Eric Griego, state director of the Working Families Party, pushed the broom of anger this week.
He swept out nearly all of his group’s political foes in a single campaign.
Griego’s organization set out to defeat five conservative Democrats in the state Senate. Four of them lost in the primary election.
Beaten were Sens. John Arthur Smith of Deming; Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces; Clemente Sanchez of Grants; and Gabriel Ramos of Silver City.
Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, was the only targeted member of the conservative wing to win his primary election.
“That dang Muñoz stopped it from being a sweep,” Griego said.
Members of Griego’s organization made more than 10,000 phone calls in their campaign to defeat Smith and Papen, the most powerful of the five.
It also fired off text messages, bought radio and internet ads, and told anyone who would listen that Smith and Papen were impersonating Democrats.
Smith rankled Griego more than the rest.
“We would show people the evidence, how Smith tried to delay a higher tax rate for the richest 3 percent of the population while people were struggling without health care,” Griego said.
He referred to Senate Bill 274, sponsored this year by Smith and Sanchez. The measure would have delayed tax increases for five years on people in the top income bracket. The bill cleared Smith’s committee in February but died without receiving a vote by the full Senate.
Smith’s command of the state budget was legendary at the Capitol. But he accumulated some of his power by default.
Lazy legislators wouldn’t study the budget. Instead, they would ask Smith to explain the intricacies of state finances.
At the same time, Smith clashed with liberal Democrats over their push to spend some of the $18 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund to expand early childhood education. That proposal has died in the Legislature every year since 2011.
Papen lacked Smith’s savvy on budget matters. But she received support from conservative senators of both parties to become president pro tem of the chamber.
With Papen in a leadership position, Smith continued to head the Finance Committee. Muñoz became his vice chairman. Sanchez chaired the Corporations and Transportation Committee.
The other targeted senator, Ramos, was an incumbent by appointment who has been in office for 16 months. Ramos riled the liberal faction of the Democratic Party almost from the start.
His first high-profile vote was to keep a 1969 anti-abortion law on the books. Smith, Papen, Sanchez and Muñoz also joined with Republican senators to save the anti-abortion statute.
In turn, Planned Parenthood and liberal organizations were allied with the Working Families Party in trying to defeat the conservatives.
Smith, 78, is in his 32nd year in the Senate. Papen, 88, has served for almost 20 years. Griego said longevity hurt them.
“I think with Smith and Papen it was the fatigue factor more than anything that beat them,” Griego said. “Both of them probably stayed one term too long.”
Griego, 54, is a former state senator and former Albuquerque city councilor. He ran for Congress in 2012, and was the early favorite in a race against former Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez and Michelle Lujan Grisham, then a Bernalillo County commissioner.
Chavez faded. Then the campaign went negative, and the tide turned against Griego.
His camp claimed Lujan Grisham had mismanaged a state-run nursing home when she was state secretary of health.
Lujan Grisham’s team dug into police files. It discovered that 11 warrants had been issued for Griego’s arrest for failing to appear in court on traffic violations or failing to comply with a judge’s orders.
All the cases were at least five years old, and by then Griego had paid all his fines. But the criticism stuck to him like glue.
Lujan Grisham won the congressional election. She now is governor of New Mexico.
Griego took over the state Working Families Party in 2016. He knew populists would join the cause if he was strategic in elections.
Griego’s group made its mark in 2018 by targeting 26-year state Rep. Debbie Rodella for defeat. His organization said Rodella, of Española, was a Democrat in name only, that her sympathies were with corporations instead of people.
Newcomer Susan Herrera ousted Rodella in the Democratic primary. The Working Families Party had its first big win in New Mexico.
With the state House of Representatives controlled 46-24 by Democrats, Griego’s group this year focused on senators.
Sanchez, a two-term incumbent who was routed by Pam Cordova, told me he’s not sure he will support her in the general election.
“The Democratic Party is not a big enough tent anymore,” Sanchez said.
Griego sees the conflict differently. He says his group pinpointed politicians who entered the tent under false pretenses.