Sunland Park scandal dominates Senate race
Jesus “Ruben” Segura is trying to downplay the problems during his tenure as Sunland Park mayor; still, with half the district’s voters in the South Valley, Segura could pose the toughest challenge Joseph Cervantes has faced in years.
The unrelenting saga of Sunland Park is defining the Democratic primary race for the open State Senate District 31 seat, which includes the beleaguered border town.
Many of those same problems, and some far worse, seem to have continued after he decided to not run for reelection in 2008, at least according to the most recent audit that seems to suggest a culture of corruption and/or ineptitude.
Segura’s opponent, Joseph Cervantes, a Las Cruces attorney and six-term state representative, says voters are asking him about Sunland Park, sometimes with a dry laugh.
“I ask them to see the situation as an opportunity for reform,” Cervantes said.
Cervantes’s name came up in the recent audit, though as a collateral victim, not a player.
State Senate District 31 is a huge district going from the Mexico and Texas border communities of Anthony, Sunland Park and Santa Teresa to parts of south Las Cruces. More than 48,000 people live in the district, and three-quarters are Hispanic. Click here for a map.
Segura may hold an advantage of sorts in Sunland Park, where he was able to garner a loyal grassroots following. During his successful races, he showed an ability to wage hard-fought campaigns and get new voters to turn out for him.
With half the district’s voters in the South Valley, Segura could pose the toughest challenge Cervantes has had to face in years. Cervantes’ last contested race was in the 2004 general against Republican Party of Doña Ana leader Sidney Goddard. (His 2010 Republican challenger withdrew).
Cervantes and Segura certainly couldn’t be more different in their backgrounds, experience and rhetorical style. It’s worth viewing the video interview the Las Cruces Sun-News did of the two, with Cervantes speaking extemporaneously while Segura frequently referred to prepared notes:
Outside of the Sunland Park area, it may be enough for the Cervantes campaign to simply say “Segura” and “Sunland Park.”
But in an interview last week in his Las Cruces law office, Cervantes said that won’t be enough, and that he is “running on my own successes and accomplishments in the Legislature.”
“I’m not relying on my opponent’s record alone. But a lot of people will rightfully compare the records and experience,” Cervantes said.
And if Democrats don’t link Segura with Sunland Park, Cervantes said “Republicans will definitely do it in November.”
Segura did not return calls left at the phone number he listed on his campaign finance forms, nor did he reply to an e-mail request seeking an interview for this article.
If his website is any indication, he’s certainly not running away from his record as Sunland Park mayor, at least the selected high points.
Segura offers a long list of accomplishments, including the transformation of the city’s public safety departments; improved educational, health and community services; the luring of businesses like Western Playland to Sunland Park; and numerous infrastructure projects that were largely funded through state appropriations.
A 1987 graduate of Gadsden High School, Segura earned bachelors’ degrees in criminal justice and Spanish from New Mexico State University in 1991. He returned to NMSU for his 1996 master’s degree in public administration.
In 1992, he won a seat on the Sunland Park City Council, serving as mayor pro-tem. Segura won election as mayor four years later, and over three terms proved a hard worker. He was active on several regional committees and boards, and successfully lobbied for a large chunk of area legislators’ attention and capital outlay.
But he also showed an emotional, somewhat outrageous side.
When Gov. Bill Richardson gave his support to an agreement that sought to put an end to a long-standing dispute between the county and Sunland Park over the development of Santa Teresa – an agreement Segura said cut Sunland Park out as a partner – Segura led a protest culminating in the burning of Richardson t-shirts before El Paso news cameras.
The city and county ultimately worked out a joint agreement to develop Santa Teresa. Segura later explained he was standing up for Sunland Park.
“At that moment in time, the people of Sunland Park and elected officials were concerned,” Segura told local media. “We have mended our ways. We have to recognize and realize that we can work together.”
Not mentioned on his campaign website is the 2003 audit conducted by then-State Auditor Domingo Martinez that reported widespread problems, including violations of the Open Meetings Act and the procurement code, among others.
It was so bad Martinez called for the removal from office of Segura and other town officials, a call Segura successfully fought.
Segura often positioned himself as the one trying to change the culture of corruption. He won election after sometimes-acrimonious campaigns that reflected the division between Segura and some on the council. After the 2000 election, the council fired the police chief, fire chief and city clerk, against Segura’s wishes.
But the 2003 audit revealed undeniable problems (about which Heath Haussamen recently reminded NMPolitics.net readers). Segura and the city did respond to the audit, and Segura has tried to largely discount the audit as politically motivated, and itself invalid for not following state law and process. You can read Segura’s response to Haussamen’s column here; in it, he said his tenure represented “better days” for Sunland Park.
