New Mexico Senate leaders lose primary bid amid liberal push

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Two key leaders in the New Mexico Senate have lost their primary bids amid a push by liberal advocacy groups to unseat Democratic lawmakers who have resisted their progressive agenda.

Senate President Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces and Senate finance committee leader John Arthur Smith of Deming were defeated as more votes were tallied Wednesday, marking what will be a significant power shift in the state Legislature.

A member of the Senate since 2001, Papen hadn’t faced a primary opponent in years. An advocate for mental health services, she fell behind Carrie Hamblen, CEO of the Las Cruces Green Chamber of Commerce. Hamblen had won praise from U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich on environmental conservation issues and as an advocate for LGBTQ rights.

Smith trailed Neomi Martinez-Parra of Lordsburg, a former vice chairwoman of the state Democratic Party. Smith, a member of the Senate since 1989, arguably has been one of the Legislature’s most influential voices on budget matters. He is known for keeping the state’s spending in check.

“Big power shifts like this don’t happen very often, and when they do, they can result in significant changes in the priorities of a legislative body,” said James Jimenez, executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children, an advocacy group for improving childhood well-being.

Three other Democrat incumbents also lost their bids, including two who were targeted for their more moderate positions on everything from state spending to the minimum wage, abortion laws and the legislation of recreational marijuana.

Incumbent Clemente Sanchez was defeated by retired teacher Pamela Cordova of Belen. She was running under the banner “unbought and unbeholden.”

Sanchez, a Grants bank executive and chairman of the Senate’s corporate affairs committee, was among the incumbents targeted by abortion rights and gun control advocates. Liberal critics also had attacked him for reluctance to tap one of the state’s permanent trust funds to increase spending on early childhood education.

Jimenez expressed excitement that the Legislature may be more receptive to investments directed at families and childhood well-being.

“Too often I think what we see is that sort of business or corporate interests are right at the top of the list when public policy is being made,” he said. “I think that through new leadership in the state Senate, just as we’ve seen in the House, it will really change the dynamic as to what and how things get prioritized.”

In other races, embattled Sen. Richard Martinez — who was convicted of drunken driving after ramming into a car stopped at a traffic light — lost his bid for the Democratic nomination in a northern New Mexico district Tuesday. Martinez was seeking a sixth term amid an uncertain political future following his conviction. He lost to Leo Jaramillo, a Rio Arriba County commissioner and Española resident. Jaramillo also has acknowledged a drunken driving conviction more than 20 years ago.

Sen. Gabriel Ramos of Silver City fell short Tuesday, losing his bid for the Democratic nomination to Siah Correa Hemphill. She was endorsed by the governor. Ramos had held the seat since 2019, when he was appointed to fill a vacant seat left by Lt. Gov. Howie Morales.

Incumbent George Muñoz was able to defend his seat from Democrat Noreen Kelly of Church Rock.

The primary came as New Mexico took its first major steps toward reopening the economy amid the coronavirus pandemic. Also looming is a special legislative session on budget and economic recovery matters on June 18. The pandemic response is expected to quickly wipe out state reserves despite more than $1.2 billion in related federal assistance.

In the Republican primary, Sen. Gregg Fulfer of Jal lost his bid for the nomination in a southeastern New Mexico district to Rep. David Gallegos of Eunice.

Physician and state Rep. Gregg Schmedes of Tijeras was leading incumbent Sen. James White of Albuquerque in a district that extends eastward from Albuquerque into rural portions of Santa Fe, Torrance and Sandoval counties.

State Republican Party officials have said they’re positioning ahead of the general election to challenge Democrats in Albuquerque swing seats and on new fronts in Las Cruces and elsewhere.

Democrats hold a 46-24 majority in the state House and a 26-16 advantage in the Senate.