The four candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for governor took to the stage at Taos Mesa Brewing Mothership Tuesday night (Jan. 23) for a forum that offered an early look at how they'll make their pitch to voters as the 2018 campaign season takes flight in earnest.
U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, businessman Jeff Apodaca, alcohol prevention teacher Peter DeBenedittis and state Sen. Joseph Cervantes of Doña Ana County talked about the state's issues for about two hours before a couple hundred people, a mix of Taos' political class, older Democrats and millennials.
The Taos County Democratic Party hosted the forum that was moderated by the party's chair Darien Fernandez, who is also running for mayor of Taos in the March election. Students at Taos High School wrote most of the questions for candidates.
See this story at taosnews.com for a video of the entire forum.
The candidates staked out their positions on a variety of issues of both state-wide and local importance. Topics oscillated from tribal sovereignty to President Trump's push for a border wall, from New Mexico's economy to the legalization of recreational cannabis, and from abortion access to LGBTQ rights.
Lujan Grisham stressed her experience in Congress; Cervantes his leadership in the state Senate; Apodaca his ideas on how to use the state's permanent funds to move the economy; DeBenedittis his fresh take as a government outsider.
"If you want something new and different, I offer that. If you want the same-old, same-old, God bless," DeBenedittis said at one point during the night.
The candidates took turns criticizing the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez on a variety of fronts, notably on education policy. Apodaca and Lujan Grisham, in particular, bashed the Public Education Department's PARCC tests, controversial computer-based exams that test students' reading and math skills and are closely tied to state evaluations of teachers and schools.
"Number one, PARCC is gone," Apodaca said, adding that in his administration he would "work with teachers, principals and educators to come up with an evaluation for our children and our own educators."
In agreeing with "candidate Apodaca," Lujan Grisham noted PARCC is the subject of lawsuits in several states.
Asked about immigration policy and the border wall being pursued by the Trump administration, Lujan Grisham cited her recent advocacy in Washington, both fighting against funding of the wall and advocating for Dreamers - young immigrants who entered the country illegally as children and gained temporary protection from deportation under an Obama administration policy known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
DeBenedittis asked the audience to applaud for Lujan Grisham's advocacy for immigrants and spoke of his own parents, both of whom he said first entered the United States illegally.
"I am the generation of Dreamers prior to this one," he said. He promised to sign an executive order declaring New Mexico a sanctuary state.
Both Cervantes and Apodaca spoke of the possibility of trade with New Mexico's southern neighbor. Cervantes called the border with Mexico one of the state's greatest assets.
"There's no way we're going to deport or get rid of DACA kids or any other kids," Apodaca said.
If there was heat, it came on energy issues and campaign financing. Apodaca faced boos on the issue of fracking, shorthand for the natural gas extraction process more formally known as hydraulic fracturing, after he didn't immediately decry the practice and instead suggested working with oil and gas companies, investing together, in renewable energies.
"I agree with you we have to move away from oil and gas," he said, "but we can't do it overnight. We have to start investing back into ourselves to expand our economy, so we're not dependent on oil and gas."
DeBenedittis, who wants to ban fracking, called out Lujan Grisham's campaign donors, whom he said included representatives from the energy industry who donated thousands, according to OpenSecrets.org.
He also picked at her funding from the insurance and medical industries.
Lujan Grisham pushed back, saying, "This notion that if you've been in government, and you have relationships with anyone - whether it's in the oil and gas industry or whether it's in the nursing home industry - that you lack moral confidence or the ability and integrity to serve New Mexicans, I think is a very unfair statement by candidates in this contest who have no experience at doing government."
Regarding campaign fundraising, Cervantes said, "I know the candidates sitting on my left and right are making phone calls every day to raise money for their campaigns. I'm not." The Las Cruces legislator noted that a state law prohibits legislators from collecting political donations during a legislative session.
Reporter Cody Hooks contributed to this article. This story first appeared in The New Mexican, a sibling publication of The Taos News. Contact Sami Edge at (505) 986-3055 or firstname.lastname@example.org.