Two candidates vying for the District 41 seat 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 are both competing to represent House District 41, which, while primarily encompassing Rio Arriba County, also includes western portions of Taos County including Tres Piedras, Carson, a part of Arroyo Hondo and Ojo Caliente.
A rift between the two candidates became clearer as they debated topics ranging from renewable energy to gun regulations.
Herrera, who was elected in 2018, said she was strongly opposed to pursuing long-term oil and gas development in New Mexico, but added that “it’s a careful needle that we have to thread.” She said she hopes to bolster the state’s renewable energy fund and invest more money in rural infrastructure development.
She said the way to do that legislatively is to look at examples like 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 the transition was necessary, but said “New Mexico’s state budget is dependent on oil and gas at about 40% of the budget. I think we need to carefully move from oil and gas to renewable energy, maybe subsidizing solar power for homes. He noted that subsidizing solar energy at the federal level would also go a long way in facilitating this transition.
Taos County Democratic Party chairman and host Darien Fernandez asked each candidate if they had accepted campaign donations from oil or gas companies. Martinez said yes, and again stressed the importance of a slower transition. “We kind of abruptly cut oil off because they’re a lifeline for New Mexico,” he said.
Herrera said she hadn’t taken any fossil fuel contributions to her knowledge and said she mostly self-funded her campaign. “I never wanted a lobbyist to look me in the eye and say, ‘Hey, I paid that much, where’s my refund?’ I really haven’t needed their money in the past and I don’t think I will need it in the future,” she said.
Martinez replied that “[Representative] Javier Martinez and the President [of the House, Brian Egolf] give 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 see why they can’t.
When asked about their legislative priorities and the direction in which they would focus, the candidates again showed differences.
Martinez said his top priority would be to bring more funding to the district. “For example, 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 a lot of complaints about the roads in this area that they need to be repaired.”
He said his other priorities would include funding youth programs and broadband access, as well as addressing behavioral health issues, low graduation rates and criminal justice reform.
“I’m looking at millions and millions and billions of dollars for water infrastructure in the state. I think that’s the number one problem for our rural communities,” Herrera said. “My big push is on rural water infrastructure and that’s gearing up for this huge, huge amount of infrastructure [money] it comes from the federal level.
Herrera also said she remains focused on fixing the Arroyo Hondo Community Center now that the title has passed to the appropriate party.
While Taos County is only a small portion of District 41, it still encompasses several local communities, and each contestant was asked how much time they spend watching the Taos County portion of the district. Herrera said she always gives legislative updates to the various municipal bodies in her district and said she tries to work on capital spending projects with her respective state senators and representatives from surrounding districts.
“I think the down payment is really part of the amount of money needed in my district,” Martinez said. “I think we need a lot more money, as I mentioned earlier, to do some of the things that we need to do in this district.” He agreed, however, that the right approach is “needs-based and works hand-in-hand with each community”.
On water and allocating money to water rights, acequias and sustainability, both candidates were in agreement, saying more funding should be sought, especially at the federal level. .
The subject of state reimbursement checks was also brought up, with Martinez saying he felt 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 leverage that $700 million with the feds or other entities to get over $1 billion so we can solve our problems in our state. .”
Herrera, who voted for the family discount bill, said she recognizes the poverty in her district. She said that, faced with a budget surplus, she thought about getting immediate help for the families. “I think right now we had to look after poor working families, and that’s kind of what I represent – working families. Five hundred dollars might not mean much to everyone on this Zoom, but it certainly means a lot to a family trying to decide whether to pay the rent or the grocery bill.
Arms control presented another split among the candidates. Herrera said she had many discussions in which gun violence was brought up. “In every 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 fix it?'” she said. stop this crazy system we have.” She said she was in favor of background checks and proper registration.
Herrera clarified “no one is talking about banning the hunt…I have a family of hunters and we draw to get an elk and it’s a huge family tradition.”
Martinez admitted his district was pretty “armed up” and said he wasn’t sure how he would vote on a law banning assault rifles and extended magazines. “I don’t know if it will 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 contestants were allowed to ask each other one question, at which point Herrera quizzed Martinez on the reason for his candidacy. “I’m really curious why you’re running against me because, in fact, we agree on 95% of the issues,” she asked.
” It’s not against you. It’s for the job. I think voters deserve to have a choice. I think with my life experience, I would do a good job… Money is spent where it shouldn’t. We have needs like fire victims and our infrastructure and our schools and our water,” he replied.
“I never told anyone you were for predatory lending,” she replied, adding that she had heard that Martinez was backed by someone who was into predatory lending.
In closing, Herrera said she felt she had done a good job representing the 41st District for the past four years. She noted her progress toward drug treatment centers in Española and a drug rehabilitation center in Taos County. “I’m proud of what I’ve achieved so far.”
Martinez said he felt he was the man for the job. “I think I can do a better job because I have business experience, I have common sense, I know people’s needs, I’m from northern New Mexico, and I know the county of Taos. As a small business owner, I go to Taos every week…I just don’t think we’re fast enough to move in the right direction.