The primary election Tuesday could mean a changing of the old guard in the state Legislature.
Rep. Nick Salazar, D-Ohkay Owingeh, New Mexico’s longest-serving lawmaker with 44 years in office, is facing a primary opponent who’s a half-century younger.
Democratic Reps. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, 81, of Santa Fe and James Roger Madalena, 67, of Jemez Pueblo — both fixtures in the Capitol since the 1980s — are retiring. Their sons are running to replace them.
And in southern New Mexico, two veteran lawmakers in their 80s are stepping down. Dona Irwin,, 83, a Deming Democrat who often voted with Republicans, decided to call it quits. Two Democrats and two Republicans are running for that seat, a conservative district that the GOP hopes to win. And in Silver City, Republican Rep. Dianne Hamilton, 82, also decided not to run for re-election. Two Republicans and two Democrats are competing to replace her.
Four incumbent Democratic senators and six incumbent Democrats in the House of Representatives face opposition in the primary. No incumbent Republican legislator has a primary opponent this year.
In Santa Fe’s House District 48 Democratic primary, Varela is backing his son, Jeff Varela, 54, a retired state employee. But there is no automatic passing of the scepter. Jeff Varela is being challenged by two well-known Democrats — former Santa Fe County Commissioner Paul Campos, who himself is a member of a longtime New Mexico political family, and Santa Fe School Board member Linda Trujillo.
Jeff Varela has faced criticism for having a residence for 22 years in Rio Rancho, where his wife and youngest daughter still live. Jeff Varela says he moved back into his father’s house in Santa Fe, where he grew up, about two years ago, after the elder Varela’s health declined. No Republican is running in the heavily Democratic district.
Another hotly contested Democratic primary is in Senate District 39, which includes parts of six counties and stretches for more than 150 miles, from Santa Fe and San Miguel counties in the north to Lincoln County in the south.
For 18 years the district was represented by Sen. Phil Griego, D-San Jose. He resigned last year amid allegations that he profiteered from the sale of a state building. State senators met privately for hours in their respective party caucuses to discuss Griego’s conduct before he decided to quit rather than face a possible expulsion vote.
Four Democrats are running in the District 39 Senate primary in hopes of winning the seat.
Santa Fe County Commissioner Liz Stefanics and former San Miguel County Commissioner Hugh Ley have raised significant amounts of money. Ley took the unusual step, for a state legislative race, to spend heavily on television advertising. Former Santa Fe County Commissioner Mike Anaya and Ambrose Castellano, who has served on the boards of two educational institutions, are the other two Democrats in the race.
The winner of that primary will face Republican Sen. Ted Barela, a former mayor of Estancia, in the general election.
Republican Gov. Susana Martinez appointed Barela to replace Griego. Democrats hope to take back the seat, which would help stave off any GOP effort to win control of the Senate, controlled by Democrats 24-18.
Democrats in Senate District 39 have a 50 percent to 31 percent registration advantage. But Barela is sitting on more than $64,000 to spend in the general election.
Rep. Salazar, first elected to his Northern New Mexico District 40 seat in 1972, is running against Rio Arriba County Commissioner Barney Trujillo. Unlike Salazar’s opponent two years ago, Trujillo, 35, hasn’t publicly made 86-year-old Salazar’s age an issue. Salazar, in spite of a health scare involving his heart last year, insists he’s in great physical shape and still runs every day.
A bigger issue in this race has been the fact that the state Attorney General’s Office has sought documents from Rio Arriba County concerning Trujillo’s expenses for the last three years, as well as documents related to county policies, county contracts and records of discretionary funds. Trujillo has blamed Salazar for instigating the investigation. Salazar said he had nothing to do with it.
The winner of that race will face Republican Jerald Steve McFall. He has an uphill battle because Democrats make up more than 70 percent of the voters in that district.
Madalena’s son, Darryl Madalena, who currently chairs the Sandoval County Board of Commissioners, is seeking to replace him in House District 65. Derrick Lente of Sandia Pueblo is running against the younger Madalena in the primary. The winner will get the seat, as no Republican is running.
