The American Federation of Teachers and Progressive Kick, a federal Super PAC based in California, are trying to help Larry P. Martinez unseat Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith in next week’s Democratic primary.
The last time state senator John Arthur Smith drove this many miles campaigning was during his failed 2002 run for the open seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
That year, Smith had prevailed in the primary against more liberal candidates largely because voters felt his record as a conservative Democrat stood the best chance against Steve Pearce in the historically Republican-leaning 2nd Congressional District.
Pearce won and Smith returned to the state Senate seat he’s held since 1989. Since then, he’s garnered a reputation as a fiscal “Chicken Little,” accurately warning of the budget crunch that hit the state starting in 2008 and being one of the few Democratic voices arguing for controlled spending.
That’s also meant he’s known by some as a “Dr. No” of the Roundhouse. As the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Smith has often opposed a wide variety of funding requests coming from his own party, especially as the state budget dwindled the last few years, saying the state cannot afford it.
This has put him repeatedly against party leaders as well as traditionally Democratic groups, including the American Federation of Teachers of New Mexico, which this year is putting its manpower and money behind Smith’s primary challenger Larry P. Martinez, a relative political newcomer from Lordsburg.
Martinez is also receiving support from an Oakland, Calif.-based Super PAC, Progressive Kick, which is sending out mailers criticizing the lack of job growth under Smith and his fellow conservative Deming Democrat Rep. Dona Irwin. The AFT has also endorsed Irwin’s challenger Louis Luna.
On the road again
All of this has put Smith back on the campaign trail for the first time in years. He’s gone unchallenged in either the primary or a general since 1996, when he beat Republican Nancy Stovall in a sometimes-negative campaign.
Smith and Martinez have both had to hit the road in order to cover Senate District 35, one of the largest in the state – a district that includes Hidalgo, Luna and Sierra counties as well as areas of west Las Cruces.
Its shear size makes campaign cash – as well as a small team of volunteers –essential. With few public events, ubiquitous signage and mailers can make all the difference.
Going into the final week before the June 5 election, both say they’re optimistic about what they’re hearing from voters on the campaign trail.
“The one message from my campaign that seems to be sticking so far is that I am careful with your dollar,” Smith said Monday after a Memorial Day event in Deming. “Everywhere I go to meet with people, someone says, ‘You’re the guy who’s careful with our dollar.’ We’ll find out on June 5th if that gets those people out to vote. My attitude is I’m going to be a winner either way.”
Martinez says his campaign has awakened progressive Democrats in a district long characterized by its voting patterns as a relatively conservative district – in 2010, Luna, Hidalgo and Sierra all went with Gov. Susana Martinez over moderate Democrat Diana Denish.
In fact, Larry Martinez, who’s lived in the district since moving to Lordsburg 10 years ago, has been talking to voters door-to-door and doesn’t think the district is that conservative.
“I don’t believe that’s true. I think it’s totally the opposite. You say it’s conservative, I don’t see that at all. I’ve been talking with people and they are wanting something more than the same old thing. Education is so important, jobs are so important,” Martinez said. “I guess that’s why I’m making noise all the way to Santa Fe.”
Watch a video of the Las Cruces Sun-News’ interview with both candidates here:
Martinez, 54, is a licensed electrician who recently retired after a 30-year career with PNM. Born and raised in Albuquerque, Martinez became a union steward while living in Farmington, a duty he continued in Lordsburg, where he now has a private practice.
He lost his first run for public office in 2010, when he ran against Republican Darr Reynolds Shannon for Hidalgo County Commission.
But Martinez, also a secretary of the Hidalgo County Democratic Party, said he was buoyed by the support he got from his backers, and decided to take on Smith, who he knew nothing about.
“I’d never heard of him. I guess I found out he’s a pretty powerful guy. A lot of people here say they don’t know him either. He hasn’t been that well known,” Martinez said. “It’s not about picking a fight with this guy; it’s about education and health care. It’s about trying to do the most you can do for the people in your community.”
Martinez said party leaders haven’t necessarily discouraged or encouraged his run.
“Some people made comments, like I’m crazy or that I didn’t have any money, that I couldn’t run against somebody big like that. Now a lot of these same people are turning around and supporting me. I didn’t know him or his track record. It wasn’t a concern to me, that’s why I don’t feel it as a threat,” Martinez said.
Much of Smith’s backing for years has come from industry and trade organizations and lobbyists, including major groups representing gas and oil, health and medical services, and real estate.
Smith says he never used to take contributions until his failed congressional run, when he was left holding a huge amount of campaign debt.
“I told myself then that I’m never going to be left high and dry again. It’s not fair to myself and it’s not fair to my family,” Smith said.
Since then, he’s taken more than $150,000 in contributions, even in years where he was running uncontested, or not even running for office.
“I’ve gone through the times when I made my own signs and painted them in my driveway to recognizing things have changed,” Smith said. “I would love to run without having to raise any money. As far as being an influence on how I vote, it’s a lot easier to stand up against a lobbyist than a governor from your own party, which I have done. I think I’ve built a reputation that I try to represent my constituents, not my party, first.”
Conversely, other than a $5,000 contribution from the AFT, most of Martinez’s contributions came from individuals from around the district, as well as labor unions and union organizers Lindsay Theo and Matt Aber-Towns.
“I’m blessed to get the contributions I’m getting. When you get $5, $10, $100 from people, those are really overwhelming. Those are gifts you are getting from regular people. And when you go to speak to a group and then they support you, wow. You can’t give up,” Martinez said.
