1st debate highlights stakes in New Mexico race for governor

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Republican nominee for governor Mark Ronchetti sounded a rallying cry for residents who are dissatisfied with crime and public education in a live-broadcast debate Friday, while incumbent Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham vowed to protect abortion access and defended her response to disasters and her approach to investments in social programs.

The two candidates clashed in their first televised debate of the campaign, on KOB 4, ahead of the Nov. 8 general election. Early voting begins Oct. 11.

Ronchetti painted a dire portrait of public safety conditions and economic prospects for small businesses, arguing that a windfall in state government income could be put to better use — including annual individual rebates linked to oil field production and education stipends to improve early literacy.

The former television meteorologist repeatedly asked viewers if they thought they were better off amid pressures of inflation, and whether they could feel the effects of the governor's programs.

“Have you felt it in your bottom line? Do you look at things now and say, ‘yes, I can afford what I need to afford,’” Ronchetti said. “A lot of your programs are not making a difference for people on the ground.”

Lujan Grisham noted her administration already this year delivered cuts to taxes on sales and gross receipts, along with tax rebates of up to $1,500 per household, touting her ability to work with a Democrat-led Legislature.

“He says he proposes it, I already did it,” said Lujan Grisham, a former three-term congresswoman.

She urged the public to support and sustain new state spending in public education and college subsidies, arguing the small businesses crave a prepared workforce.

“We’ve invested billions of dollars into public school classrooms and to the pay raises for teachers and to expanded pre-K and daycare and ... tuition-free higher education for thousands of New Mexicans," the governor said. "The seeds are planted. Positive change is truly our destiny.”

Lujan Grisham, the state’s third consecutive Hispanic governor, used the debate to cast herself as a staunch defender of access to abortion.

In 2021, Lujan Grisham helped legislators repealed a dormant 1969 statute that had outlawed most abortion procedures as felonies.

“Because I’m governor, abortion is legal in the state of New Mexico," Lujan Grisham said. “As long as I’m governor, a woman’s constitutional right to privacy to make her own highly, deeply personal decisions about her health care and her family’s will stay legal.”

Ronchetti, who lost a 2020 bid for U.S. Senate to Democrat Ben Ray Luján, is advocating for a ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy with exceptions for rape, incest and risk to the physical health of the mother, suggesting that the Legislature schedule a statewide referendum on abortion restrictions.

“Everybody in the state of New Mexico should be able to vote on it and come up with something that fits our shared values,” said Ronchetti, describing the governor's approach to abortion as extreme.

New Mexico has alternated between Democratic and Republican governors since the early 1980s. An incumbent governor last lost reelection in 1994.

Recent Republican losses at the ballot box have locked the GOP out of all statewide elected offices and the state Supreme Court, as Democratic majorities lead in both chambers of the Legislature.

Still, the November election for governor will be a test of Democratic resolve as the state grapples with economic whiplash from the coronavirus pandemic and concerns about a violent crime surge in Albuquerque and beyond.

On issues of criminal justice, Ronchetti has pledged to back police officers by restoring immunity from prosecution to policing agencies, while railing against the state’s pretrial release system. A voter-approved constitutional amendment in 2016 made it harder to deny bail while defendants await trial.

“We have soft-on-crime judges and we still have catch-and-release,” said Ronchetti, vowing a new approach to judicial appointments. “If you think the system is broken, she is the head of the system.”

The GOP nominee also has pledged to deploy soldiers and police to the remote international border with Mexico to combat illegal migration and drug and human trafficking, in a plan echoing National Guard deployments by Republican governors in Arizona and Texas.

Lujan Grisham — also critical of the state’s bail system — this year signed legislation that boosts retention pay for municipal police and sheriff’s deputies, bestows million-dollar death benefits for relatives of police killed in the line of duty and expands intervention programs to rein in gun violence.

“We’re giving our police officers the raises and dignity they deserve, the professional development training, the tools to keep them safe, the equipment and vehicles, a new crime lab,” Lujan Grisham said.

Libertarian Party candidate for governor Karen Bedonie was not included in the debate.

Morgan Lee, The Associated Press