New Mexico House Races Will Test Party Clout in November
By Gebe Martinez
By Gebe Martinez
MORIARTY, N.M. Not even the relaxed jeans and blue sport shirt that Republican Heather Wilson wore during a recent "bean feed" a homestyle New Mexican blend of chili and politics could disguise the congressional candidate's stiff, no-nonsense image.
Indeed, the 37-year-old former Air Force captain, state agency head, and first-time political candidate seemed to overwhelm a gathering of local Republicans, as she deftly fired off complicated answers to basic questions, including one on why "prisoners are eating a helluva lot better than our children."
Untested in electoral politics, national Republicans are nonetheless coddling Wilson and depending on her to keep the GOP's hold on the 1st District congressional seat now under siege by Democratic millionaire Phil Maloof, a telegenic, 30-year-old state Senator who is flush with family cash.
Further north in Sante Fe, in a race for the 3rd District congressional seat, a shirt and tie-clad state Attorney General Tom Udall campaigned with the confidence of a political pro.
Unruffled by the brisk winds kicking up swirls of dust in a parking lot near the Santa Fe railroad depot, Udall thrust his right hand into that of a local restaurant employee and would not let go until he was assured of the voter's support. "You know about my record," he pitched.
Udall's political skills, inherited from a popular Southwestern political dynasty, also are being tested as he leads the Democratic charge to reclaim a House seat lost last year in a special election won by Republican Congressman Bill Redmond, an Independent Christian minister. Since its creation in 1982, the seat had been held by Rep. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., who now serves as U.N. ambassador, and the district had been considered a Democratic stronghold.
The Wilson and Udall contests, with candidates from different political parties in different districts, illustrate the critical role New Mexico will play in the high-stakes war between Republicans and Democrats as the parties battle for control of Congress in the November general election.
Currently, Republicans hold an 11-vote margin in the House, including all three congressional seats in New Mexico.
But as part of the Democrats' national campaign strategy, they are determined to avenge the loss of the Richardson seat in the 3rd District. They also have targeted the 1st District seat, which was held by Rep. Steven H. Schiff, R-N.M., until his recent death. That district was in Republican hands for three decades yet now contains a large Democratic voter majority.
(Democrats are waiting to see if Democratic former state Rep. Shirley Baca can tighten up her race in the 2nd District against incumbent Rep. Joe Skeen, R-N.M.)
Republican Redmond observes: "You know what has happened? The big Democratic Party generals have looked at a map of the United States and they are saying, `Where can we have our Gettysburg?' And New Mexico is it."
The first battle will be in two weeks, when Wilson and Maloof go before the voters in a special election to fill the Schiff seat for the rest of the year. A Maloof victory would give Democrats momentum and propel their national fundraising campaign. However, the Wilson-Maloof contest will not really end until November, when they will face each other again for a full two-year term.
So hard-fought has the campaign been so far that the latest Albuquerque Journal poll showed Wilson and Maloof dead even, each drawing 38 percent of the vote, with 21 percent undecided.
In both districts, the election wars are expected to be as rugged and as unforgiving as the state's terrain. Candidates have been making lonely treks across the dusty deserts and Sangre de Cristo mountains to reach even the most remote voters. Because in New Mexico, all politics really is local.
Voters are demanding. They want candidates' positions to blend along with their multiple cultures and to protect the environment and the technology-based economy. They know which candidates are aligned with political machines. And while they may be influenced by television advertising, they prefer to know candidates on a first-name basis.
And voters just plain want to like their representatives in Washington.
In Moriarty, one politician told the story of how he decided to choose Wilson over state Sen. Bill Davis in the June 2 GOP primary:
Davis "gets on this kick about how he's going to return all these jobs to the United States. Then when I'm leaving, I'm following him and he's driving the biggest damn Mercedes they make. You talk about phony baloney!" said the local Republican, who carefully asked that his name not be used.
District 1: Maloof (D) v. Wilson (R)
Voters here really miss Steven Schiff.
As the nine-year representative from the district that includes most of Albuquerque and Bernalillo County, the late congressman was popular among Republicans and Democrats alike because of his mostly moderate views. He won his last campaign in 1996 with 57 percent of the vote and a 74 percent tally in 1994.
With Sandia Laboratories and Kirtland Air Force Base located in the district, Schiff protected local interests as chairman of the Basic Research Subcommittee of the Science Committee. He also sponsored the 1995 Sexual Crimes Against Children Prevention Act.
Schiff's legacy of moderation, however, is now being overshadowed by this bitter and expensive contest between Wilson and Maloof.
Almost daily, the National Republican Congressional Committee faxes out "Mal-OOPS!" which ridicule Maloof for his missteps on the campaign trail. In one such issue, the NRCC distributed a quote from a local radio station talk show host: "Maybe Phil Maloof is an idiot. But you can get elected to Congress if you're an idiot with a lot of money."
Clearly, Maloof's money unnerves Republicans.
