Michelle Lujan Grisham and Steve Pearce clashed sharply Wednesday night in the first televised gubernatorial debate of the general election, sparring over the minimum wage, education, marijuana, and the state’s oil and gas business, delineating for a statewide audience stark contrasts between their respective visions for New Mexico.

Less than a week after a sedate Albuquerque forum in which the candidates traded niceties and seemed to consciously avoid stepping on each other’s toes, the encounter aired on Fox New Mexico was much more fiery, with the two expressing scarcely any agreement.

Each swiped repeatedly at the other, with Lujan Grisham calling Pearce’s education platform insufficient and Pearce accusing Lujan Grisham of conspiring to drive New Mexico’s top industry out of the state.

“My opponent has plan to shut the oil and gas industry down,” said Pearce, the Republican candidate. The Hobbs congressman said Lujan Grisham’s approach to fracking would drive drillers into Texas and rob the state budget of hundreds of millions: “How can you say you’re going to spend more money on education when you’re taking money away from education?”

Lujan Grisham, the Democratic nominee and Albuquerque congresswoman, responded that while she would not advocate “increasing that footprint” where fracking takes place, she wants to initiate an “all-of-the-above energy approach,” including oil and gas.

“The notion that oil and gas can’t survive when you also do renewable is false,” she said. “In fact, it’s ludicrous.”

“I made my living in the business,” said Pearce, a retired oilfield services company executive. “When you tell companies you’re going to regulate fracking, they’re going to choose to be in Texas.”

Meanwhile, Lujan Grisham said Pearce’s opposition to a minimum wage hike would “keep families in poverty and keep women in poverty.”

“You voted against every single minimum wage increase when you were a state legislator and in Congress,” she said. “If we did it the way you describe, people would still be making four or five dollars an hour. It’s not sustainable.”

Pearce cited his business background in arguing Lujan Grisham’s plan to ultimately raise the statewide minimum wage to $12 an hour and index it with inflation would strangle small businesses.

“I’ve been in the private sector,” he said. “You have not been out there. … The minimum wage as a prescription from government will not work.”

The candidates differed on how to approach New Mexico’s $17 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund. Lujan Grisham would increase the percentage of interest pulled from the fund’s investments to boost early childhood education and other initiatives; Pearce was more circumspect and said tapping the fund would be “very risky.”

Both, asked point-blank whether they had ever smoked marijuana, said they hadn’t.

Pearce said he has warmed to the benefits of medicinal marijuana but still opposes legalizing recreational pot. “I have come to terms that medical marijuana, fine, we will do it,” he said.

Lujan Grisham laid out several conditions for supporting legislation to legalize marijuana, including protection of the state’s medical cannabis program, provisions to deal with workplace intoxication, public safety and underage consumption, as well as careful regulation of edible products. “I’m inclined to sign that bill,” she said.

Asked about his view of President Donald Trump, who failed to carry New Mexico in 2016 and hasn’t fared well in polls, Pearce mentioned he had opposed Trump’s plan for a border wall and had spurned a presidential request for his vote on a health care proposal last year.

“They’re simply men,” Pearce said, referring to Trump and recent past presidents. “They’re simply people who are tasked to do a job. When they’re right, I’ll support ’em. When they’re wrong, I’ll contend with them, usually not very publicly.”

Lujan Grisham, on the other hand, was passionately unambiguous: “President Trump has initiated policies that are a disaster for New Mexicans. … This has been the most discriminatory, racist White House I have seen in my lifetime.”

She mentioned Pearce supported the Republican tax cut bill that progressives and Democrats have decried as a boon for large corporations and the wealthy.

Said Pearce: “It’s New Mexicans who are telling me, ‘I’ve got more money in my account, I’ve got more money to spend since we did that tax cut.’ ”

Election Day is Nov. 6. The deadline to register to vote is Oct. 9.


Tripp Stelnicki covers City Hall and Santa Fe County for The New Mexican.

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