000; Committee On Individual Responsibility, a trial lawyers’ group, $5,400; Florida investor Adam Lewis, $5,000; Thomas Steyer, a San Francisco environmentalist and hedge fund manager, $5,000; and Steyer’s wife, Kathryn Taylor, chief executive officer of One PacificCoast Bank, $5,000. Steyer and Taylor have contributed to several Democratic candidates in New Mexico this year.

Stover was born and raised in the Pojoaque Valley. Her family opened La Mesita Restaurant near Pojoaque, and it’s still in family hands.

She began her government career at the Los Alamos County Police Department in 1979. Later, she moved to the county’s Recreation Department and then to the position of assistant to the county administrator. She received an appointment in 1996 to the Los Alamos County Council. Two years later, voters elected Stover to serve a full term. She left the council for several years to raise her son and daughter. But she ran another successful campaign for the County Council in 2008.
Voters elected Stover as Los Alamos County clerk in 2012.

She noted that she was on the Los Alamos County Council during the Cerro Grande Fire in 2000 — in which 400 Los Alamos families lost their homes — and the Las Conchas Fire in 2011. “I’ve been tested in crisis,” she said.

Stover said that, when she was president of the New Mexico Association of Counties, she toured the state to meet with all 33 county commissions. Seeing the problems around New Mexico led her to to run for Legislature, Stover said.

Besides Susana PAC, Stover’s big contributions so far have included committees associated with House Speaker Don Tripp, $12,825; the Affordable Energy PAC — which is associated with Reps. James Strickler and Rod Montoya, both R-Farmington, $5,275; Geoff Rodgers, $5,000; and NM Future PAC, $5,000. Garcia Richard defeated Rodgers in the 2014 election.

Stephanie Garcia Richard
Age: 42
Party affiliation: Democrat
Residence: Los Alamos
Current position: State representative, House District 43
Education: Bachelor of Arts in political science from Barnard College, Columbia University in New York City; received teacher certificate at California State University-Los Angeles.
Family: Married, two daughters

Sharon Stover
Age: 57
Party affiliation: Republican
Residence: Los Alamos
Current position: Los Alamos County clerk
Education: Graduated from Pojoaque Valley High School and Santa Fe Business College
Family: Married, two adult children