Battle for House control raises pitch of political attacks

Posted: Saturday, November 1, 2014 8:00 pm |Updated: 12:07 am, Sun Nov 2, 2014.
By Milan Simonich
The New Mexican

Because Republicans have a chance Tuesday to take control of the New Mexico House of Representatives for the first time in 60 years, attacks against candidates of both parties have been shrill, deceptive and often false.

Geoff Rodgers, a Republican from Los Alamos, is running for the seat in House District 43 and trying to clear his name at the same time.

An advocacy organization that is promoting Democratic candidates, ProgressNow New Mexico, recently posted an Internet story saying Rodgers was arrested in Florida 19 years ago on an unspecified charge. ProgressNow alleges Rodgers concealed this information from voters.

“I can categorically say I’ve never been arrested,” Rodgers said in an interview with The Santa Fe New Mexican.

ProgressNow employees, he said, didn’t bother to ask him.

A review of court records in Florida tends to support his statement. Though two traffic citations for men named Geoff Rodgers surfaced in Internet searches, none matched the date of birth for the 52-year-old candidate in New Mexico.

Moreover, information published by ProgressNow is contradictory. It says a case in Florida was opened against a Geoff Rodgers in January 1995, but that his unspecified offense occurred 10 months later.

Rodgers’ opponent, state Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard, D-Los Alamos, has faced a similar unfair attack from a political organization helping Republicans, Advance New Mexico Now.

The group incorrectly described a bill that would have expunged certain arrest and criminal records, then falsely advertised that Garcia Richard had supported the measure. In fact, she was the only Democrat in the House of Representatives to vote against it.

Garcia Richard called the attack on her “a blatant lie.”

Democrats now control the House 37-33. The election between Garcia Richard and Rodgers is one of a dozen that will be closely contested Tuesday. Those races will determine which party has the majority in 2015 and ‘16.

Asked if Democrats would continue to control the House, Garcia Richard did not hesitate: “Absolutely,” she said.

Republicans have been less bold in their predictions. They say they have a chance to flip enough seats to become the majority party for the first time since 1953-54, when they led 28-27.

These will be the other pivotal races on election night:

House District 30, Bernalillo County

ProgressNow New Mexico also has been pummeling Rep. Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, in ads and Internet postings. The organization says its efforts could help Democrat Bob Coffey upset Gentry on Tuesday.

Among ProgressNow’s allegations against Gentry are that he used an assumed name when checking into a hotel last year for a government conference in Denver. The group’s innuendo is that Gentry, who is married, was with someone other than his wife.

Gentry said in an interview that the allegations by ProgressNow are false.

“I don’t have a fake ID with some alias on it. I checked into the hotel with probably 11 other legislators, and I provided my driver’s license and my credit card for incidentals,” Gentry said.

Convention costs were covered by the National Conference of State Legislators, not taxpayers. Gentry said he did not know how he could have been listed in hotel booking records as Jim Smith and John Smith, as ProgressNow alleges. He questioned the authenticity of the group’s records.

Gentry said Coffey also has pounded him in ads instead of articulating any vision for the state. Fliers featuring Gentry’s arrest 12 years ago on suspicion of aggravated drunken driving have flooded neighborhoods in his district.

“I made a very serious mistake when I was 27,” Gentry said of the drunken-driving charge.

It was dismissed because prosecutors did not pursue the case before the statute of limitations lapsed.

Gentry, an attorney and once an aide to former U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, aspires to be speaker of the House.

Coffey, 54, who teaches gifted students at Highland High School, said he can derail Gentry’s political career Tuesday.

“I think we’re going to win this thing,” Coffey said.

He said he and his supporters are working hard, canvassing neighborhoods and talking to voters.

A first-time candidate, Coffey said he does not like the direction the state has gone under Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, a heavy favorite to win re-election in the governor’s race.

