Editorial: Our primary picks

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One of the great aspects of the 2020 election is how many women are running for office at the local, state and congressional levels. Women are stepping up, willing to do the hard and often thankless work of public servants, making choices to improve their communities.

Being a woman by itself is not the reason to select a candidate for public office. The best candidates for any office also should have the intelligence, fortitude, and high ethical standards to conduct themselves in a way that makes the communities they represent proud.

Taos News interviewed all but two of the candidates running for Taos County local and state offices, sent follow-up questions and watched online forums. Their participation in forums conducted by the Taos County Democratic Party weighed on our recommendations. We reviewed available online court records as well as our archives and also talked to people who know the candidates professionally before making the following recommendations.

N.M. House District 42

Annual salary: Per diem only of $161 to $184 per day depending on month.

Term of office: Four years

On the Democratic side, while she has only been in the area for 11 years, Kristina Ortez has proven herself a capable strategist leading the nonprofit Taos Land Trust. The granddaughter of California farmworkers has the backing of environmentalists, but beyond that, she's worked to build alliances with traditional farmers and ranchers centered around water and land preservation. She understands the New Mexico Legislature and has crafted bipartisan legislation that passed. Like Taos County commission candidate Darlene Vigil, she sits on the board of the Alianza Agri-cultural de Taos group working to revive agricultural lands. She knows what it takes to operate at the state and federal level: skills that Taos County greatly needs as it works to come out of the economic devastation of COVID-19 restrictions. Ortez is capable, smart and, we believe, will be responsive to constituents.

On the Republican side, Linda Calhoun has solid government experience as 14-year mayor of Red River. She has business acumen after running her own real estate company for years. She knows how to work across the aisle, and she has lobbied successfully for several capital outlay projects that help her town. Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham chose her to be part of her transition team and to serve on the current Economic Recovery Council.

A face-off between Ortez and Calhoun in November would be worth watching, as both are highly capable individuals.

N.M. Senate District 6

Annual salary: Per diem only of $161 to $184 per day depending on month.

Term of office: Four years

Roberto "Bobby" Gonzales is running unopposed. He will represent Taos County ably in the Senate as an elder statesman the way he did in the House for decades. He should focus his knowledge of the legislature on getting our state budget in order.

N. M. Senate District 8

Annual salary: Per diem only of $161 to $184 per day depending on month.

Term of office: Four years

In the Democratic race, it could be an advantage in a time of crisis to go with the longtime incumbent Sen. Pete Campos. It can also be a disadvantage to pick him precisely because he has been a politician for so long. It's time for a change, and the region has a capable replacement. Connie Trujillo has a solid educational background in nursing and business, plus she's run her own midwifery business. She understands rural health care and what needs to change in a field that impacts every person in the state. She supports the legalization of recreational marijuana, increased funding for drug rehabilitation, opening the state budget process to more scrutiny and devoting more of the land grant permanent fund to early childhood education. She's a political novice, but we think she has the smarts and determination to learn the ropes as a lawmaker and move some issues forward in a positive manner for her constituents. Vote Trujillo.

Whoever wins the primary will face off against Republican Melissa Fryzel in November, who doesn't have a primary opponent.

Eighth Judicial District Court Judge-Division 2

Annual salary: $133,765

Term of office: Six years

After she was vetted by a bipartisan judicial panel, Melissa Kennelly was appointed to the bench in 2019, overseeing the heavy caseload for Colfax and Union counties. Kennelly, a former police officer, is thoughtful and fair. She works hard and understands cases from the unique perspective of law enforcement. She has broad experience with both civil and criminal cases as a police officer testifying in court, a private practice attorney, an attorney for the state appellate court and a district judge for the last 10 months. She's been endorsed by numerous respected judges and attorneys. She will continue to serve the two counties east of Taos well. We recommend Kennelly.

Steve Romero was a close second for this recommendation. He could not be vetted by the panel because he is not yet 35, the minimum age to be considered. He has a broad legal background for someone his age and hails from Cimarrón. He is plenty young to try again in 2026, and with that much more experience could make a fine judge.

