19 New Mexicans who will make news in 2019

December 30, 2018 GMT

It’s not hard to find newsmakers from a year gone by. Their stories are defined by bold headlines — sometimes shouting glory; sometimes reflecting ignominy.

Finding the people who will drive change in the year to come? That’s a different proposition altogether, in part because the events creating stories that matter — both good and bad — rarely can be foretold.

That kind of prologue sets the stage for 2019, a year of a long-awaited state budgetary surplus — and much-feared economic threats. A year with a new governor and old problems. For many, a year full of promise — and promises that might not be redeemed.

Here’s a look at 19 New Mexicans — from all walks of life, from varied backgrounds, with vastly different futures — who almost certainly will be part of 2019’s fabric in the coming 12 months.

1. Michelle Lujan Grisham

Winning the election in 2018 may have been the easy part.

Now, Michelle Lujan Grisham begins the tough job of actually governing New Mexico.

There is an education system a judge says is underfunded. There is a child welfare system that has failed spectacularly, leading to episodes of cruelty that have shocked the state’s conscience. There is an economy that has lagged for years. And that’s not to mention water issues or climate change.

Luckily for her, the state’s new Democratic governor has a political mandate after winning this year’s election by 14 percentage points. She also has a budget surplus to work with, one that may allow her to deliver on some — probably not all — of her campaign promises.

Lujan Grisham, a congresswoman from Albuquerque, has been careful not to promise too much.

Whether New Mexicans expect a lot — well, that’s another thing.

After watching the good times roll for years in neighboring states, Lujan Grisham will be under pressure to diversify and amplify an economy still reliant on the roller coaster of oil and gas money.

It’s likely Lujan Grisham won’t be presiding over a state government that lurches from one standoff with Democratic leaders to the next. So, yes, there may be a honeymoon.

But even for someone who’s spent two years campaigning — and preparing — for the job, there’s more than enough work to do.

2. Tom Udall

The biggest question mark in New Mexico politics looms over the state’s senior Democratic senator.

Udall said last month it’s a pretty good guess that he will run for re-election in 2020. At 70, he is by no means old compared to others in the U.S. Senate. Now well into his second term, Udall has found his voice as a leading critic of President Donald Trump’s policies in the West while also enjoying the sort of popularity that will ward off many challengers.

But it was not a given that he would run again. The race for governor in 2018 did not really begin in earnest, after all, until Udall held a news conference in late 2016 to say he was not going to run for the post.

Udall’s next step will be closely watched.

If he gives up his seat, expect a bare-knuckled Democratic primary featuring just about everyone in the party.

If Udall has a go at another six-year term and wins (which is a pretty good prospect at this point) that would set the stage nicely for, say, Lujan Grisham or Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver to run at the end of their hypothetical second terms.

3. Vince Kadlubek

No longer an upstart or a startup, Meow Wolf’s tentacles are spreading nationwide.

Led by Kadlubek, the Santa Fe cooperative art team of hundreds expects to open a Las Vegas, Nev., facility in 2019, with Denver to follow in 2020. Meow Wolf recently announced a Washington, D.C., location coming in 2022.

The Meow Wolf crew is plenty busy in those three cities and, of course, Santa Fe. But here’s guessing 2019 could be another breakout year.

“There is no limit to how many more installations we want to do in the future,” said John Feins, Meow Wolf’s vice president of communications. “What our appetite and capacity is, it’s difficult to say. We are so focused now on Denver and Las Vegas.”

4. Alan Webber

In a lot of cities, a first-year mayor — ushered into office with a convincing victory and a new governance system that allows the chief executive more power than his predecessors — would still be basking in the glow of newfound political punch.

Not so for Santa Fe’s chief executive, a systems guy who’s trying to introduce Santa Fe city government to the 21st century (some would say 20th). But some of that is Webber’s own fault: He’s raised expectations, both for the people who pull the levers at City Hall and for the community that bought into his we-can-do-it-smarter pitch.