While the lesser-funded Wilson blasted Maloof for avoiding candidates' forums before the June primary, Maloof largely ignored her by putting his money to work.
He responded with a billboard and television advertising blitz touting his four-year record as a state Senator, which includes sponsorship of a "three-strikes" life prison sentence for career criminals. Among his other legislative programs are stiffer punishments for graffiti vandals and local registration of sex offenders after they leave prison.
But in this race, he is perhaps better known for his family's wealth. Much of that money is drawn from the hotel, banking, beer and entertainment industries. The seemingly endless stream of cash allowed Maloof, 30, to loan himself $648,000 before the primary, with plenty in reserve for November.
"Maloof can spend $4 million. I don't care," said Rep. John Linder, R- Ga., who heads the NRCC. "He is not going to win it because people are going to see he does not stand for anything."
Linder said that point was proven in the recent election losses of millionaire candidates in the California primary.
Meanwhile, Republican leaders are helping Wilson raise money. They directed more than $100,000 from incumbent Republican House members to her coffers before the primary taking her total beyond the $500,000 mark and Rep. Bill Paxon, R-N.Y., former chairman of the NRCC, has been sent on a money searching expedition for the campaign.
Wilson also is fueling her campaign with donations from political action committees except those from the alcohol, tobacco and gambling interests. With his personal fortune, Maloof can afford to turn down all PAC contributions.
Maloof did not make himself available for an interview after numerous requests by LEGI-SLATE News Service. But one of his promoters, Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, deflects the Republicans' shots at Maloof.
"Obviously [Republicans] are worried about [Maloof]. They are worried about it because he's running a good campaign, he's a strong candidate in a district that has a large Hispanic population and a lot of Democrats. And they are worried," Frost said recently.
The day after the June 2 primary, Democrats were quick to note that in their party primary, Maloof received 32,000 votes, compared to 18,000 pulled in by Wilson on the GOP side of the ballot.
There is little talk from Democrats, however, about many of Maloof's self-inflicted campaign wounds. Before the primary, for example, a state district court halted the processing of absentee ballots Maloof mailed to voters because they illegally contained material that promoted his candidacy.
Those blunders play a big part in Wilson's campaign strategy as she positions herself as the more mature of the two candidates. Although both are in their 30s, Wilson's graying hair and conservative bearing stand in contrast to Maloof's boyish appearance.
At 17, Wilson was accepted to the Air Force Academy, later become a Rhodes Scholar, served on President Bush's National Security Council and founded a small business. Before running for Congress, she was appointed the state's Secretary of Children, Youth and Families by Republican Gov. Gary Johnson.
Running for political office was not in Wilson's life plan.
"Steve Schiff had skin cancer. He was not supposed to die. And he was such a great congressman. I didn't plan in advance for this," said the candidate, who received a written endorsement from Schiff before his death.
But her resume and state government experience impressed Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who urged her to make a late entry against the more- conservative Davis. The move rankled some conservative GOP activists.
"I tell them Steve [Schiff] was just like she is and they say, `No he was not.' Well she is," Domenici insisted.
Domenici's sponsorship of Wilson is used by Democrats who accuse her of "spinning a lot of rhetoric" shared by Republicans in Washington. "For all her talk, you have not seen a lot of well-thought out policies or proposals," argued Olivia Morgan of the DCCC.
During the race, Wilson has espoused mostly conservative positions. She criticizes Maloof's "three-strikes" bill for not being strict enough; she opposes gun control; and she wants local governments to decide how to spend federal dollars that flow to the states, especially money designated for schools.
Deborah Mennich, one of about 40 people who turned out for the bean feed in Moriarty, pressed Wilson on the issue of federal money.
"You keep saying there are certain things the federal government should not do, but New Mexico happens to be one of the poorest states in the United States and needs the money," Mennich said. Wilson explained that for every dollar that goes to Washington, $2.48 comes back to their state. "We can control it here."
Wilson's most significant difference with her party's social conservatives is on abortion, though it hardly mattered during the primary.
"There are some people who think that even in those circumstances [of rape, incest or if the life of the mother is threatened], it's morally wrong; that it's God's will. I have some trouble with that," Wilson explained. "I've seen too many awful circumstances where it was not God's will, or where I have trouble believing it was God's will that an 11-year-old child who was raped by her father should be a candidate for childbirth."
District 3: Redmond (R) v. Udall (D)
Standing at the podium on the House floor a few weeks back, Congressman Redmond,44, ended a speech, "as we would in New Mexico, saying thanks to God: Gracias a Dios."
That he was even there, wearing a congressional pin on his lapel, was nothing short of miraculous. Republicans and Democrats alike called his win a "fluke."
"I think a lot of people thought that hell would freeze over before Northern New Mexico elected a Republican," said Santa Fe voter Lisa Van Sickle, a 40-year-old Democrat. She was among those who unintentionally helped Redmond win the 1997 special election to replace former Congressman Richardson.
