NM Primary Election Day the first community event in Mora County’s fire zone

Candidates and neighbors grapple with what’s next

By: - June 8, 2022 5:05 am

A car promoting Mora County Commissioner Veronica Serna is parked outside the polling site at the Ledoux Volunteer Fire Station. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source NM)

MORA, N.M. – Driving into Mora County, the campaign signs came after the signs of an ongoing pandemic and wildfires. 

Taking NM Highway 518 north into the county on Tuesday, drivers passed the location for COVID testing. Shortly after, on the left, is the place set up for residents to file claims with FEMA.

Then the campaign signs.

They lined the highway all the way into the middle of Mora proper and culminated at the county center where candidates for local offices like sheriff, state representative and county commission set up tents offering campaign material or just a wave. 

Sheriff candidate Levi Alcon Jr. had his work pickup parked in the prime spot just off the highway. His nieces cooked up red chile from the family garden on a disc grill. Alcon waved back at every driver that passed. “Everyone knows me here,” the lifelong Mora resident said.

Levi Alcon Jr. (right) serves up the remaining chicharrones with a bowl of red chile and fresh tortilla for a voter outside a Mora County polling location. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)

Anyone walking by was told to grab a bowl of chile and a fresh tortilla. Across the street, Trinnie Cordova, a candidate for county commission had a dozen chairs set up around a table and was blasting a mix featuring AC/DC and Jock Jams. He lost by five votes and it’s unclear if the music selection had a sway on voters.

Everyone had their signs and gathering spot 100 feet away from the polling location, as required by law. Election Day is the first community event since the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fires destroyed homes, killed ecosystems and forced many from the community to evacuate. 

Tara Bartlett went to vote at the county center. Her family returned May 19 after they left their home in nearby Holman. “We went all over,” she said. “We went to Taos. And then we moved to Angel Fire. And then we went to Albuquerque.”

Voting wasn’t on her mind when in that time, but her community was. Her home was saved, although some damage did occur. She said casting her ballot on Tuesday during the primary was important, not only to give her a sense of normalcy but because she wants leadership on the local level to be responsive to the post-fire recovery that includes housing aid, road repair and forest restoration.

“The ones that are going to get in office are the ones that are going to help us, and help us rebuild our community,” Bartlett said. “We thought we were gonna have to vote somewhere else. But it was nice to be able to vote here, at our home, because this is where the changes are going to take place.”

Mora County Commissioner Veronica Serna stands in front of a campaign sign on NM Highway 518. Serna won her primary and will run unopposed in the November. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)

Back across the highway, incumbent Mora County Commissioner Veronica Serna walked over to her husband and close acquaintances standing near two large signs asking for her re-election. It’s the bare minimum she did to pitch herself to voters. And it was enough, unofficial results show Serna defeated Robert Sena 61% to 39% in the Democratic primary, she’ll run unopposed in the general election.

“My primary responsibility is making sure everyone’s safe,” she said. “Because of the disaster I have not had time for anything else. So the campaign has been on the back burner. This has been an unprecedented season for a campaign.”

Serna’s interview was cut short. A neighbor stopped by and asked about an upcoming meeting to get information on aid. Then her phone lit up, and Serna was back to work coordinating more assistance for a constituent sharing concerns about potential flooding when monsoon season begins. 

The fires are still present on everyone’s mind, but anxieties are shifting to the rains that could cause even more damage to property. 

“There’s multiple agencies that we’re working with to help mitigate the flooding,” she said. “So that is our most imperative responsibility right now. Mora County has suffered a tremendous amount of loss. Twice as much of this loss is not going to be good for us. With a fire, you could have two or three days of warning. With flooding, you probably have minutes.”

Preparedness for flooding is underway even as the fires continue to burn. 

A drive into the mountains away from the town reveals multiple burns scars. The trees create a checkerboard of yellows, greens and the dark burnt remains where fires caused the most destruction. Mora opened 11 precincts for voting in the county. Many were located at volunteer fire stations like the one in Ledoux.

The Ledoux Volunteer Fire Station was one of 11 polling sites open for the 2022 Primary Election in Mora County. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)

Just after 3 p.m., four hours before polls closed, a gust of wind ripped through the valley by the Ledoux Fire Station. It brought a heavy smoke that caused poll workers to close their doors to maintain air quality at the polling site. The smell of ponderosa pines and mixed conifer filled the air, reminding everyone that the fire several miles away up a ridge is still burning.

At that point, 41 people voted at the Ledoux voting site. 

Back at the county center polling site, 

Mario Montano, another candidate for sheriff, was posted up with his wife, son and father-in-law outside the main polling center. 

“Not a lot of people here today,” he said.

Early voting numbers had come in short. The County Clerk’s Office said less than 500 people had cast a ballot before Primary Election Day. Officials had been preparing for turnout under 1,000 voters. 

As the afternoon wore on, more cars started pulling in as a steady stream of voters arrived. In the end, 1,572 ballots were cast — right around the usual number of 1,600 to 1,700

Montano’s de-facto campaign manager, his wife Amanda Romero-Montano, used social media to reach voters in her husband’s first-ever campaign. “However, in this community, a lot of people are elderly, and they don’t necessarily go to social media for information,” she said.

Mario Montano and his wife Amanda Romero-Montano pose in front of their campaign tent outside the Mora County polling site. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)

She did evacuate while her husband stayed to protect their property and take care of his 95-year-old mother who also remained at her home in Cleveland, N.M., despite the evacuation order. This meant campaigning was the last thing on his mind.

“It was difficult just to get to my mom’s house to run her generators, to save her food, feeding the cows and horses,” the candidate said. “It was difficult just to get essentials like food and water.”

Montano would end up conceding on social media around 9:30 p.m. A familiar candidate, Mora County Undersheriff Americk Padilla defeated his four opponents with 52% of the vote. But like everyone else, Montano will be around to do what he can to help the community rebuild and enter the next phase. 

“What can we improve? How can we help our community?” he asks. “I would say, try to make it easier for people to apply for assistance.”

Like many, he started his application with FEMA and was disturbed to only be offered a loan for the property damage caused by the fire.

“How would you feel about somebody saying, ‘OK, well, we can’t give you money. But we can give you a loan to replace it, even though we’re responsible for the damages. What would you say to that?”

Unofficial results in Mora County’s contested primaries, all of which are Democrat

County Commission Seat 1 

Robert Sena 39% (486)

Veronica Serna 61% (764)

County Commission Seat 2 

George A. Trujillo 41% (518)

Lioner Frank Maestas 18% (225)

Trinnie Cordova 41% (513)

Mora County Sheriff

Levi Alcon Jr. 8% (100)

Richard F. Fresquez 7% (92)

Mario Montano 7% (92)

Americk Padilla 52% (672)

Roy A. Vigil-Cordova 26% (339)

State Representative District 40

Roger Montoya 47% (585)

Joseph L. Sanchez 53% (655)

County Assessor

Andy Alcon 13% (155)

Rosalee J. Trujillo 87% (1,032)

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Shaun Griswold
Shaun Griswold

Shaun Griswold is a journalist in Albuquerque. He is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, and his ancestry also includes Jemez and Zuni on the maternal side of his family. He grew up in Albuquerque and Gallup. He brings a decade of print and broadcast news experience. Shaun reports on issues important to Native Americans in urban and tribal communities throughout the state, including education and child welfare.