Pearce becomes first Republican to enter race for governor

Congressman already distancing himself from unpopular Martinez

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Saying that New Mexico is "stuck in a ditch," U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce announced July 10 that he is running for governor in next year's Republican primary.

Pearce, 69, an Air Force pilot during the Vietnam War who is serving his seventh term in Congress, so far is the only Republican to jump in the governor's race. Gov. Susana Martinez, also a Republican, cannot seek a third consecutive term.

He'll be leaving what most consider to be a safe congressional seat to run for state office. When asked why, he said, "When I look at the state, it just seems like we're stuck in a ditch, and I just feel we can do better. In fact, I believe that we must do better."

Pearce lost a statewide race in 2008 when he ran against Democrat Tom Udall, then a House member, for an open seat in the U.S. Senate. Udall got just more than 61 percent of the vote while Pearce received just less than 39 percent.

"I grew up as one of six kids on a little bit of a hardscrabble farm, 5 acres just south of Hobbs," Pearce said in an interview Monday. "Dad was a sharecropper when I was born, so I've seen tough times. Of the six kids, I'm the only one who stayed in New Mexico. Everyone else left, looking for better jobs, higher pay. I stayed because I love it, so when I see where we are today, it just breaks my heart and I don't think we have to accept it."

Stressing change instead of embracing the status quo of the current administration, Pearce is already distancing himself from the policies of Martinez, whose job approval ratings have fallen significantly since she won an easy re-election in 2014.

And unlike Martinez, who has shown open disdain for Democrats, the affable, easygoing Pearce on July 10 spoke about the importance of bipartisanship. "Yes, we should run as Democrats and Republicans, but the day after we're elected, we should serve as New Mexicans and Americans," he said. "I think we make choices to let partisanship divide us. I just think we can overcome those divisions to find what visions we share, not the things we disagree on."

But his conservative record in Congress shows that the main differences between Pearce and Martinez could be more in style than in substance. And like Martinez, Pearce, who for years owned and operated an oil-field service company, is likely to receive major support from the oil industry in his campaign. In his last congressional race, as in past years, oil and gas was by far the industry that contributed most to him.

In the Democratic primary for governor, U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham; state Sen. Joe Cervantes, of Las Cruces; businessman Jeff Apodaca; and alcohol counselor Peter DeBenedittis have already announced they are running.

The fact that Pearce and Lujan Grisham are running for governor means two of New Mexico's three congressional seats will be up for grabs next year.

National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve Stivers released a statement July 10 that said of Pearce, "While we are sad to see him go, our loss is New Mexico's gain. New Mexico's Second District is a seat President Trump won by double digits last year, and House Republicans are confident we will be able to keep this seat in our column."

Pearce said he will focus on four general issues in the campaign: creating jobs, improving the state's education system, reducing crime and reducing poverty.

Weeks before Pearce announced, Democrats already were attacking him for some of his positions as a congressman. And following the Republican's announcement, state Democratic Party Chairman Richard Ellenberg said in a news release, "Pearce would push the same failed Republican economic agenda of the past seven years. We're going to hold him accountable for his failure to stand up for the community on healthcare, on policies that will drive job creation, and community efforts to protect our state's public lands."

A spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association called Pearce a "right-wing ideologue" and "a Donald Trump clone," saying, "It's galling that Steve Pearce would announce his run for governor right after voting for the Trumpcare bill that would raise costs on thousands of New Mexico families."

Pearce voted for the Republican health care bill that passed the House 217-213 in May. The bill, which was opposed by all House Democrats and 20 House Republicans, is highly unpopular, according to national polls.

"Keep in mind that I was one of the ones who opposed the first version [of the House bill] because I felt that it would be no better and may have been a little bit worse than the Affordable Care Act [the current health care law]," Pearce said. "If you want to talk about unpopular, you should measure the popularity of the Affordable Care Act. [Businesses] and people are telling me we're having to drop our insurance because we can't afford it. And you saw Aetna pull out a couple of weeks ago. Blue Cross keeps pulling out of states. So when you have the insurers dropping out and you have the people and the businesses saying, 'We'll take the penalty instead of providing it,' you got serious problems."

The version of the bill that passed the House was somewhat better, Pearce said. "It could have been a lot better, but we can't just sit here and watch the system fail. ... If they keep blocking the version in the Senate, then you will actually see that."

In late April, the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty released a study showing the original House version of the health care bill would require the state to come up with an additional $427 million annually to maintain health care coverage for its 900,000 residents enrolled in Medicaid. "If it can't or won't, more than 250,000 New Mexicans could lose their coverage and become uninsured," a news release from the organization said. Also, the study said the bill would mean a loss of more than 30,000 jobs in the state.

Pearce, however, said he doesn't believe New Mexico would lose that much Medicaid funding.

"In fact, New Mexico will be a little better served because we're giving the option of having a per capita distribution rather than a block grant distribution," he said. "That favored states like New Mexico with such a high percentage of our population in [Medicaid]."

Pearce's position on the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in Southern New Mexico has also drawn controversy. In a recent letter to Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Pearce asked him to drastically shrink the size of the monument, which was created in 2014 and is nearly 500,000 acres. Pearce says he wants to reduce that to about 50,000 or 60,000 acres. Zinke's department is currently reviewing all recently created national monuments, including the 242,500-acre Río Grande del Norte National Monument near Taos.

"What we've got to do is to make sure that we preserve the beauty, but don't take away economic opportunity," Pearce said. "That big land grab under the Obama administration was way overreaching. ... Some of the monument is 50 miles away from the Organs. You can't just put everything in a restricted category and have a rural economy. We're a very rural state. ... Let's find a balance. Let's have jobs and protect the beauty of the state. I'm fully in favor of that."

Many ranchers in Southern New Mexico opposed creation of the Organ Mountain monument. But the Las Cruces City Council, citing the tourism benefits of having the monument, last month approved a resolution opposing changes to the monument.

While neither Pearce nor Martinez has been openly critical of each other, the rivalry between their two camps has been obvious for years.

In a GOP spat last year, Pearce backed Martinez critic Harvey Yates for Republican National Committee member. Yates went on to defeat incumbent Pat Rogers, a Martinez ally.

Pearce fundraiser Andrea Goff, who also worked for Martinez political committees, was critical of a controversial Martinez-backed Downs at Albuquerque racino deal and thus was vilified for years by Martinez's chief political adviser, Jay McCleskey, and his inner circle. John Billingsley, once a campaign manager for Pearce, was elected state GOP chairman after criticizing McCleskey.

Contact Terrell at (505) 986-3037 or sterrell@sfnewmexican.com. Read his blog at santafen­ewmexican.com/roundho­use_roundup. This story was first published in The Santa Fe New Mexican, a sister publication of The Taos News.

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