Big to-do items for 2019: Webber must find a way to get the city’s bewitched software and technology upgrade in gear (it cost him plenty of political capital in his first few months); find a way to keep police officers from bolting from Santa Fe for better-paying jobs in Albuquerque and elsewhere; begin laying the path to more — and more affordable — housing.

Plus 100 other things.

5. Veronica García

The Santa Fe Public Schools superintendent threw her proverbial cap over the wall late in 2018 when she predicted a big, results-driven year for a district in a chronic and often desultory wrestling match with poverty and standardized test scores.

In doing so, she’s raised expectations, and perhaps, put herself in the crosshairs of school board President Steven Carrillo, who’s made little secret of his frustration with the schools’ stagnation.

Lost in García’s pronouncement, however, is the bigger picture: How will she and the board navigate the changing demographic picture in Santa Fe, where midtown schools are hollowing out and schools at the edge of town are packed to the brim? How to stem enrollment loss, the results of which always drive the district’s budget?

Also at issue: Will the construction of a new Milagro Middle School, delayed for months, eventually make a quantifiable difference for what almost any educator will tell you is the toughest age group in the K-12 galaxy?

In any case, García’s life may get a little easier, if only because there will be a change in leadership at the Public Education Department — a place where taking a jab at the Santa Fe superintendent seemed to be the automatic default setting.

6. Kelly Fajardo

Remember the name: Fajardo, a state representative from Valencia County about to start her fourth term, could turn out to be a phoenix rising from the Republican Party’s ashes.

One year ago, Fajardo was a prime mover in calling attention to the sexual harassment that women in the Roundhouse too frequently have to endure — as well as in getting the Legislature to update its relatively toothless anti-harassment policy.

She’s also helped start a group called Rise New Mexico, which is dedicated to recruiting women in business to run for office. Though Rise is described as nonpartisan” Fajardo has said it wants to appeal to women who “are center-left, center-right.” It was conceived at least partly as a counter to Emerge New Mexico, an organization that recruits, trains and supports progressive Democratic female candidates.

At age 47, Fajardo could help change the perception of the state GOP.

7. Steve Fischmann

A former state senator from Las Cruces, Fischmann, an incoming Public Regulation Commission member, was successful in ousting the commission’s conservative chairman, Sandy Jones, in the 2018 Democratic primary.

He then went on to win the general election.

During the hard-fought primary, Fischmann — who has worked as a consumer advocate lobbying for restrictions on storefront loan companies — became the target of Public Service Company of New Mexico, which spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a political action committee that produced attack ads trying unsuccessfully to stop him.

In an interview after the general election, Fischmann said he had met with top PNM officials to clear the air and try to assure them that he will fairly consider all cases brought before the commission.

“We’ll all be pros,” he said. “I want to see consumers get the best deal possible while keeping utilities financially healthy. … We don’t have to be enemies.”

This could be one of the more interesting relationships in New Mexico.

8. and 9. Xochitl Torres Small and Nathan Small

This is a power couple from Las Cruces, a pair of millennials making a mark in politics.

Congresswoman-elect Xochitl Torres Small is 34. Her husband, state Rep. Nathan Small, is 36.

Torres Small might become a national figure soon after she is sworn into Congress this week. She is only the second Democrat since 1980 to win New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District, which stretches across the southern half of the state. In fact, a Democrat has represented the district for only 2½ years of that 38-year stretch.

With Republican President Donald Trump still calling for a border wall with Mexico in the heart of her district, Torres Small has amplified her opposition to the idea. This alone might raise her profile — a young congresswoman from a border district speaking out against Trump’s signature issue.

Torres Small, an attorney specializing in water issues, won’t have many days off once she assumes her congressional office. In addition to representing her district, she will have to spend the workweek raising money for her 2020 re-election campaign. Republicans are sure to target her, given their history of controlling the district.

Nathan Small, also a Democrat, is about to begin his second term in the state House of Representatives. He ousted a Republican incumbent in 2016 and won re-election this year.

