Lujan Grisham, Apodaca get spots on ballot for governor

Democratic delegates focus on potential to win over policy positions

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It was U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham's day.

She established herself as the candidate to beat Saturday after the state Democratic Party's preprimary convention, where about two-thirds of delegates voted to back her campaign for governor.

Albuquerque businessman Jeff Apodaca positioned himself as Lujan Grisham's main competitor heading into the June 5 primary election. He placed second in delegate votes at 21.1 percent, or about 1 point above the threshold necessary to make the ballot.

Apodaca also picked up the endorsement of progressive dark horse candidate Peter DeBenedittis, whose rambling speech during the convention nearly led state Democratic Party Chairman Richard Ellenberg to cut off his microphone.

For many delegates, the choice came down not to the policy positions of the candidates but to choosing a slate that could win as Republican Gov. Susana Martinez prepares to leave office with her popularity on the slide.

Lujan Grisham seemed to bring the crowd of delegates inside the Albuquerque Convention Center to its feet more than any of the other three candidates for governor.

But her speech did not come off like a last-minute pitch to undecided delegates as much as a formality for a woman who has been officially running since late 2016 and sought early on to establish herself as the front-runner.

Lujan Grisham argued she was best prepared to take up the party's fight. She drew applause urging action on gun policy, including a ban on assault weapons after a shooting at a high school in Florida last month that left 17 people dead.

And the congresswoman pointed back to her time as a senior official on health care and senior services in state government, touting herself as fighting the nursing home industry and fighting the administration of President George W. Bush on abstinence-only education.

Lujan Grisham's rhythm was thrown, however, when her speech was interrupted toward the beginning by a transgender woman who has said she was discriminated against while working in Lujan Grisham's congressional office. The congresswoman's staff has said there is no truth to the allegations.

Asked in an interview about the prospects for uniting the party in the face of a four-way primary race, Lujan Grisham said: "Everybody's opinion has a place going forward in making policy."

But Lujan Grisham cautioned against the party taking for granted the groundswell in interest that has followed Republican President Donald Trump's victory in 2016 and led at least in part to heightened voter turnout in some key New Mexico elections.

"I think Steve Pearce is going to be a lot harder [to defeat] than many of my opponents expect," she said, referring to the congressman from Hobbs. Pearce is the only Republican seeking his party's nomination for governor.

While the state Republican Party convened two weeks earlier for a convention that included little competition for spots on the ballot, the Democratic convention was more dramatic.

For a place on the primary election ballot, candidates must win support from at least 20 percent of delegates.

Lujan Grisham easily cleared that threshold, winning support from 67 percent of delegates.

Apodaca was the only other candidate to make it over that baseline, and he barely did it.

Lujan Grisham's opponents argued that her status as a congresswoman with a long résumé in politics is a disadvantage for the party. They said an outsider - or at least someone not coming from Congress - would be best to lead the state.

Apodaca, the son of former Gov. Jerry Apodaca, called himself a political outsider.

Then he got a boost from DeBenedittis, the progressive standard-bearer from Santa Fe who spent his 10 minutes on the convention stage urging left-wing Democrats to support him. Oddly, nearly 2 percent of convention delegates still voted for DeBenedittis after he threw his support to Apodaca.

In a speech that drew jeers from the convention crowd at times, DeBenedittis renewed allegations that the party's nomination process was slanted in favor of certain candidates although he did not mention anyone by name.

But DeBenedittis said that Apodaca embraced issues that had been key to his campaign, such as legalizing marijuana, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and creating a state bank.

DeBenedittis said he remains in the race for now, but he would need to submit additional petition signatures to make the ballot.

Asked if Apodaca could beat Pearce, the only Republican candidate for governor, DeBenedittis said: "It's not about 'let's beat Pearce.' Let's be better than Pearce."

But Apodaca rejected the progressive label, or any label, for that matter.

Instead, he played up his status as a political novice, distinguishing himself from Lujan Grisham and the fourth gubernatorial candidate, state Sen. Joseph Cervantes.

Apodaca also renewed allegations that the Democratic Party had slanted the primary convention process against him.

He repeated his pledge to use part of the state's Land Grant Permanent Fund to expand access to early childhood education and help create more than 225,000 jobs.

While not turning to the left in the same manner as Apodaca, Cervantes also sought to contrast himself with Lujan Grisham's status as a member of Congress. A lawyer from a farming family in the Las Cruces area, Cervantes emphasized his work as a longtime member of the state Legislature.

"The answer to what New Mexico needs is not going to come from Washington," he said in an interview.

But as a Democrat with a relatively conservative or at least centrist reputation, he fell short, receiving about 10 percent of delegates at the convention. Like DeBenedittis, Cervantes could still get on that ballot with more nominating petition signatures.

Voters have veered from the convention's favorite in the past.

In 2014, for example, state Sen. Howie Morales won more support at the convention than any other candidate in a five-way race for governor. About 29 percent of delegates sided with him.

But Morales only won about 14 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary.

Then-Attorney General Gary King, who had a poor showing at the convention, clinched the nomination in the primary election. King then lost the general election to Republican Martinez.

If there was a theme at the convention, it was of a party energized and with the wind at its back after an underwhelming showing in the last gubernatorial election.

Many delegates said Saturday was their first time at a party convention, and some said it was their first involvement in politics. Plenty cited Trump as having galvanized them into becoming more active politically.

And to many, the convention was not so much about winning in June but winning in November.

Contact Andrew Oxford at 505-986-3093 or aoxford@sfnewmexican­.com. Follow him on Twitter @andrewboxford. This story first published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, a sibling publication of The Taos News.

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