This voter did not like the Democrats' hand-picked nominee, Eric Serna, a long-time state corporation commissioner who came from a political machine with a less than savory reputation. Nor did Van Sickle care for Redmond, whose image nurtured by support from GOP social conservatives brought him the tag of a "radical right-wing preacher."
(Redmond handed out bumper stickers for Democrat George McGovern's 1972 presidential bid. He formally joined the Republican Party 10 years ago.)
Van Sickle and her husband, Harvey, behaved on election day like many other voters in the district a year ago. She cast her ballot for Green Party candidate Carol Miller while her husband stayed home.
The result was an upset: Redmond won the seat with 43 percent of the vote to 40 percent for Serna. Miller proved to be the spoiler, drawing an unusually high 17 percent.
This year, Serna signed up for the June primary, despite fears of national Democrats that Serna could cause another embarrassing defeat to Redmond. Instead, party leaders preferred Udall,50, whose Democratic pedigree includes his father, former Arizona congressman and former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, and uncle Morris Udall, also a former congressman. The younger Udall had run unsuccessfully for Congress in 1982 and 1988 before becoming attorney general.
Udall beat Serna by 10 points in the primary, prompting Democrats to declare that his win "gives Democrats one of the best chances in the country of closing the 11-seat margin in Congress."
But the GOP's Linder predicted Udall would be burdened by the deep divisions within the Democratic Party. And based on recent GOP polls, which showed Redmond beating Udall and Miller in a three-way race in November, "we are less concerned than we were previously," Linder said.
But voters' opinions can change in this widely diverse district, which stretches across the northern section of the state, including Santa Fe and many Indian reservations.
A majority of the population is Hispanic or Native American and largely Catholic. Los Alamos National Laboratory and other high-tech firms are here, but unemployment is in the high double-digits on tribal lands. And more than one-third of the district is federal property.
The district's voting patterns in the special election showed that Redmond's strongest showing had been in the high-tech areas of the district while his weakest was in the Hispanic precincts, which had low voter turn-outs.
In what is now seen by his foes as an obvious courtship of Hispanic Democrats in northern New Mexico, Redmond has moved through Congress a bill to study whether federal land should be returned to the descendants of the original owners who lost their property as the result of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848.
Demonstrating the importance of this seat to Republicans, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., traveled to the district earlier this year for a Redmond fund-raiser and to meet with more than 100 land grant heirs.
"I would be charged with dereliction of responsibility if I did not pay attention to this issue" and fulfill a campaign promise, Redmond said during an interview from his home in Los Alamos.
Redmond's land claims bill is making him popular among Hispanics, Domenici observed, adding that Redmond is developing a good record for providing constituent services. "Frankly he will [also] get the overwhelming support of the Indians in his district. Nobody ever thought that would be the case," the senator added.
Udall is not conceding any territory and is not critical of the treaty corrections bill. "I don't have any problems with a presidential commission," Udall said, noting that the first bill on the issue had been filed by Richardson, although it went nowhere.
"Let's remember this was never an issue for him [Redmond] in 1996 in the election against Bill Richardson," Udall said, referring to Redmond's first bid for Congress, an election that he lost by a 2-to-1 margin.
While campaigning at a Santa Fe restaurant recently, Udall closely followed the Democratic policy mantra as he spoke to voters, highlighting issues that would affect the rural and poor residents of the district: school class sizes and the need to renovate school buildings, health care, shoring up the Social Security and Medicare trust funds, among others.
As attorney general, Udall set up an environmental protection division in his office which went after some of the state's worse polluters; he is leading the state's lawsuit against tobacco companies; pushed for tougher laws in the areas of domestic violence and drunk driving; and is working to close loopholes in the lobbyist and campaign laws.
Redmond, a former special education teacher, roller skating rink manager, marriage counselor and minister, sees himself as taking care of the district in a direct way: he says he helped bring 4,000 new jobs to the district since he took office.
The congressman espouses conservative Republican views: anti-abortion, pro-school vouchers, pro-gun rights, and he supports scrapping the tax code in favor of a "10 percent maximum tax" for all taxpayers. He is also pushing a bill to provide scholarships for Native Americans on tribal lands. "The rich have always had the choice of schools. I think the poor should have the choice," he said.
But Redmond's support for school vouchers and similar measures "is a vote which undercuts the public school system" that creates a better- skilled workforce, Udall said recently.
Both candidates have been competitive on the fundraising front, and both will draw the traditional special interest groups that favor each party at election time. And both are going to play tough.
"Bill Redmond won [the special election] with 43 percent of the vote [and] 57 percent voted for another candidate. That comes very close to what the Democratic registration is in the district, which is 59 percent. The challenge for Democrats is to bring back the Democrats who voted for the Green Party candidate," Udall calculated.
But Redmond promised there will be "a rude awakening when we start putting our commercials on television," in the closing days of the campaign. He offered no details, but warned: "We're not going to start shooting until we see the whites of their eyes."
© Copyright 1998 LEGI-SLATE News Service