He said he is excited about what can be accomplished in the upcoming 60-day session of the Legislature, the first time in eight years that Democrats control the House, the Senate and the Governor’s Office.

10. Michael McGarrity

Best-selling novelist Michael McGarrity of Santa Fe is working on his 17th book since he began writing full-time in 1996.

Still, McGarrity, 78, doesn’t like to be called prolific.

“I don’t feel prolific at all. Each book is a challenge, actually. I look at Paul Theroux and Joyce Carol Oates. They’re prolific.”

McGarrity is under contract to complete his work in progress, tentatively titled Head Wounds, in 2019. He doesn’t try to finish a certain number of pages or reach a particular word count each day.

“I’m sort of stalled,” he said. “I’m not blocked. It’s deliberate stalling on my part” to mentally play with plots.

McGarrity began writing fiction on a Big Chief tablet during his long and gritty career in criminal justice. Among many jobs, he was a sheriff’s deputy in Santa Fe County, worked in a methadone maintenance program and functioned as sort of an inspector general of the state Department of Health.

His goals for 2019 fit in one sentence: “Staying fit, staying healthy and getting the book done.”

11. Eddie Nuñez

When he was considering the job, someone must have warned the man who would become the University of New Mexico’s new athletic director that this wouldn’t be easy.

Nuñez runs a department whose football program is in the dump, whose men’s basketball program this month lost to North Texas and Penn — at home — and whose perception in many circles hinges on … men’s soccer.

Eddie Nuñez, you’re not at Louisiana State anymore.

Nuñez, who oversaw the cessation of four Lobo sports, including men’s soccer, during a summertime passion play that found its way into the gubernatorial election, doesn’t have a lot of cards to play here. The Lobos couldn’t afford to make a move on football coach Bob Davie, whose program isn’t selling tickets or winning games. A bright start for men’s basketball coach Paul Weir is, for the moment, mired in the muck. About the only thing to shout about is a nationally competitive women’s cross-country program and women’s basketball team.

But those sports don’t pay the freight. Certainly not in 2019.

12. Marco Serna

District Attorney Marco Serna of the state’s First Judicial District, coming off a difficult 2018, will likely get an opportunity to try and prove his critics wrong in the coming year.

Rarely seen in court during the first two years of his term, Serna recently handled a release hearing for one of the teenagers accused in the shooting death of 18-year-old Cameron Martinez of Alcalde. It was a subtle move, but one that could be telling as a potential re-election bid approaches in 2020.

A successful prosecution of that high-profile case — and other pending homicides, including a triple-murder in Dixon and two cases of child abuse resulting in death — could help Serna, who struggled with high staff turnover and criticism from several corners in 2018.

13. Steve Pearce

Many politicians would take a breather after suffering a shellacking in the race for governor. Plenty would say they should.

But Steve Pearce got himself elected as chairman of the state Republican Party.

In turn, the outgoing congressman will spend much of 2019 retooling a political organization after a genuinely awful 2018.

That means finding a viable candidate to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Tom Udall in 2020, building the party’s currently thin bench of office seekers and digging in for a fight to defend state Senate seats around Albuquerque, where the GOP lost nearly every state House seat this year.

And then there’s the 2nd Congressional District in the southern end of the state, where Democrat Xochitl Torres Small narrowly defeated Pearce’s would-be Republican successor, Yvette Herrell.

Pearce hasn’t ruled out running for the seat again himself.

14. Peter Trevisani

Trevisani might get an award for ambition if New Mexico United — a new professional soccer team that begins play in Albuquerque in 2019 — takes hold.

An investor at Meow Wolf and a former finance adviser for Lehman Brothers in London, Trevisani, who lives in Santa Fe, has made it clear he’s not one to settle. He envisions a product that can reel in crowds of 8,000 or more at Isotopes Park.

“Now all we have to do is go out and prove it’s worth it,” Trevisani said in an interview earlier this year.

