Democratic candidates for New Mexico congressional seat disclose funding to date, with some prodding

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Following the confirmation of New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland as Secretary of the Interior, New Mexico will hold a special election on June 1st to fill her seat representing the Albuquerque-centered first congressional district. But the public doesn’t get a say in who the nominees will be. 

Rather than a primary election, state law allows the political parties themselves to select their own candidates. These choices are being made even while there’s been a gap in public disclosure of who’s contributed money to the various candidates. 

Yesterday, the Republican state central committee, with less than 140 members, convened over Zoom to choose State Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, while about 25 members of the Libertarian Party chose Chris Manning. 

The Democratic state central committee will select their candidate on Tuesday, a highly anticipated choice given the Democratic tilt in the district for more than a decade. Just over 200 people–– a smattering of local party members, elected officials and other party insiders–– will be eligible to vote for one of eight different candidates seeking the nomination.

On March 23rd, the Democratic Party of Bernalillo County held a virtual candidate forum exclusively for their members. With four separate “meeting rooms,” the eight candidates were paired with one another, answering questions from central committee members, previous occupants of the Congressional seat, and even the candidates themselves.

Several attendees confirmed to New Mexico In Depth that State Sen. Antoinette Sedillo-Lopez asked each candidate whether they would join her and State Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero in disclosing all of their donors prior to the selection on Tuesday, which both candidates did when asked by New Mexico in Depth in February.

Three more candidates have agreed to disclose all contributions from the beginning of the year, higher than $200, to New Mexico in Depth–– State Rep. Melanie Stansbury, attorney Randi McGinn, and Victor Reyes, a former staffer of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. Additionally, Sedillo-Lopez and Roybal Caballero agreed to provide us with updated donor information since February.

State Rep. Georgene Louis and Francisco Fernandez declined, while Selinda Guerrero’s campaign did not respond to our request. 

Democratic candidate contributions

See the donation reports that Democratic candidates for New Mexico’s first congressional district made to the FEC in 2020, or shared with New Mexico In Depth for donations received after Jan. 1. Attorney Randi McGinn has raised significantly more funds than any other candidate. 

Donor transparency became an issue early this year because four of the Democrats running for the seat are sitting state lawmakers who are barred from soliciting donations during the annual legislative session, which ended March 20. Lobbyists registered with the state are barred from donating to them during that period, as well. 

But because the candidates were seeking federal rather than state office, the State Ethics Commission issued an advisory opinion that state law didn’t apply to their federal campaigns. 

Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, pushed a measure to require elected officials who run for federal office during the legislative session to disclose their donors every 10 days. Though the bill passed the Senate, it ultimately died in the House. 

The first time central committee members, or the public, will see each campaign’s donors will be two weeks after the nominee has already been selected by the political parties; the Federal Election commission requires congressional campaigns to disclose donor information on a quarterly basis, with the next reports available on April 15th.

As the Democratic selection process enters its final days, candidates are competing to be seen as the most “transparent,” with Rep. Stansbury recently highlighting on Twitter that she’s the only candidate to have filed a financial disclosure report with the House Clerk. With Sedillo Lopez’s question to the other Democratic candidates, the pressure on them to disclose their donors sooner than required has risen.

Stansbury, who declined to disclose donors to New Mexico In Depth in February, received donations from five lobbyists registered in New Mexico. The lobbyists were JD Bullington, Daniel Najjar, Debbie Maestas-Traynor, Lilly Irvin-Vitela, and Charles de Saillan. Stansbury spokesperson Jessie Damazyn confirmed those donations were made during the legislative session prohibited period, which began January 1, but noted they accounted for just two percent of the disclosed donations. 

Donors to Victor Reyes–– the former legislative director for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham –– include 8 lobbyists, although he was not prohibited from soliciting them during the legislative session.

Randi McGinn’s disclosure shows that an overwhelming majority of her contributions have come from other lawyers, most of them out of state.

Asked why they had not yet filed a financial disclosure report with the House Clerk, candidates offered a range of responses. McGinn said she planned to file the disclosure form after completing her taxes, while Reyes said he planned to do so soon. Sedillo Lopez’s campaign said they had just filed a disclosure, but explained that she and other state officials in the race had already filed a financial disclosure form with the state. Under federal law, congressional candidates must file these disclosures by May 15th. A review of the federal disclosure portal shows Sedillo Lopez, Stansbury, and independent candidate Aubrey Dunn have filed the forms. 

For good measure, we asked the non-Democratic candidates–– Republicans, Libertarians and the one independent–– if they would be willing to disclose their donors to New Mexico in Depth. Most didn’t reply, and none agreed to disclose their donors. 

Eddy Aragon, a local talk radio host and the runner-up for the Republican nomination, said that the real issue at stake was not political contributions, but rather the undemocratic nature of the party nomination process and what he alleges to be “illegal” behavior by the Republican Party. Aragon says he filed a lawsuit to open up the process, but to no avail.

And he’s not the only one who’s tried to change the process. Moores and Democratic State Rep. Daymon Ely, both from Albuquerque, introduced a bill that would’ve forced parties to hold a special primary vote. Despite passing one committee, the bill never made it to the Senate floor. Moores will be the Republican candidate on June 1. 

Asked if they think the lack of a primary election was a problem, Democratic candidates offered a range of responses.

Sedillo Lopez said any registered Democrat could participate in the ward and precinct meetings that produced the current central committee. “I believe there is broad participation in the democratic primary process for this election,” she said.

“While participation in the process was certainly a bit more cumbersome than voting, especially given the pandemic, we are very happy to see a more diverse makeup of the Party’s Central Committee than ever before,” said McGinn.

“We fully support a primary process that enables everyone to participate, but want to recognize the outstanding work everyone has done to make the existing process as open as possible,” said Stansbury. 

Others were more critical.

“We should always strive for a process that is the most inclusive — which is why I would support re-examining this process in the future,” said Reyes. “Especially in this majority people of color district, it is important that we do everything we can to ensure that the electorate that makes these critical decisions is as reflective of the diversity of this community.”

“At a time when voting rights are under attack across the country, we have to question a system that is more exclusive than inclusive,” said Roybal Caballero.

“I believe in the democratic process and wish that everyone in the first Congressional District was able to make their voices heard this election by voting,” said Louis.

Francisco Fernandez offered perhaps the most interesting response.

“I firmly believe that the current process doesn’t allow for full participation from the voters, which is of the utmost importance in a democracy,” he said. “At the same time, I was only able to participate in this particular election because there wasn’t a minimum amount of signatures or money required to dive in.”

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