Perhaps no political candidate in New Mexico has fought state government with the tenacity of rancher Scott Chandler.
Chandler, a Republican running for the New Mexico House of Representatives, has received $830,000 from the state to settle two lawsuits against the Department of Public Safety.
“It wasn’t about the money. We were trying to clear our names,” Chandler said of himself and his wife, Colette.
Scott Chandler says he saw politics at its worst after state police raided his Tierra Blanca Ranch for troubled kids. Police said they were investigating allegations that the ranch’s young residents were abused.
Then-Gov. Susana Martinez, also a Republican, announced an Amber Alert on national cable television for nine boys who were in Chandler’s care.
Chandler said the boys were on a camping trip that had commenced before the raid, and all of them were safe. The Amber Alert splashed the kids’ names across the globe and sullied Chandler’s business.
He maintains Martinez, along with her state police agency and Children, Youth and Families Department, used the raid and the Amber Alert to inflame public opinion against him.
Chandler, his wife and a boy who was enrolled at the youth ranch received a $750,000 settlement last year from the Department of Public Safety. He says he is mystified as to why so large a settlement received no publicity after the raid made news everywhere.
Chandler calls the settlement vindication for an unjustified incursion on his ranch in Sierra County. The state admitted no liability in paying money to end the lawsuit.
The Chandlers also collected an $80,000 settlement from the state in 2018 for another confrontation with state police.
Chandler and about a dozen of his friends had gone to the Grand Motor Inn in Deming, where Martinez was to appear. Chandler hoped to present the governor with a petition asking for a meeting about his youth ranch.
State police officers on Martinez’s security detail forced Chandler’s group to leave the hotel. The officers said they had to protect Martinez, as though Chandler posed a threat to her.
After all the sound and fury — first the raid, then Chandler’s ouster from an appearance by the governor — prosecutors brought no charges against him.
But animosity between Chandler and Martinez’s camp continued.
Chandler first ran for state representative in 2016. He claims in another lawsuit that Martinez’s political adviser, Jay McCleskey, defamed him in advertisements run through a political action committee.
One ad targeting Chandler attacked him with a question: “How did a business accused of child abuse and torture avoid government oversight?”
Hammered by the ads, Chandler lost the 2016 Republican primary election by 12 votes.
A state District Court judge kept Chandler’s defamation suit alive, denying a motion by McCleskey and his PAC for dismissal. McCleskey’s side has appealed the ruling.
For all of Chandler’s fights against fellow Republicans, he has little use for Democratic politicians.
He was a member of Cowboys for Trump, a group headed by Couy Griffin, an Otero County commissioner who specializes in self-promotion and headline hunting.
“I think Couy’s well-intended. He’s got a good heart,” Chandler said.
But Chandler no longer is active in Cowboys for Trump. He said he needed to devote time to his fall campaign for the Legislature.
Chandler is running against Rep. Candie Sweetser, D-Deming. She is one of the more conservative members of the House of Representatives.
Sweetser voted to keep a 1969 anti-abortion law on the books. She also joined with Republicans to oppose a constitutional amendment that would use a portion of the Land Grant Permanent Fund to expand early childhood education.
Many of Sweetser’s stands comport with Chandler’s ideas.
“As far as Candie goes, I don’t have any ill will toward her,” he said. “The trouble is she has a D behind her name. That allows [House Speaker] Brian Egolf to put all these bad bills in play.”
Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said he likes Sweetser’s chances of defeating Chandler in House District 32, which includes parts of three counties in southwestern New Mexico.
Sweetser’s husband, John, is a Republican commissioner of Luna County. Egolf says Candie Sweetser will receive support from voters in both parties.
If Chandler defeats Sweetser, he would have some say about funding for agencies that raided his ranch. Though Chandler has settled his claims against state police, he has a lawsuit pending against the Children, Youth and Families Department.
Chandler is a harsh critic of Martinez’s successor, Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, but says he could work with her administration.
State Police Chief Tim Q. Johnson met Chandler before the $750,000 settlement was reached. Johnson says there are no hard feelings by his agency.
“If he’s willing to work with us, we’re willing to work with anyone,” Johnson said.
Chandler once had as many as 22 boys at his ranch. Now he has none.
That could change based on an agreement he has reached with the Children, Youth and Families Department. It permits him to do business again under certain conditions.
Chandler has agreed not to use mechanical restraints on kids. The settlement also established a series of rules if the ranch confines a boy to a secure room because he is a danger to himself or others.
Before the state raid, Rolling Stone published a story claiming Chandler’s ranch abused its young residents with excessive exercise and by cutting food rations.
Chandler denounced the story, but says state government gave it credence with the raid.
It might have been the only time Gov. Martinez saw Rolling Stone as a friendly publication.
Chandler says his ranch helped many boys become good men. He will have to persuade people in the rival party.
“To win,” Chandler said, “I’m going to have to get a lot of Democrats to cross over.”
The state’s most controversial rancher, a fan of Trump and a foe of Lujan Grisham, hopes to strike a balance bigger than the money he’s won in court.