In 2008, Segura shocked many when he announced he wouldn’t run for reelection. The ongoing political fighting in Sunland Park may have finally drained him, though he never really said why he chose not to run again.
He started a short-lived south valley newspaper and later worked for the Doña Ana County Human and Health Services Department.
Segura announced his run for the Legislature last year when he thought he’d be running against incumbent Cynthia Nava, who decided not to run again for the office she held since 1992. She’s already backing Cervantes.
Segura, the 44-year old bilingual son of working class parents from El Paso, won election three times by working hard as a populist campaigner, going door-to-door and appealing to everyday working folk, a description that does not necessarily apply to Cervantes, who is already out-raising Segura 5-to-1.
According to the campaign finance reports already filed, Segura’s contributions have come almost entirely from individuals and family members in the Sunland Park, Anthony, Canutillo, and El Paso areas, in modest amounts between $5 and $150.
His largest contributions include $1,000 from El Paso attorney Enrique Palomarez, as well as $1,200 in loans he’s made to himself.
Sunland Park is largely Democratic, as is the South Valley, but it remains to be seen if Segura can transfer the populist support he’s received in Sunland Park outside of his home community, especially against a broadly experienced legislator with his own deep family roots in the district.
It’s been years since Cervantes has faced a formidable challenge in a run for office.
But he knows how to build a sophisticated campaign, something reflected in the expenditures in his campaign finance reports.
This time, he’s had teams of volunteers, including student groups, distributing fliers door-to-door, and has been meeting with neighborhood groups and community leaders from Las Cruces to the South Valley.
“Of course you are going to run harder when you have an opponent than when you don’t. Also, it can excite people to get behind you. It gives you the opportunity to distinguish yourself, and gets people to ask me about the issues and the successes I’ve had in Santa Fe. I actually look forward to the opposition,” Cervantes said.
Cervantes said while it is a new district for him, he has represented the South Valley for years, as far back as when he served on the Doña Ana County Commission. He said half of the district lies in or near Las Cruces.
“This is an extraordinarily diverse district, but not really uncommon to the diversity of New Mexico,” Cervantes said.
Cervantes traces his family roots in the South Valley and La Mesa area to his grandparents on his mother’s side, the Apodacas; his father Orlando, whose family was from El Paso, at one time managed the Apodaca’s large farming operation in La Mesa.
Orlando Cervantes was involved for decades in several ag-related and civic organizations, as well as serving on the Doña Ana County Planning and Zoning Commission.
Involvement in politics and civic groups seems to run in the family. His mother Emma Jean, a registered nurse, served for years as a leader on the Memorial Hospital board and was active in La Clinica de la Familia. And his mother’s sister, Mary Helen Garcia, has served in the Legislature alongside her nephew.
“Everybody in my family works very hard to find ways to serve. I don’t think we know any other way,” Cervantes said.
They’ve also gotten behind him financially for this race; the various Cervantes family businesses have already contributed almost $10,000 to his campaign.
Cervantes did run briefly in the 2008 primary for the District 2 U.S. Congressional seat that opened after Steve Pearce chose to run for the U.S. Senate vacated by Sen. Pete Domenici.
It’s rare for a congressional seat to come open, so Cervantes entered the race, partially at the urging of party leaders. But it was obvious his heart just wasn’t into it, compared to the other candidates. He never really organized a strong campaign, and after two months, the father of three young girls opted out.
To some, it seemed his run was more about obligation than ambition.
“I don’t know if I’d say that. I did want it, very much. There was ambition. It was going well at first. It felt good,” Cervantes said. However:
“But with the size of the district, I realized it would be my responsibility to travel the district on the weekends, or be in Washington D.C. It wasn’t hard to realize I would not be the father and husband I wanted to be. The desire to serve in Congress was compelling, but not so compelling that I was prepared to miss the very compelling moments in my daughters’ lives.”
Last week, Cervantes was in D.C. as part of New Mexico delegation, but he came home early to see his oldest daughter graduate from Las Cruces High School.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do that so easily if I were in Congress,” Cervantes said.
Like her father, also a Bulldog, she graduated as senior class president.
It was in school that Cervantes first got involved in politics. Like the students now helping his campaign, he started off as a Democratic foot soldier in local and state races. One of the first was at the age of 13, when he helped during the 1974 campaign to elect Jerry Apodaca, the only New Mexico governor born in Las Cruces.
“That’s one of my first memories, in terms of politics. But I grew up around the political world,” Cervantes said.
