By Steve Terrell | The New Mexican

Four Democrats are competing in the June 7 primary for the nomination to replace former Sen. Phil Griego, who resigned last year in the midst of an ethics scandal.

Three of the candidates in Senate District 39 — Liz Stefanics, Mike Anaya and Hugh Ley — were two-term county commissioners. Stefanics is in her final year as a Santa Fe County commissioner, Anaya is a past member and Ley is a former San Miguel County commissioner. The fourth Democrat in the race, Ambrose Castellano, also has experience in politics, having served on the boards of two educational institutions.

Mike Anaya

Age: 52

Party: Democratic

Education: Bachelor’s degree, New Mexico Highlands University

Employment: Rancher in Stanley

Experience: Former Santa Fe County commissioner (2003-11); former assistant commissioner under former state Land Commissioner Ray Powell.

Endorsements: American Federation of Teachers, New Mexico Right to Life, Animal Protection New Mexico, which also endorsed Stefanics

Website: http://mikeanaya39.com

Ambrose Castellano

Age: 44

Party: Democratic

Education: Attended West Las Vegas High School. He later received a GED.

Employment: Sales associate for Paul Davis Restoration.

Experience: Former member of West Las Vegas School Board (1998 to 2006); former member Luna Community College Board of Trustees (2001-13); and former chairman (2003-09).

Endorsements: Northern New Mexico Central Labor Council (which also endorsed Stefanics).

Website: http://castellanoforsenate.com

Hugh Ley

Age: 60

Party: Democratic

Education: Bachelor’s degree in animal science from New Mexico State University.

Employment: Owns the Tererro General Store and Riding Stables.

Experience: Former San Miguel County commissioner (2000-08).

Website: www.hughley.org

Liz Stefanics

Age: 65

Party: Democratic

Education: Bachelor’s degree from Eastern Kentucky University; Master of Science from the University of Wisconsin in Madison; Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota.

Employment: Outgoing Santa Fe County commissioner; also had a business as a health care consultant but put that aside to run for the Senate.

Experience: Former state senator representing District 39 (1993-96).

Endorsements: Conservation Voters New Mexico, Planned Parenthood Votes-New Mexico, Animal Protection New Mexico, which also endorsed Anaya; Northern New Mexico Central Labor Council, which also endorsed Castellano.

Website: http://lizstefanics4newmexicosenate39.com/

They’re campaigning in a sprawling, mostly rural district that includes parts of six counties. Two of the Democrats — Ley and Anaya — as well as the lone Republican, Sen. Ted Barela, usually wear cowboy hats when they’re photographed. Barela, a former mayor of Estancia, is the incumbent by appointment. Republican Gov. Susana Martinez appointed him to fill the vacancy created by Griego’s resignation.

Stefanics, Anaya and Ley basically have been running for the Senate seat since shortly after Griego stepped down. All three sought to be selected by Martinez to fill out Griego’s term.

Democrats have a big lead over Republicans among registered voters in the district. As of April 29, according to the Secretary of State’s Office, 50 percent of the voters were Democrats and 31 percent were Republicans. This is a Senate seat that Democrats are counting on taking back, a hedge against possible GOP gains in other districts. Democrats control the Senate 24-18, and over the years they have amended or stopped many of the Republican governor’s favored bills, such as one that would have denied driver’s licenses to people without proof of immigration status.

But, as Griego proved in his last election, Democrats in District 39 tend to be more conservative than in other Democratic strongholds. Griego received support in 2012 from a political committee headed by the governor’s chief adviser, Jay McCleskey. This riled the Republican Senate candidate that year, Aubrey Dunn, now the state land commissioner. Dunn publicly called on Martinez to return $5,250 in campaign donations he had given her. Dunn and the governor have since reconciled, as she supported him for land commissioner.

Griego survived a challenge from liberal Jack Sullivan, a former Santa Fe county commissioner, and a third candidate. Griego easily defeated Dunn in the general election.

What really helped Griego was his support in heavily Hispanic San Miguel County. His showing canceled out Sullivan’s huge victory in Santa Fe County. In the 2012 Democratic primary, San Miguel saw a turnout of 1,556 voters compared with 1,557 in Santa Fe County. Precincts in the remaining four counties — Valencia, Torrance, Lincoln and Bernalillo — had a combined turnout of 1,213 in the 2012 primary.

Griego won by 450 votes, receiving about 43 percent of the total cast.

There has been no public polling in this year’s race, but if money is any indication — and sometimes it isn’t — the leaders clearly are Stefanics and Ley.

As of the most recent campaign finance reports, filed last week, Ley had raised $61,370 and spent $13,891. Stefanics was a close second, raising $57,524 and spending $17,314. Ley had $47,478 cash on hand, and Stefanics had $40,209.

Anaya and Castellano are far behind in the money race. Anaya had less than $6,000 to spend before the June primary, and Castellano had just over $7,000.

Republican Barela is sitting on a war chest of more than $50,000. After the primary, he also may get financial support from the political machine of the governor.

Here is a look at the Democratic candidates:

Liz Stefanics

She’s an Ohio native who moved to New Mexico in the early 1980s to teach at The University of New Mexico. She’s trying to make a comeback to the Senate. She served a four-year term, 1993-96, becoming the first openly gay member of the Legislature. In 2013, Stefanics and her longtime partner Linda Siegle, a Santa Fe Community College board member, became the first same-sex couple in Santa Fe to get married after a district judge ruled the Santa Fe County clerk could no longer deny gay and lesbian couples marriage licenses.

Stefanics lost her 1996 re-election bid to Griego by 54 votes in the Democratic primary. She ran against Griego again in 2000 but lost by a decisive margin. Between those unsuccessful Senate races, Stefanics in 1998 ran for a seat on the state Public Regulation Commission, losing by a razor-thin margin to Jerome Block Sr.

During Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration, Stefanics served as deputy secretary of the state Human Services Department and later as director of the New Mexico Health Policy Commission. Voters elected her as a Santa Fe County commissioner in 2008.

Hugh Ley

Ley, known by the nickname “Huie,” is a native of Pecos and has lived most of his life in the bucolic town of Tererro. He operates a general store, riding stables and an outfitting business for hunters, fishers and campers that his father opened in the early 1940s.

Hugh Ley left the area during his high school years, when he attended the New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell, and to attend New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. But soon after graduating he returned to Tererro.

Before he was elected as a San Miguel County commissioner in 2000, Ley served on the county Planning Commission for 10 years. He’s a founding member and past chief of the Pecos Valley Volunteer Fire Department. His first experience with the Legislature was lobbying for elk hunting quotas in the 1990s.

Mike Anaya

Anaya comes from a ranching family in the southern part of Santa Fe County. Born and raised in Galisteo, he and his family operate a ranch in Stanley. He’s also operated an electrical repair business.

He was first elected as a county commissioner in 2002, winning a seat that had been held by Javier Gonzales, now mayor of Santa Fe. Before his election, Anaya had been a member of the Extraterritorial Zoning Commission for five years. He’s also a past president of the Galisteo Community Association, and he has been a volunteer firefighter in Galisteo.

Anaya comes from a political family. His father, Joe M. Anaya, was chairman of the state Highway Commission in the 1980s. The state Department of Transportation headquarters building is named for the elder Anaya.
Mike Anaya once was ensnared in a controversy over patronage.

In 2012, former Santa Fe County commissioner Roman Abeyta said in a court deposition that Anaya asked him to hire Danny Marimon, Anaya’s brother-in-law, for “construction jobs” in county government. Eventually, Abeyta said, he hired Marimon for a job that didn’t go out to bid because it was less than $5,000.

But, Abeyta said in the deposition, there was some confusion about the amount and at one point Anaya called him and was angry because he thought Marimon wouldn’t be hired. Anaya told The New Mexican in 2012 that he didn’t remember getting angry. He also said he didn’t remember telling the county manager to hire his brother-in-law, but he might have inquired if there were any contracts for which Marimon was qualified.

Neither Abeyta nor Anaya were accused of wrongdoing in the case. It involved Advantage Asphalt, which eventually was found guilty of multiple criminal counts of fraud against the county.

In 2010, Anaya ran for state land commissioner, but he didn’t get enough support at the Democratic Party convention to make the primary ballot.

Ambrose Castellano

A native of Las Vegas, N.M., Castellano is a former homebuilder who now works in sales for a restoration and remodeling business. Early in his career, he worked for the state as an equipment operator.

Besides running successful races for governing bodies of schools, he’s made unsuccessful tries for San Miguel County sheriff in 2006 and for the chairmanship of the San Miguel County Democratic Party in 2009.

He’s probably best known for his work with schools. For eight years beginning in 1998, Castellano was a member of the West Las Vegas School Board. His time there overlapped with his 12-year tenure on the Luna Community College Board of Trustees, which began in 2001. Castellano in 2011 lost a bid to return to the West Las Vegas School Board.
While on the West Las Vegas board, Castellano was at the center of controversy. In 2001, the board hired a former state legislator named Barbara Perea Casey as an associate superintendent. A few months later, she became superintendent.

But Casey’s tenure was short and she then sued the school board and its individual members in federal court.

At that time, the school district’s Head Start program was in disarray, Casey’s lawsuit said. She discovered as many as half the families with children enrolled in the federally funded program had incomes above the eligibility levels. She learned that some of the families omitted their incomes or inflated the size of their household, Casey said. She reported her findings to the FBI, which began an investigation.

Eventually the federal government ordered the district to repay more than $500,000. After that, according to her lawsuit, Casey was demoted to assistant superintendent. The board didn’t renew her contract.

During her time as superintendent, Casey claimed, Castellano frequently demanded that she fire the Head Start director she’d hired to put the program in compliance with federal standards. Casey claimed Castellano was doing this to protect two of his sisters who worked for the program. She claimed Castellano and other board members objected to her advertising job openings at Head Start. In the past, she said, the district hired “families, friends and political supporters” for those jobs without advertising the positions.

Eventually the district settled the suit by paying $375,000 to Casey and her husband.
Castellano said the settlement terms required him not to comment on the case.

On the issues

Stefanics and Ley, on their websites, say they want less emphasis on testing in schools. Both advocate earmarking a portion of the state’s land grant endowment for more programs. Stefanics wants to use that money to expand funding for early childhood education. Ley wants to use it for programs for at-risk students and teacher salaries.
Both Stefanics and Ley are advocating expanding broadband internet capacity as a means of economic development.
Ley and Castellano endorse more funding for roads. Ley wants to earmark a portion of the state gasoline tax for road maintenance.

Stefanics and Ley are calling for better health care in rural areas. Stefanics specifically wants more dental care in remote parts of the state and adequate funding for mental health programs. Castellano calls for “holding big insurance companies accountable for unnecessary cost increases,” although that’s a function of the state Office of the Insurance Superintendent.

In recent interviews, Stefanics was the only candidate who endorsed legalizing marijuana. But, she said, there would have to be “a series of conditions,” including possibly not allowing anyone under 25 to legally purchase marijuana. That’s the approximate age a young person’s brain is fully developed, she said. Castellano said he’s open to the idea. He said taxes on marijuana could help the state build schools. Anaya said the state should wait several years to see how legalization has affected Colorado. Ley said marijuana shouldn’t be legalized unless there is technology to detect levels of intoxication in drivers.