Martinez said Smith’s contributions show he’s “experienced.”
“Either you’re playing with the big dogs or playing with the regular people. He has different people than I do,” Martinez said. “If the campaign is going to be based on who is giving money, I know my people are voters.”
Smith, a 70-year-old married grandfather and property appraiser in his native Deming, was first elected to the District 35 seat in 1989.
He is among a group of veteran Democrats, including Irwin and 40-year State Rep. Nick Salazar of Chamita, facing challenges in the primary.
Backing Martinez and Irwin’s opponent Luna, as well as 1st Congressional District candidate Eric Griego, is Progressive Kick, a SuperPAC funded largely by San Diego-based real estate investors Lawrence and Susan Hess as well as MoveOn.org’s PAC.
According to its website, Progressive Kick is focusing specifically on a handful of state legislative primary races, and is supporting candidates it says it has “carefully vetted” as “progressive leaders with real backbones.”
The PAC has sent out mailers that use the recent closing of Proper Foods in Deming as an example of Smith not protecting local jobs.
“Working families in Southern New Mexico want to know… where are the jobs?” the mailer reads. “Sen. Smith and Rep. Irwin’s Santa Fe politics haven’t delivered the jobs for 24 years.”
In 2008, the company received a $500,000 loan from the New Mexico Economic Development Department. Last month, the company announced the closing, resulting in the loss of 125 jobs.
In a short response printed Monday in the Deming Headlight, Proper Foods owner John J. Johns said the mailers were inaccurate, and that Smith and Irwin “have been an asset to the needs of my company and the welfare of my employees.”
“I’m still in the process of keeping the company open and don’t appreciate negative advertising, which is only counterproductive with my efforts,” Johns said.
Johns said it was through the “leadership and support of people like Sen. Smith and Rep. Irwin that I located my business to Deming.”
Progressive Kick PAC president Joshua Grossman said his PAC relies on research done by partners in New Mexico.
“I don’t want to put out inaccurate information. But there are lots of good reasons to be opposed to (Smith’s) election, outside of this one issue, and I don’t think anything is going to change that,” Grossman said. “A hundred percent of the advertising content in the various races has been developed by the people of the State of New Mexico. This is not a case of somebody a thousand miles away shoving it down anybody’s throat.”
Grossman said Smith’s support of tax breaks for corporate interests and his apparently comfortable relationship with Republicans puts him on the wrong side of progressives.
“I’ve seen this John Arthur Smith as an obstacle to progress, and he has been for some time,” Grossman said.
Smith said he not only helped bring Proper Foods to Deming, as well as other businesses like Solitaire and Border Foods, he also backed the $500,000 loan as a member of the Legislative Finance Committee and supported legislation that allowed the N.M. Economic Development Department to give the business the loan.
“I’ve tried to help everybody across the state, not just the district, in creating and maintaining jobs,” Smith said.
Martinez said he hadn’t seen the mailers, and knows nothing about Progressive Kick.
“If I’m worried about everybody and how people are talking about me and all the hype behind it, then I won’t hear the people and their needs. I can’t get side-tracked by the media,” Martinez said.
Martinez’s biggest backer so far has been the American Federation of Teachers.
AFT president-elect Stephanie Ly said the union has had volunteers going door-to-door and working the phones in Luna and Sierra counties, where more than 60 percent of the district’s 4,000 likely voters live.
The union has given the maximum amount it can give, $5,000, to Martinez’s campaign.
Smith believes he raised the ire of the teachers union during the last session – he says unions have never really supported him anyway – over his positions on education-related legislation.
That included Smith’s support of Gov. Martinez’s proposal to hold back third graders not proficient in reading. He carried the Senate bill, he says at the request of the Public Education Department. Neither the Senate nor the House bill made it to the governor’s desk.
“There has been no change in the reading levels over the seven or eight years. We have got to try something different. I’m of the generation where reading by the end of third grade was expected. It’s tough for me to see that as reform,” Smith said.
The last straw came when Smith opposed tapping into the state’s permanent fund to pay for early childhood programs. Educators and their unions were upset, he said, but to do so would have violated the state Constitution.
Ly said the AFT endorsement and support of Martinez was the result of Martinez filling out a questionnaire and meeting with union delegates, to whom he showed his willingness to serve as a strong advocate for increased funding for education.
Smith did not return the questionnaire or ask for an endorsement, Ly said.
“We know the last few years there have been cuts to education, there have been no salary increases or funding for supplies. We respect his placing importance on being a fiscal conservative. But education and education funding is of key importance to us,” Ly said. “We don’t have any opposition to John Arthur Smith. We just looked at the two candidates and at who would be a better advocate for education.”
The husband of a retired educator, Smith said he was one of the first supporters in the Legislature of early childhood education, even co-sponsoring legislation with former Rep. J. Paul Taylor that established full-time kindergarten. Early childhood advocacy groups have also recognized him for his efforts.
This last session, Smith and other legislators got an additional $22 million put into the budget specifically for certain early childhood programs provided under the Public Education Department.
But Martinez said Smith has not stood up for teachers, nor has he stayed in touch with the smaller communities in the rural areas, where he says he’s connecting to new voters.
“I feel those communities need representation. I’m just as qualified as anybody else,” Martinez said.
The winner of the June 5 primary will face Las Cruces Republican Russell G. Allen, who owns the area movie theater business Allen Theaters.
Christopher Schurtz is a freelance reporter and historian and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.