Eighth Judicial District Court Judge: Division 1

Annual salary: $135,554

Term of office: Six years

Judge Jeff Shannon is running unopposed. After several years as a Taos magistrate judge, Shannon was appointed to the district court bench. He's an excellent choice.

Taos County Magistrate Judge

Annual salary: $95,306

Term of office: Four years

Voters have two strong candidates for this position, each of whom brings distinct strengths. Sara Blankenhorn is an experienced attorney who understands the law. Edwardo Martinez understands the law from a different perspective, as a trained law enforcement officer with 23 years in the trenches. Both grew up in Taos. Both have great reputations for serving their communities, maintaining high ethical standards and being fair.

While a law degree is not required for the position, we believe it leads to better overall decisions from a judge. Blankenhorn was appointed to the position by Lujan Grisham and should have the opportunity to continue in the position.

Eighth Judicial District Attorney

Annual salary: $125,000

Term of office: Four years

Marcus Montoya was appointed to this position by the governor with the blessing of his retiring boss, Donald Gallegos. That blessing was also Montoya's curse; many felt Gallegos had stopped doing his job before he retired and that Montoya is now just his puppet. Montoya, however, has worked to prove he's his own DA. He's worked with staff and law enforcement to increase pre-trial detention - no easy task. He has solid ideas for pursuing grants for alternative sentencing programs, working with law enforcement to build stronger cases and advocating for revenue for the chronically underfunded and understaffed DA's office. He will need to work extra hard to rebuild trust. Many have lost faith in the DA's ability and commitment to bring unrepentant felons and dangerous repeat offenders to justice. Montoya has earned the right to prove he can do it. If he fails, voters can oust him in four years.

Taos County Commission: District 3

Annual salary: $30,196

Term of office: Four years

Darlene Vigil has extensive knowledge of Taos County's inner workings after serving three decades in the county assessor's office, including eight years as assessor. In that role, she survived tumultuous times, standing down the county commission to fight for her office after she enforced controversial state property tax rules for agricultural lands. But her commitment to revitalizing agriculture in the valley is deep, as evidenced by her role as board member with the nonprofit Alianza Agri-cultura de Taos and as a member of the Taos County Agricultural Advisory Committee. We believe her knowledge, commitment and understanding of property valuations, which drive the majority of the county's revenues, will stand the county as a whole in good stead. We recommend Vigil for the county commission.

Taos County Commission: District 4

Annual salary: $30,196

Term of office: Four years

AnJanette Brush is a relative newcomer to Taos, but she's thrown herself wholeheartedly into learning the traditions, history and challenges of the district. She runs her own communications consulting business, which means she's excellent at communicating, a skill the county can use as it moves through an uncertain landscape of coronavirus, economic hardship and the complex needs of a rural county. She does her homework. She attended county commission meetings and a hospital board meeting to gain insights before running. She has ideas on how to tackle affordable housing, economic development beyond tourism and financial stability for Holy Cross. She appears to be a respectful listener and open to ideas. If she wins, she should be open to listening to suggestions from people who have deep roots in the community and from her opponents, such as Johnny Rodello, who has a deep understanding as a probation and compliance officer of the hardships many Taoseños face, especially those struggling with addiction. Brush will work hard, and Taos County would benefit from having her in the commission.

Taos County Clerk

Annual salary: $75,952

Term of office: Four years

The job of the county clerk is a big one. The clerk must oversee the Bureau of Elections and filing of official documents, transcribe county commission meetings, process information requests, manage staff and handle budgets for the office. The clerk and her staff must also be responsive to the public's requests for documents. Dolores Lujan has years of experience managing documents and helping the public. Her letters of support show the good impression she has left with many customers. Lujan lacks experience in many of the areas for which she will be responsible if elected and she will have to work extremely hard, but she can learn. She'll need to appoint an experienced deputy clerk to help her. If Lujan is elected, she will need to show her supporters that their faith was not misplaced and that she earns every dollar of the substantial taxpayer-funded salary she will make.

Taos County Treasurer

Annual salary: $75,952

Term of office: Four years

Paula Marie Santistevan, the current chief deputy treasurer, is running unopposed for this position, which has responsibility for keeping tabs on all of the county's revenues, expenditures and the annual audit.

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