Democrats take back control of New Mexico Legislature

November 9, 2016
William "Bill" Soules, a Democrat running for New Mexico Senator for district 37, speaks with supporter Rhiannon Hardin, 24, of Las Cruces, on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016, at Salud in Mesilla, N.M. (Robin Zielinski/The Las Cruces Sun-News via AP)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Democrats won control of the New Mexico Legislature on Tuesday by overtaking the GOP in the House of Representatives and defending a Senate majority.

The shift of power ended Republicans’ two-year reign over the House, which was preceded by six decades of Democratic control.

Democrats highlighted the need for new solutions to the state’s lagging economy as their candidates ousted at least two incumbent Republicans and won two open seats.

Republican House leaders had placed a high priority on criminal justice reforms during two legislative sessions this year, often in cooperation with GOP Gov. Susana Martinez.

House Minority Leader Brian Egolf said Democrats are likely to shift the agenda toward economic diversification initiatives that give small businesses access to capital from state savings, raising the minimum wage and setting aside money for early childhood education.

Democrats held control of the Senate, but their majority leader lost his re-election bid in a proxy battle with Martinez and her top political adviser.

Five-term Sen. Michael Sanchez lost to attorney and GOP political newcomer Greg Baca amid a barrage of attacks sponsored by well-funded super PAC organizations.

But Democratic incumbent Sens. Daniel Ivey-Soto of Albuquerque and Bill Soules of Las Cruces fended off GOP challengers, and Republican Sen. Lee Cotter lost to Jeff Steinborn.

Negative ads with disputed claims about Sanchez and his treatment of crime victims were sponsored a political committee run by Jay McCleskey, the top political adviser to Martinez. Another ad sponsored by Advance New Mexico Now claimed Sanchez traveled to Hawaii at taxpayers’ expense when the senator insisted he has never been there.

A Democrat-aligned committee, meanwhile, highlighted Baca’s arrest record in the distant past for DUI and a public fight. The cutthroat campaign included an unusual blitz of television advertising.

The entire Legislature was up for re-election. Prior to the vote, Republicans held a 37-33 advantage in the House.

Democrat Nathan Small of Las Cruces unseated incumbent Republican Rep. Andrew Nunez, also the mayor of Hatch. Democrat Joanne Ferrary defeated another GOP incumbent in a southern district, Terry McMillan.

Democrat Rodolpho “Rudy” Martinez of Silver City reclaimed a southern New Mexico district he lost in 2014, while Democrat Elizabeth Thomson took over an Albuquerque district vacated by Rep. Conrad James.

Dominating legislative campaigning was fingerpointing over economic stagnation and the nation’s second-highest unemployment rate, along with concerns about violent crime after the killings of two police officers and the slaying of a 10-year-old Albuquerque girl this year.

Republicans said they were fighting to preserve a business-friendly climate for companies to expand or relocate to New Mexico, while Democrats said it was time to freeze corporate income tax cuts and find new revenue sources such taxes on out-of-state internet retailers to shore up funding for government services.

Martinez and most allied lawmakers oppose any tax increases.

During this year’s campaign, New Mexico lawmakers gathered at a special session and slashed spending at most state agencies to combat a budget deficit, which could be repeated come January.

House Republican leaders used the session in September and October to approve bills on a trio of tougher sentencing laws for violent crimes. The Democratic-controlled Senate adjourned without taking up the measures.

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