Two candidates competing for New Mexico’s District 41 house seat debated Monday evening (May 9) in a forum hosted by the Taos County Democratic Party.

Incumbent Susan Herrera and newcomer Marlo Martinez are both competing to represent House District 41, which, while mostly encompassing Rio Arriba County, also includes western parts of Taos County, including Tres Piedras, Carson, part of Arroyo Hondo and Ojo Caliente.

A divide between the two candidates became clearer as they debated topics ranging from renewable energy to gun regulation.

Herrera, who was voted into office in 2018, said she is strongly opposed to continuing long-term oil and gas development in New Mexico, but added that “it’s a careful needle we have to thread.” She said she hopes to build up the state’s renewable energy fund and put more money toward rural infrastructure development.

She said the way to accomplish this legislatively is by looking to examples like Kit Carson Electric Cooperative. “You have to have leadership at the local level… [KCEC] is not only a model in the state, but a model in the nation,” she said, adding that she would encourage all rural cooperatives to pursue similar goals.

Martinez agreed that transition was necessary, but said “the budget for the state of New Mexico is reliant on oil and gas by about 40 percent of the budget. I think we need to carefully transition from oil and gas energy to renewable energy subsidizing, maybe, the solar power to homes.” He noted that subsidizing solar energy at the federal level would also go a long way to helping make that transition.

Taos County Democratic Party Chair and host Darien Fernandez asked each candidate if they had accepted campaign donations from oil or gas companies. Martinez said that he had, and again emphasized the importance of a slower transition. “We kind of just abruptly shut off oil because they're a lifeline to New Mexico,” he said.

Herrera said she had not taken any fossil fuel contributions that she knows of, and said she has primarily self-financed her campaign. “I never wanted a lobbyist to look me in the eye and say, ‘Hey, I paid this much, where's my payback?’ I really haven't needed their money in the past and I don't expect I’ll need it in the future,” she said.

Martinez countered that “[Representative] Javier Martinez and the Speaker [of the House, Brian Egolf] are donating money to my opponent, and they do take money from oil and gas… I think oil and gas can invest in renewable energies. I don't see why they can’t.”

When questioned about their legislative priorities and where they would direct their focus, the candidates showed differences again.

Martinez said his top priority would be to bring more funding to the district. “For instance, Arroyo Hondo [has] a center there that needs kitchen facilities for it to be active,” he said, referencing the defunct Arroyo Hondo Community Center. “There's also a lot of complaints about the roads in that area that they need to be fixed.”

He said his other priorities would include funding youth programs and broadband access, as well as addressing behavioral health issues, low graduation rates and criminal justice reform.

“I'm looking at millions and millions and billions of dollars really for water infrastructure in the state. I think that's the number one issue for our rural communities,” said Herrera. “My big push is on rural water infrastructure and this is getting ready for this huge, huge amount of infrastructure [money] that's coming down from the federal level.”

Herrera also said she has remained focused on fixing up the Arroyo Hondo Community Center now that the title has been transferred to the appropriate party.

While Taos County makes up just a small portion of District 41, it still encompasses several local communities, and each candidate was asked how much time they spend looking at the Taos County portion of the district. Herrera said she always gives legislative updates to the various municipal bodies in her district and said she tries to work on capital outlay projects with her respective state senators and surrounding district representatives.

“I think the capital outlay is really a piece of the amount of money that's necessary in my district,” said Martinez. “I think we need a lot more money, as I mentioned earlier, to do some of the things that we have to do in this district.” He agreed, however, that the correct approach is “based on needs and working hand in hand with each community.”

When it came to water and the allocation of money toward water rights, acequias and sustainability, both candidates were in agreement, saying that more funds need to be sought, especially at the federal level.

The topic of state rebate checks also came up, with Martinez saying he felt the money could be better spent on infrastructure. “One trip to the grocery store and your $500 is gone,” he said. “I would say that it's better to invest $700 million and leverage that $700 million with the federal government or other entities to get over a billion dollars so we can fix our problems in our state.”

Herrera, who voted for the bill to give rebates to families, said she recognized the poverty in her district. She said, when faced with a budget surplus, she thought about getting immediate help to families. “I think right now we needed to take care of poor working families, and that's kind of who I represent — working families. Five-hundred dollars might not mean the world to everybody on this Zoom but it sure means a lot to a family that's trying to decide to pay the rent or the grocery bill.”

Gun control presented another divide in the candidates. Herrera said she had many discussions in which gun violence was brought up. “In every single one of those meetings, somebody said, ‘What are you going to do about gun violence? What are you going to do, and how are you going to correct it?” she said. “We just have to stop this crazy system that we have.” She said she was in favor of background checks and proper registration.

Herrera made clear “nobody's talking about banning hunting… I have a hunting family and we draw to get an elk and it’s a huge family tradition.”

Martinez admitted his district was fairly “gun toting” and said he’s not sure how he would vote on legislation to ban assault rifles and extended magazines. “I don't know that that will solve the problem if you're not dealing with behavioral health issues… We're just putting people in jail and we're not paying attention to them,” he said.

The candidates were allowed to ask a question of the other, at which point Herrera questioned Martinez on the reason for his candidacy. “I'm really curious about why you're running against me because, actually, we agree on 95 percent of the issues,” she asked.

“It's not against you. It's for the position. I think the voters deserve a choice.. I think, with my life experience, I would do a good job… Money is being spent where it shouldn't. We have needs like fire victims and our infrastructure and our schools and our water,” he responded.

He then asked Herrrera why she was telling credit unions that he was in favor of payday loans. “I’m not in favor of payday loans,” he clarified.

“I never told anybody that you’re for predatory loans,” she responded, adding she heard Martinez was supported by someone who practices predatory lending.

In closing, Herrera said she thinks she has done a good job representing the 41st District for the past four years. She made note of her progress toward drug treatment facilities in Española and a detox center in Taos County. “I'm proud of what I've accomplished so far.”

Martinez said he feels he is the man for the job. “I think I can do a better job because I have the business experience, I have common sense, I know the needs of the people, I’m a native Northern New Mexican, and I know Taos County. As a small businessman, I travel to Taos every single week… I just don't think we're fast enough to get in the right direction.”

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