Voters in House District 46, which stretches from Santa Fe up through the northern pueblos to Española and includes parts of White Rock and Chimayó, have grown accustomed to power. Outgoing New Mexico House Speaker Ben Luján, who represented the district for more than 35 years, possessed a legendary ability to control the Legislature and defend northern New Mexico. But by next session, all of this will change.
As Luján retires, two Democrats are vying for his seat in the June 5 primary election: Santa Fe Mayor David Coss and Los Alamos National Laboratory employee Carl Trujillo. But while both tout their Democratic credentials and down-home appeal, both also have serious weaknesses.
Coss, who has committed to staying on as mayor at least until the end of his term in 2014, will have to balance the potentially competing interests of two groups of constituents—his city and his district. But Trujillo, who has never held office before, relies almost exclusively on an antiestablishment message, refused to debate Coss in a Democratic Party-sponsored function last month and won’t say where he stands on key issues.
“I don’t see a great choice here,” University of New Mexico political science professor Lonna Atkeson tells SFR.
In Coss’ case, Atkeson raises the issue of a potential conflict of interest in representing two competing groups of constituents in separate branches of government.
“I’m surprised you’re even legally allowed to do that,” she says. “Someone [will be] on the short side of the stick.”
In capital outlay bills, for example, Coss may have to choose between public projects within Santa Fe city limits and rural areas he would also be representing as a state legislator. No method of oversight exists to make sure his decisions are fair to both the district and the city, meaning voters will have to give him the benefit of the doubt.
“What may be good for the legislative district may not be good for the city,” Atkeson says.
Coss, for his part, says he doesn’t split the issues geographically. He points to his role in the Buckman Direct Diversion as an example of a project that benefited both the city and Santa Fe County. He adds that conflicts of interest could arise with any legislator who works a job on the side, including with Trujillo’s job at LANL.
Coss’ ability to handle both positions, each of which is part-time but at times can require grueling amounts of work, also comes into question.
“I can tell you this: I couldn’t do it,” state Rep. Jim Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, tells SFR. “But I’m not going to shortchange anybody.”
Jim, Carl Trujillo’s uncle, has so far declined to make an endorsement in this race. In 2010, he endorsed Luján, whom he has known since high school, over his nephew. Carl still nearly pulled off an upset, coming in 80 votes shy of one of the most powerful politicians in the state. In January, Luján announced his retirement after revealing he had been battling lung cancer since 2009. (His son, US Rep. Ben Ray Luján, has endorsed Coss.)
Coss plays up his ability to juggle the two positions’ heavy workload, mentioning how he worked full-time in the State Land Office while serving as a city councilor. (He has since retired.) He does, however, acknowledge that City Hall would see more action from City Councilor and Mayor Pro Tem Rebecca Wurzburger during legislative sessions.
Holding two elected positions at once isn’t unprecedented, either. Former state Rep. José Campos, D-De Baca, served as both state representative and mayor of Santa Rosa from 2003-2010. Coss says Campos has been giving him advice throughout his campaign.
Carl Trujillo, meanwhile, provides a stark contrast to Coss’ self-described role as a career public servant. Trujillo’s explanations of where he stands on the issues are often confusing. It’s part of his strategy.
“This campaign is about listening,” Trujillo tells SFR. “It’s not about my agenda; it’s not about me saying, ‘I know all the answers.’ It’s about listening, bringing people together in a room and having very good ideas and putting them all together in a basket [so] that we can now push that legislation through.”
In April, Trujillo refused to attend a Democratic-sponsored debate against Coss because he says it was “machine-sponsored.” Atkeson says calling the party the “machine” is akin to throwing abstract labels around and isn’t a good enough excuse, especially if Trujillo is running for that party’s nomination.
“If you’re going to participate in a closed-primary system, then you have an obligation to participate,” she says.
While Trujillo affirms his positions on some issues—he supports increased funding for early childhood education, for instance—he often segues into what-the-people-want responses when more controversial issues like driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants come up.
“A candidate coming in with no positions is absurd,” Atkeson says. “There’s an expectation that they represent the district and they have policy preferences.”
Coss, on the other hand, has spoken out against repealing the driver’s license law and pledged his support for the Aamodt settlement, which would eventually lead to a new water system for northern New Mexico.
“I have a message,” Coss says. “My positions are out there. Everybody can see them.”
Santa Fe County Democratic Party Chairman Richard Ellenberg says most people run for office “because they have beliefs.”
“Leadership is being out in front, but not so in front [that] your followers can’t see you,” Ellenberg tells SFR. “When it comes to most of what you’re going to do as a legislator, particularly in a jam-packed 30-day session, you don’t have time to do a [constituency] poll on every issue. Almost everything you do is a function of who you are.”
Faith McKenna, Trujillo’s campaign manager, says her candidate’s message sounds weird to some people because they’re so used to politics being more about what the candidate thinks.
“Virtually every vote that gets taken in government is about, ‘This is how I feel,’” McKenna tells SFR. “It’s created a system in government that is anti-democratic.”
When pressed for specifics, McKenna says, “Open the Congressional calendar any day.”
Likewise, Trujillo’s campaign is based mostly on symbolism. Two years ago, McKenna told the Albuquerque Journal that Trujillo’s campaign theme resembled “the myth of the old king versus the new king,” with Luján playing the role of an entrenched leader and Trujillo representing a new era of prosperity.
“It goes back to what we are moved by,” McKenna says. “If you watch a movie and feel good about it because the good guy won, that is a satisfying experience.”
He’s using the same message this time around, except this time substituting Luján with “the machine.”
Given the district’s strong Democratic leanings, whoever wins the primary next month will likely win the general election. As far as endorsements, name recognition and fundraising go, Coss has the edge. But that doesn’t mean voters will have an easy time in the voting booth.
“It’s two problem candidates,” Atkeson says. “I don’t know how you make a choice.”
Machine-sponsored “cease and desist” letter?
In 2010, Carl Trujillo’s campaign manager, Faith McKenna, was listing her pro bono work with New Mexico chapter of Organizing for America on her personal website.
McKenna, who has worked for both Republicans and Democrats and preaches a mantra of “listening to other points of view,” says she was giving presentations with the group around the state about why health care reform was difficult for people on the right to accept. A letter obtained by SFR and dated June 10, 2010 told McKenna to immediately drop her affiliation with the liberal group or else it would “seek any and all legal remedies available to us by law.”
The letter is signed by then-OFA state director Ray Sandoval, who couldn’t be reached before press time.
McKenna says she never got the letter, but that OFA did call her. She says they told her to either drop her mention of working with Trujillo or with OFA.
“It wasn’t a problem until Carl’s name was there,” she says. “They were afraid of being associated with Carl’s campaign.”
Read the cease and desist letter to McKenna below: