Two candidates vying for New Mexico’s 41st District House seat squared off Monday night (May 9) at a forum hosted by the Taos County Democratic Party.
Incumbent Susan Herrera and newcomer Marlo Martinez are vying to represent House District 41, which, while primarily encompassing Rio Arriba County, also includes western parts of Taos County, including Tres Piedras, Carson, part of Arroyo Hondo and Hot Eye.
The divide between the two candidates became clearer as they debated issues ranging from renewable energy to gun regulation.
Herrera, who took office in 2018, said he strongly opposes continuing 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 build the state’s renewable energy fund and put more money toward rural infrastructure development.
She said the way to do this legislatively is by looking at examples like the Kit Carson Electric Cooperative. “You have to have leadership at the local level… [KCEC] it’s not just a model in the state, but a model in the nation,” he said, adding that he would encourage all rural cooperatives to pursue similar goals.
Martinez agreed that the transition was necessary, but said “New Mexico’s state budget relies on oil and gas for about 40 percent of the budget. I think we need to make a careful transition from oil and gas power to renewable energy by perhaps subsidizing solar power in homes.” He noted that subsidizing solar power at the federal level would also go a long way in making that 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, again emphasizing the importance of a slower transition. “We just abruptly cut off oil supplies because they are a lifeline to New Mexico,” he said.
Herrera said she hadn’t received any fossil fuel contributions that she was aware of, saying she has mostly self-financed 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 haven’t really needed his money in the past and I don’t expect to need it in the future,” she said.
Martinez replied that “[Representative] Javier Martínez and the Speaker [of the House, Brian Egolf] they are donating money to my opponent, and taking 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 where they would direct their attention, 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 a kitchen to be active,” he said, referring to the defunct Arroyo Hondo Community Center. “There are also a lot of complaints about the roads in that area that need to be fixed.”
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 really for water infrastructure in the state. I think that’s the number one problem for our rural communities,” Herrera said. “My big push is in rural water infrastructure and this is preparing for this huge, huge amount of infrastructure. [money] that is coming down from the federal level.”
Herrera also said that she has remained focused on fixing the Arroyo Hondo Community Center now that the title has been transferred to the appropriate party.
While Taos County makes up only a small portion of District 41, it still encompasses several local communities, and each candidate was asked how much time they spend looking at the Taos County portion of the district. Herrera said he always provides legislative updates to the various city agencies in his district and said he tries to work on capex projects with their respective state senators and representatives from surrounding districts.
“I think the capex is really a part of the amount of money that is 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.” However, he agreed that the correct approach is “based on needs and working hand in hand with each community”.
On water and the allocation of money for water rights, ditches and sustainability, both candidates agreed and said that more funding needs to be sought, especially at the federal level.
The issue of state rebate checks also came up, and Martinez said 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 is better to invest $700 million and leverage that $700 million with the federal government or other entities to get more than a billion dollars so that we can fix our problems in our state.”
Herrera, who voted for the bill to provide refunds to families, said he recognizes the poverty in his district. He said that when he was faced with a budget surplus, he thought of bringing immediate help to families. “I think right now we needed to take care of poor working families, and that’s what I stand for: working families. Five hundred dollars may not mean a lot to everyone in this Zoom, but it sure means a lot to a family trying to decide whether to pay the rent or the grocery bill.”
Gun control presented another split in the candidates. Herrera said that he had many discussions in which gun violence was mentioned. “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 correct it? she said. “We just have to stop this crazy system that we have.” She said that she was in favor of background checks and proper registration.
Herrera clarified that “nobody talks about prohibiting hunting… I have a family of hunters and we raffle to get a moose and it is a great family tradition.”
Martinez admitted his district was pretty “gun-bearing” and said he’s not sure how he would vote on legislation to ban assault rifles and extended magazines. “I don’t know if that’s going to solve the problem if it’s not about behavioral health issues… We’re just putting people in jail and not paying attention to them,” he said.
The candidates were allowed to ask each other a question, at which point Herrera questioned Martínez about the reason for his candidacy. “I’m very curious as to why you’re running against me because we actually agree on 95 percent of the issues,” he asked.
“It’s not against you. It’s for the position. I think voters deserve a choice. I think, with my life experience, I would do a good job… Money is spent where it shouldn’t be. We have needs as fire victims and our infrastructure and our schools and our water,” he replied.
He then asked Herrera why he was telling credit unions that he was in favor of payday loans. “I’m not in favor of personal loans,” he clarified.
“I never told anyone that you are in favor of predatory lending,” he responded, adding that he heard Martinez was supported by someone who practices predatory lending.
In closing, Herrera said he thinks he has done a good job representing District 41 for the last four years. She noted her progress toward drug treatment facilities in Española and a detox center in Taos County. “I am proud of what I have achieved so far.”
Martinez said he feels he is 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 am 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 fast enough to go in the right direction.”