‘Underdog’ Garcia Richard edges VeneKlasen

June 6, 2018 GMT

Stephanie Garcia Richard, an educator and state legislator from Los Alamos, won the three-way race for the Democratic Party nomination for state land commissioner in the primary election Tuesday.

She narrowly topped Garrett VeneKlasen, executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, who conceded the race shortly before 11 p.m. At that time, Garcia Richard had about a 3,000-vote lead.

State Sen. George Muñoz of Gallup came in a distant third.

Garcia Richard was outspent by her opponents and was the last candidate to enter the race. She announced her candidacy the same day that former Land Commissioner Ray Powell said he was dropping out because of health reasons and had endorsed her for the Democratic nomination.

“I was the underdog with no institutional support in this race, no money, so the response from voters is really phenomenal,” she said Tuesday evening.

Surrounded by supporters at the Garduño’s restaurant at Hotel Albuquerque, VeneKlasen kept his eyes on the election results posted on the Secretary of State’s website and displayed on a large screen.

“We knew it was gonna be a close one,” he said around 10 p.m. when Garcia Richard edged ahead of him by about 1,000 votes. As it got closer to 11 and Garcia Richard’s lead about tripled, he said, “I think we need to throw in the towel. I don’t think we can catch her. It’s been a great race.”

Garcia Richard painted herself as the best candidate to carry on the legacy of Powell and said her experience in the state House of Representatives helped prepare her for the job. She voiced support for bans on coyote-killing contests and fur trapping on state lands, winning the approval of animal welfare groups. As a public educator — Garcia Richard works as curriculum coordinator for Pojoaque Valley Schools — she said she is also best positioned to oversee a job that generates so much money for public education.

The land commissioner oversees 9 million surface acres and 13 million subsurface acres leased for oil and gas production and other uses, generating hundreds of million dollars every year. Most of that money is earmarked for the public education system.

Garcia Richard was born in Tucumcari and raised in Silver City. After attending Barnard College at Columbia University in New York and earning a teaching certificate from California State University-Los Angeles, she returned to New Mexico in the late 1990s to teach.

Though she first ran for her House seat in 2010 and lost, she ran again in 2012 and took that race with 52 percent of the vote. She won re-election by ever-widening margins.

Garcia Richard will face off against Republican Pat Lyons in the November election. Lyons is a former two-term land commissioner. He has been a state Public Regulation Commission member for the past eight years.

The job of land commissioner pays $90,000.

Attack ads portrayed VeneKlasen as a closet Republican — he switched his registration to the Democratic Party several years ago. Ads paid for by Republican political action committees called on voters to support the more conservative Muñoz over VeneKlasen.

VeneKlasen painted himself as an advocate for conservation, eco-tourism and wildlife management, proposing more renewable energy projects and public access to state lands. He also said he supports creating a wolf refuge on state trust land and backs a ban on coyote-killing contests.

VeneKlasen was endorsed by Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M.

Muñoz had pledged to look for more ways to use state land to fund public education and develop renewable energy sources. He also said he would look out for the interests of ranchers, farmers and outdoorsmen, and he said the state needs to find a way to protect jobs in the coal mine, power plant and oil refinery industries.