Cervantes got involved in student council, and was active in clubs and athletics. He even had a brief run as the guitar player in a rock-n-roll band Crystal Child, which won a local talent show in 1975 with their take on the Bachman-Turner Overdrive classic “Taking Care of Business.” He says he seldom plays guitar anymore, though his daughters play instruments.
Cervantes grew up on the family’s huge La Mesa farm, and their ranch near Deming. He is involved as a partner, but his brother and his sister run the family’s large scale-agriculture business, including a chile processing plant.
His first career path was architecture, for which he received a bachelor’s degree from the University of New Mexico in 1983 and a master’s from California Polytechnic in 1985.
He worked as an architect for several years in California before returning here, where one of his first projects was designing schools in the Gadsden district.
“I always knew I’d come back to New Mexico, and these projects were really what brought me back,” Cervantes said.
His designs garnered him some architectural awards, but more important to the young Cervantes was that he also got to work with his father, a civil engineer trained at NMSU.
He soon got interested in law, and in 1991 earned his law degree from the University of New Mexico. He serves as Mesilla’s town attorney and runs his own practice in Las Cruces specializing in property and real estate law.
Cervantes still loves architecture, even reading architectural magazines like some read Rolling Stone or Sports Illustrated. He says architecture still informs the way he views politics and his professional career.
“I see the value in the challenge of taking a problem and coming up with a solution. It’s a very methodical, thoughtful process,” Cervantes said.
County to state
In 1998, Cervantes made his first run for office, seeking to unseat Doña Ana County Commissioner Dora Harp, which he did.
“I thought I could do a better job. The county commission was involved with some very important things, including in Sunland Park and Santa Teresa,” Cervantes said.
He did not serve out the entire term. In 2001, the county commission appointed him to fill the seat of state representative Dolores Wright, who died in the middle of a contentious 60-day session.
The first session was a learning experience, even to someone fairly versed in state politics.
“It wasn’t overwhelming, but there is a great deal of learning that has to take place for any new legislator. I did not understand before going up there just how much power is held by a very small number of people. A lot of the activity does happen in committee or private discussions, but still there is a lot of important work that’s done on the floor,” he said.
He beat Republican Juan Jaramillo fairly resoundingly in 2002, and won a closer race against Goddard. He’s comfortably held the seat, and left it this year to run for state Senate this year.
Cervantes quickly achieved leadership positions, and has chaired the powerful House Judiciary Committee. He’s also recently been a key member of the Agriculture and Water Resources Committee.
In 2009, Cervantes got legislation passed that opened up the committee process.
Before then, almost all of the budget was done in closed conference committee. That meant the work was being done by six people, none from southern New Mexico.
“Not only did Republicans feel left out of the process, so too did a lot of Democrats. Last session, the budget was unanimously approved. I think the reason is that the budget now has to be done with greater cooperation,” Cervantes said.
On two occasions, Cervantes has been at the forefront of failed efforts to replace longtime house speaker Ben Luján Sr., who has announced his retirement. Cervantes supported Ken Martinez, a fellow attorney and the House majority leader from Grants, to take over as House speaker in 2006, and made his own unsuccessful run for speaker in 2011.
Art of recusal
With his family so involved in the farming industry and commercial real estate, and with his work as an attorney sometimes involving government work, Cervantes said it’s difficult to extract himself from all state business and still represent his constituents in Santa Fe.
As a candidate, one of his top contributors has been the New Mexico Trial Lawyers Association, though that’s just one of many professional associations, including groups representing health care, agriculture, gas and oil, and insurance industries, that have given significant amounts of money to his campaigns, even in years when he faced no opposition.
But he’s also been one of the few legislators to back his calls for greater government transparency with actual legislation.
“I have asked to be excused from certain votes where someone could perceive I or my family have a direct interest. We do have commercial property, and I have recused myself on votes concerning the spaceport (Cervantes rents office space to the Spaceport Authority) because it could be argued there’s a direct relationship. I’ve worked really hard to avoid any appearance. I’ve been an outspoken advocate of clean, open government,” Cervantes said.
That’s one reason Segura may have a hard time with voters skeptical of anyone coming out of Sunland Park government, Cervantes said, adding the recent audit showing widespread problems and violations of the law are “very much the same” as issues raised in the 2003 audit.
“One of the findings in 2003 was that Sunland Park hadn’t even done a budget for the year. You can’t go to Santa Fe and talk about spending discipline when your record shows significant mismanagement, violations of the procurement code, nepotism,” Cervantes said.
Whoever prevails on June 5 will face Republican Brett C. Preston of Anthony, who is unchallenged in the Republican primary.
Christopher Schurtz is a freelance writer Las Cruces. He has covered city and state politics since 2000.
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