District 50, parts of Santa Fe, Torrance, Valencia and Bernalillo counties

Republican Vickie Perea of Belen, the incumbent by appointment, is being challenged by political newcomer Matthew McQueen, a Democrat from Galisteo.

Democrats had long held this seat. But after Rep. Stephen Easley, D-Santa Fe, died last year, Martinez chose Perea to fill the vacancy.

District 7, Valencia County

Rep. Kelly Fajardo, R-Belen, is being challenged by Democrat Teresa Smith de Cherif.

Fajardo and political groups aligned with her have tried to paint Smith de Cherif, a physician, as a resident of Florida. Smith de Cherif lives and practices in the Los Lunas area but owns property in Florida. She said she treats 4,000 patients a year in New Mexico, and that Fajardo’s claims about her residency are intended to trick voters.

In the House, Fajardo faced criticism from her own colleagues this year for skipping a high-profile vote on raising the minimum wage. The proposal failed.

District 8, Valencia County

Democrat Frank Otero, a farmer and retired state employee, says his own party didn’t pay much attention to him until recently. Otero said he, too, could pull an upset Tuesday.

He is running against Republican Rep. Alonzo Baldonado, whose district is seen as much safer for Republicans than Fajardo’s. Otero says his door-knocking campaign and Baldonado’s refusal to vote on the bill to raise the minimum wage are two reasons the seat is in play.

District 36, Doña Ana County

Democratic Rep. Phillip Archuleta of Las Cruces broke his right hip, femur and wrist in a fall, then lost his right leg to amputation because of an infection. Now 110 pounds lighter, he is campaigning in a motorized wheelchair.

Republican Andy Nuñez, the mayor of Hatch, is trying to regain this seat. But when Nuñez represented the district, he was a Democrat for 10 years and then an independent for two. He switched to the Republican Party after losing the 2012 election to Archuleta.

District 15, Bernalillo County

Democratic Rep. Emily Kane, a fire captain in Albuquerque, is trying to win a second term. Her challenger is Republican Sarah Maestas Barnes, a lawyer.

District 24, Bernalillo County

In a rematch of a 2012 race, Rep. Liz Thomson, a Democrat, is being challenged by Republican Conrad James. James held this seat for one term before Thomson defeated him.

District 53, parts of Doña Ana and Otero counties

This is an open seat because Democratic Rep. Nate Cote is retiring.

The Republican candidate is a familiar name, Rick Little. He defeated Cote in 2010 but then lost to him two years later.

Mariaelena Johnson, who has been a leader in voter registration drives, is the Democratic candidate.

Johnson was at the center of political storm in the 2012 election. She says the Otero County Clerk’s Office staff called the sheriff with a false charge that voters in Chaparral were unruly. Eight deputies arrived and put up yellow tape around the polling place.

Nobody was arrested, but Johnson said the election was so disorganized that the last person in line in Chaparral voted at 10:45 p.m., more than three hours after the polls had closed.

Despite Johnson’s name recognition, Republicans regard this seat as a likely pickup.

District 23, Bernalillo and Sandoval counties

Republican Rep. Paul Pacheco, a retired police officer, is being challenged by Democrat Catherine Begaye, a lawyer. Pacheco won this seat two years ago by less than 1 percentage point.

District 37, Doña Ana County

Republican Rep. Terry McMillan and his Democratic challenger, Joanne Ferrary, initially finished tied — 6,247 votes each — in the 2012 election. McMillan won by eight votes after a recount. Their rematch may not be as close, but it will be one of Tuesday’s most-watched races.

District 4, San Juan County

The incumbent, Republican Rep. Sharon Clahchischilliage, benefited from a scandal in winning this seat two years ago.

Her opponent in 2012, longtime Democratic Rep. Ray Begaye, couldn’t explain discrepancies in his reimbursements for travel. This time Democrats have nominated Harrison Todacheene in hopes of regaining the seat.

Contact Milan Simonich at 986-3080 or msimonich@sfnewmexican.com. Follow his Ringside Seat column and blog at santafenewmexican.com.

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