Salazar to leave state House after 45-year run


New Mexico's longest-serving legislator will not seek another term after nearly half a century in office, tearing open the race for a district that stretches across the northeastern end of the state.

Rep. Nick Salazar, a Democrat who first won election to the House of Representatives in 1972, said he decided against running for re-election as he approaches his 89th birthday and grapples with health concerns.

"Time finally gets to you," Salazar said Wednesday from his home in Rio Arriba County.

Salazar's announcement will create an open seat next year in a reliably Democratic district that stretches from Ohkay Owingeh to Maxwell and Eagle Nest to Pecos.

At least two candidates already are in the running to succeed him. They are Mora County Commission Chairwoman Paula Garcia and Joseph Sanchez, former chief executive officer of the Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative.

Garcia has served as executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association and has been a longtime advocate on agriculture, water rights and rural affairs.

The Mora native said she wants to continue to push issues such as sustainable agriculture, expanding broadband access and developing renewable energy.

"I want to make sure there are opportunities for our families to stay in our communities," she said.

Garcia is serving her second term on the Mora County Board of Commissioners after first winning election in 2010. She cannot seek another term next year.

And while many of the votes in the district are concentrated to the west, around Española, Garcia has been well-known at the Capitol and around the state for years.

Sanchez served as general manager and CEO of the Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative for about three years before stepping down in October and returning to work at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he is a senior engineer.

Though running the Northern New Mexico electric cooperative is a politically difficult job in itself, Sanchez received praise from longtime critics of the organization for seeking transparency and professionalism.

The Alcalde native has been campaigning for the last few weeks but plans a kickoff party Dec. 2.

"I saw this as an opportunity to continue some of the work Mr. Salazar has been doing," he said, referring to the longtime legislator as a family friend.

Sanchez is campaigning on education, economic development and what he describes as "tougher, smarter drug laws."

More candidates may jump in ahead of the June 5 primary election. But the nominating contest is likely to decide the general election. Salazar did not face any Republican challengers last year after winning a two-way primary election with 57 percent of the vote. The last time a Republican ran in the district, in 2014, Salazar still received two-thirds of the vote. Seventy percent of registered voters in Salazar's District 40 are Democrats.

Salazar's retirement means more turnover in the House amid news that three other members will either leave the chamber or seek other office. It also marks the end of a storied career in public life.

Previously a Rio Arriba County commissioner, Salazar was a hostage in the 1967 raid on the courthouse in Tierra Amarilla. Salazar later said he did not have any animosity toward the raid's leader, Reies Lopez Tijerina.

In recent years, Salazar has been a particularly staunch advocate for the elderly, sponsoring bills on expanding services and legal protections for seniors.

Salazar described that work as his biggest contribution to the state.

He said he has developed problems with his heart and vision and cannot drive at night. It is time, he said, to step aside.

Salazar is New Mexico's most senior legislator but not its oldest. Sen. John Pinto, D-Gallup, is 92. Pinto was first elected in '76.

Contact Andrew Oxford at 505-986-3093 or aoxford@sfnewmexican­.com. Follow him on Twitter @andrewboxford.