It’s a tall order. On the other hand, he’s gotten this far.

15. Jordan Nuñez

Accused child killer Jordan Anthony Nuñez will turn 21 in April 2019.

He’ll also spend most of the year awaiting his November trial date on more than a dozen felony charges — including child abuse resulting in death — in connection with the killing of 13-year-old Jeremiah Valencia, whose body was found buried in a plastic tub off N.M. 502 near Nambé in January 2018.

Jeremiah’s death was one of the most tragic and brutal in recent New Mexico history.

Police originally cast Nuñez as an accomplice in Jeremiah’s killing, saying it was Nuñez’s father, Thomas Wayne Ferguson, who tortured and beat the boy to death in the fall of 2017.

But after Ferguson hanged himself in the Santa Fe County jail in the spring, officials quickly shifted their focus to Nuñez, saying he might have been the one who dealt the final blow that ended Valencia’s life.

If convicted of the charges against him, Nuñez faces the possibility of life in prison.

16. Fedonta “J.B.” White

He’s only 16 years old, but by the time he turns 17, the 6-foot-6 sophomore forward for the Santa Fe High boys basketball team might be the hottest name in New Mexico prep sports.

White has played on the varsity squad since he was a freshman and made waves when he wrote on Twitter that he received a Division I scholarship offer from the University of New Mexico in June. Since then, he also received an offer from the University of Utah, and surely more schools will follow.

He’s already hearing comparisons to other Santa Fe basketball legends, such as St. Michael’s great Nick “The Stick” Pino and Santa Fe High’s Toby Roybal. Soon, “J.B” (the family nickname that stands for “June bug”) may be added to the names of great Santa Fe players.

It helps that White plays on a Santa Fe High team that has lost just once this season and has aspirations of making a deep run in the Class 5A State Tournament in March, which the program has not done in 13 years. Winning does a lot to enhance a legend.

17. Elliot Stern

Stern said if Warehouse 21, a teen-oriented arts enrichment and education center, had been a business and not a nonprofit, it would have made more sense to file for bankruptcy.

Instead, Stern took charge of a new board of directors, and together they have worked to deal with some hefty financial baggage in hopes of ensuring the organization’s legacy.

Stern helped bring Warehouse 21 back to its original mission of teaching and encouraging youth arts in 2018.

But there are challenges: Warehouse 21 is burdened with more than $50,000 in debt. There are other problems as well. But Stern said he’s determined to gain partnerships and sponsors to ensure its health and effectiveness.

18. María José Rodríguez Cádiz

The executive director of Solace Crisis Treatment Center, a sexual violence treatment and advocacy center in Santa Fe, is determined not to let the momentum of the #MeToo movement die out, despite what she called some letdowns this year.

Cádiz has worked toward increasing resources for victims of sexual assault, including increasing the center’s bilingual staff this year and renewing partnerships with the city of Santa Fe and its police department.

After the nationally televised hearings on the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Cádiz said Solace received an increase in calls reporting sexual violence. She was disappointed by the national response to Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations that Kavanaugh assaulted her when the two were in high school.

But she said she’s determined to advocate for change and increase awareness on a local level as the nation continues to struggle with sexual harassment and violence.

19. Bill McCamley

A three-term Democratic legislator from Mesilla Park, McCamley was selected by Gov.-elect Lujan Grisham to head the Workforce Solutions Department. In the past, the agency, formerly known as the Labor Department, has been a low-key place whose leader rarely makes waves — or headlines.

But those who have followed McCamley, 40, might have a hard time imagining him blending into the background. During his six years in the Legislature, McCamley became known as an outspoken progressive. The loquacious lawmaker rarely, if ever, backed away from a floor debate about issues.

When Lujan Grisham announced she’d nominate McCamley for Workforce Solutions, he talked about getting more workers two-year degrees that can lead to employment and getting more state residents into fields involving science, technology, engineering and math. In doing so, don’t expect him to be a wallflower.