State Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth seems to be one the few politicians under 60 who’s not interested in the open seat in Northern New Mexico’s 3rd Congressional District.
“I’m not going to jump into the scrum,” said Wirth, D-Santa Fe.
Rep. Ben Ray Luján is surrendering the seat to run for the U.S. Senate. Luján, a Democrat, had a thin résumé but a dynastic surname when he won election to Congress in 2008.
This backdrop has created a long list of potential successors. If Luján could make it to Washington, plenty of others believe they can, too.
Winning the Democratic primary is tantamount to winning this congressional seat. Let’s focus on the region’s dominant party in sorting through a field without a front-runner.
State Rep. Joseph Sanchez of Alcalde: He had been in the state Legislature for all of 12 weeks when he announced his candidacy for Congress. This won’t sit well with voters who elected him to succeed Rep. Nick Salazar, who served in the statehouse for 46 years. Worse for Sanchez is his standing with the liberal wing of his party. He just voted against a bill to repeal a 50-year-old state statute outlawing abortion.
Mark McDonald, chairman of the Colfax County Democratic Party: Just 27 years old, McDonald ran last year for a state legislative seat tailored for a Republican. He lost, but he was the first Democrat in six years to even try for that seat. McDonald was a paramedic for a medical helicopter company before becoming its business manager. He says his campaign will center on human dignity. “Health care should not be an issue of good health versus bankruptcy,” he says.
Valerie Espinoza, member of the Public Regulation Commission from Santa Fe: She’s better qualified than Luján was when he first ran for Congress. Espinoza was a two-term county clerk and is in her second term on the elected panel that regulates public utilities. Luján had worked in casinos and for two years was employed in the state Treasurer’s Office and as an administrator in the state Cultural Affairs Department. But he had a distinct advantage in his early elections — connections to power. His father, Ben Luján, was speaker of the state House of Representatives. This helped the younger Luján vault to a seat on the PRC in 2004 and then to Congress four years later. Espinoza hopes to make the same leap.
Valerie Plame, former CIA officer and author who lives in Santa Fe: She has been talking about running for the U.S. Senate. Plame has high name recognition, and the potential to catch fire in a state that has never sent a woman to the Senate. If she decides against a statewide race, she might consider a run in the 3rd District. No woman has ever represented it, either.
State Sen. John Sapien of Corrales: He’s called House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, and other politicians to mention his interest in the congressional seat. Sapien has won tight elections in his 50-50 district.
Former state Rep. Carl Trujillo: He’s probably not done with politics, and he has a base of riled supporters who believe in him. Trujillo lost his seat in a primary election last year after lobbyist Laura Bonar accused him of sexually harassing her. Bonar later declined to testify against Trujillo at a inquiry before a legislative subcommittee, and her claim was dismissed. Now Trujillo is suing her for defamation. Trujillo once ran a respectable race against Luján’s father. He would not be Ben Ray Luján’s handpicked successor, nor would he appeal to liberals.
Santa Fe-area District Attorney Marco Serna: It takes a green prosecutor to lose a murder case because he and his staff failed to meet court deadlines. Serna qualifies. A man charged in the shooting death of a 67-year-old librarian went free because a judge said Serna’s staff violated his constitutional right to a speedy trial. Serna is appealing the judge’s ruling to dismiss the case. But no appeals court can rehabilitate Serna politically. As he floats the idea of running for Congress, voters will be talking about his failings in two years as district attorney. He’s a 100-1 shot.
Paula Garcia, executive director New Mexico Acequia Association: She finished a distant second to Sanchez in a state legislative race last year. But with the congressional seat now open, she has the opportunity for another campaign, if she wants it. Garcia knows government at the service level, having been a Mora County commissioner for two terms.
Joseph Maestas, former mayor of Española and former Santa Fe city councilor: He wants to run for the Public Regulation Commission, but he won’t rule out a campaign for Congress. “There’s got to be a groundswell of support for me to consider it,” he said. Any surge is unlikely. Maestas ran for mayor of Santa Fe last year, finishing fourth in a field of five.
Many more people say they are being asked to run for Congress. Some probably are receiving friendly overtures, the kind that happen every election cycle.
Without the magic name Luján to contend with, the race for Congress is anybody’s to win.
But not just anybody can raise buckets of money every day while balancing the interests of Santa Fe and Los Alamos with the rural parts of the district.
Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at email@example.com or 505-986-3080.