In one of the most closely watched Democratic primary races, Sen. Benny Shendo of Jemez Pueblo is facing former state Rep. Sandra Jeff of Crownpoint in the western New Mexico District 22 contest. Some Democrats consider Jeff, who had a long-running feud with the late House Speaker Ben Luján, a “Trojan Republican.” Jeff frequently sided with the GOP on major issues.
Jeff lost her House seat two years ago when she didn’t gather the 78 signatures needed to make the primary ballot and her write-in campaign failed. She almost was kicked off the ballot this year because of fines owed to the Secretary of State’s Office. But she worked out a deal to pay pennies on the dollar and is challenging Shendo.
Jeff last week filed a statement saying she hasn’t received any contributions or spent any money during the most recent reporting period, basically the month of May. The only money she reported raising during the entire campaign is an $1,000 loan to her campaign, which was mostly spent on signs.
On Friday, she said she’d just deposited about $2,000 of her own money into her campaign to spend on a radio spot. Most of her campaign, she said, has consisted of going door to door.
Shendo has raised $32,643 and spent $26,299. He’s received backing from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and from Conservation Voters New Mexico. He’s also received money from fellow Senate Democrats, including Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, Majority Whip Michael Padilla, Peter Wirth of Santa Fe and Mimi Stewart of Albuquerque.
Much of District 22 is in the Navajo Nation. Jeff is a Navajo and Shendo belongs to the Jemez Pueblo tribe. “I think people make too much of that,” Shendo said last week. He’s been endorsed by three Navajo chapters, Lake Valley, Standing Rock and Huerfano. He said he’s campaigning on his role in bringing some $30,000 in brick-and-mortar projects to his district.
Another former legislator trying for a comeback is Shannon Robinson, who is running against Sen. Stewart in southeast Albuquerque’s District 17.
Stewart was a longtime member of the House of Representatives before being appointed to the Senate. She replaced Democratic Sen. Tim Keller after he was elected state auditor. Robinson had held the Senate seat for 10 years until he lost to Keller in the 2008 Democratic primary. Four years later, Robinson switched parties and ran as a Republican against Keller. Keller won again. Robinson switched back to the Democratic Party after that defeat.
Robinson has raised just over $3,000, nearly all of his own money. Stewart has raised more than $59,000.
Other senators with primary opponents are George Muñoz, D-Gallup, who has two opponents, and John Sapien, D-Corrales, who is being challenged by Jodilyn Ortiz of Placitas in the primary. Republican Diego Espinoza of Rio Rancho will face the winner of the race between Ortiz and Sapien.
Another appointed legislator, Rep. Idalia Lechuga-Tena of Albuquerque, has two primary opponents. Chosen last year by the Bernalillo County commissioners to fill former Rep. Stephanie Maez’s seat in District 21, Lechuga-Tena faces Amanda Kinkcaid and Debbie Sariñana in the primary. Stewart, who represented the district when she was in the House, is supporting fellow educator Sariñana.
Lechuga-Tena has been controversial from the start. She admitted last year that she’d voted in a local election before she was a U.S. citizen. She also admitted that she has only recently moved into the district.
In other House races, former Navajo Nation president Ben Shelly of Thoreau is running for the seat being vacated by Rep. Kenny Martinez, D-Grants, a former speaker of the House. Shelly faces three other Democrats: Terry Fletcher and Harry Garcia, both of Grants, and Lloyd Felipe of Acoma. No Republicans are running for that seat.
Incumbent freshman lawmaker Bill Gomez of Las Cruces has two opponents in the primary while freshman Rep. Wonda Johnson of Gallup, who two years ago won Jeff’s old seat, is being challenged by Kevin Mitchell, vice president of the Gallup-McKinley school board.
Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque, is being challenged by Chris Berkheimer, a former deputy director of the state Homeland Security Department. Berkheimer has recently been in trouble with the law. The Albuquerque Journal reported last week that he was arrested for violating conditions of a program in which he is serving a nearly yearlong sentence in a community custody program. He pleaded guilty last year to violating a restraining order to stay away from his daughter. He’d been allowed to campaign four days a week wearing an ankle bracelet to monitor his whereabouts.