Complaint against Griego looms large in state Senate race
State Sen. Phil Griego’s opponents agree that he hasn’t served his constituents well, but a complaint alleging that Griego violated state law by paying for personal expenses with his campaign account is overshadowing other issues in the Democratic primary race.
Voters in District 39 are still waiting to hear whether Sen. Phil Griego – one of three candidates in the Democratic primary – violated state law by paying for alleged personal expenses with his campaign account.
The allegations and issue of corporate interests have overshadowed any other issue in the race. Jack Sullivan and Nicole Castellano are vying for the Senate seat against incumbent Griego in the June 5 primary. It is the first time Griego has faced a primary opponent since 2000.
Griego had 15 days to respond to Sullivan’s complaint filed with the N.M. Secretary of State’s Office on April 30. On the final day, Griego sent a letter saying he would work with the secretary of state to explain his expenses.
Griego, who has been senator since 1997, did not return messages from NMPolitics.net requesting an interview for this article.
In Sullivan’s complaint, he listed more than $33,500 that Griego spent on such expenses as credit card bills, reimbursement for 2011 session expenses, golf fees, football tickets and vehicle maintenance.
Griego’s letter on May 14 stated that “our campaign contributions and expenditures are aboveboard and comply with the New Mexico financial disclosure requirements as well as full campaign finance reporting.”
Yet he offered no proof.
Kenneth Ortiz, spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s Office, said the secretary will review Sullivan’s allegations and forward the complaint to the Attorney General’s Office if she believes a violation has occurred. The secretary has no timeframe established by law for completing her review, Ortiz said.
Beyond Sullivan’s allegations of campaign violations, he criticizes Griego’s lengthy list of corporations contributing to his campaign, including $1,000 each from Pepsico, Anheuiser Busch and Presbyterian.
“I really feel we’re getting away from the government belonging to the people,” Sullivan said. He later added in an e-mail: “The incumbent has lived off lobbyist contributions and those contributions come with the expectation of greater access and influence than the average citizen can ever dream of.”
While businesses dominate Griego’s campaign finance report, Sullivan has two from organizations: $5,000 from Conservation Voters New Mexico and $3,500 in in-kind donations from Justice League.
Sullivan donated about half of his campaign’s $40,470 in contributions. He said he gave $20,000 to his campaign as a sign of his commitment to the race.
Castellano, who has stayed out of the dispute between Sullivan and Griego, has reported $9,435 in contributions as of May 14. She has pledged not to accept any money from corporations.
“I will win,” she said. “What I understand more is the pulse of the people in this district, and they are so ready for a different type of representative.”
Serving the people
Castellano is confident her family’s roots here – she proudly points out that they are documented in the New Mexico Blue Book as original settlers of the state – and her connection to rural communities in the district will put her ahead of the other candidates.
Castellano, 42, moved to Santa Fe when she was an infant and left after graduating from Santa Fe High School. She pursued her business career in Dallas for about 20 years. She returned with her husband and two young sons to live with her mother in La Cienega after her husband was laid off from his job a few years ago.
Sullivan, 69, was born and raised in Philadelphia and has lived in Santa Fe since 1972. He owns an engineering firm and spent two terms as a county commissioner in Santa Fe from 2000 to 2008. He’s married with three sons and three grandsons. As an army veteran, he said he’s always been interested in public service.
“You want to do something where you feel you make a difference,” he said.
That is one thing he shares in common with Castellano, who has spent the last few years volunteering for the Boys and Girls Club, a prevention program for youths at risk and the Citizen Advisory Board for Los Alamos National Lab. She said getting involved in politics for the first time is the next natural step for her.
“I think it will be exciting,” she said. “I can give back to my community.”
Griego’s two challengers share some common beliefs: Education should be a top priority, government transparency is important, and Griego hasn’t served his constituents well.
They say they would have supported Sen. Peter Wirth’s bill to require out-of-state corporations to pay their share of taxes. They join others in criticizing Griego for amending the bill to apply only to big-box corporations, setting the stage for Gov. Susana Martinez to veto the bill.
Different political views
Sullivan calls himself the most progressive candidate. He points to the endorsements he’s received from Planned Parenthood New Mexico, American Federation of Teachers and Sierra Club as well as his record on the county commission promoting water conservation and government transparency.
“It’s good for the public to see what you’re doing,” he said. “It gives them better confidence in what’s going on.”
Castellano calls herself a fiscal conservative and socially liberal. She said she supports civil unions and equal rights, but believes marriage should be between a man and a woman. She names a few issues on which she agrees with Gov. Martinez, including that government should cut waste and be more efficient.
She said she would propose legislation to require that at least 50 cents of every dollar given to school districts go toward children’s classrooms. She wants to invest more in early childhood education and said she would need more information to decide whether she would support Martinez’s push to end what she calls third-grade social promotion.
Sullivan doesn’t support the governor’s initiative and said students need more help before third grade. After mentoring students one-on-one at César Chavez Elementary School, Sullivan said he has seen the value of parental and citizen involvement in education. “I would focus on every program I could find that did that and support it,” he said.
The winner of the Democratic primary will face Republican Aubrey Dunn in November.
Deborah Busemeyer is a freelance writer living in Santa Fe. Previously she was the communications director at the New Mexico Department of Health. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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