Candidates for NM governor trade barbs in second televised debate

Education reform and public schools corner some attention policy-wise

By: - October 13, 2022 1:56 pm

The final televised debate between Republican Mark Ronchetti and incumbent Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. (Screenshot via KOAT)

Matters of policy fell by the wayside as personal attacks led during the final televised debate between the two major party candidates vying to be governor in New Mexico.

To summarize their postures as they enter the final leg of campaign season: each is not who the other says they are. 

Despite the lengthy back and forth questioning one another’s credibility, the candidates did discuss some plans and policy on topics such as abortion and education.

Republican Mark Ronchetti, a former meteorologist, attempted to position himself as a political outsider, saying his inexperience in government is actually a good thing. He argued that the Democratic incumbent Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is responsible for failures in education and crime but only citing her time in government, not specific decisions, as the root of her mistakes.

It was a strategy that ultimately paved the road for Lujan Grisham to point out Ronchetti’s inexperience as a weakness. “These are all desperate efforts to hide the fact that he has no plan. He has no experience. He’s a TV personality,” she said.

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That tone rang through most of the debate going forward.

The debate was hosted by KOAT-TV, The Albuquerque Journal and News Radio KKOB.

Moderator and Journal reporter Dan Boyd pressed Ronchetti for his positions on reproductive rights, asking the GOP candidate for details on how he’d embark on instituting his proposal to ban abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

“There’s only one person in this race who is an extremist, on this issue. It’s the governor. I never called for a ban on abortion because the governor of the state of New Mexico cannot ban abortion. And the governor knows this, but she says it anyway,” Rochetti said. 

He reiterated his position that he would want to see the state Legislature pass along a possible constitutional amendment to voters, asking their stance on his 15-week abortion ban. However, Ronchetti is facing a Roundhouse controlled by Democrats who support reproductive rights and didn’t convey how he’d build consensus to make this proposal happen.

Lujan Grisham affirmed her support for reproductive rights but did not express any ideas for how she’d like the Legislature to strengthen the preservation of those rights in New Mexico statute. While New Mexico has no restrictions on abortion services, today there is no state law that explicitly protects the practice. 

On education policy, Lujan Grisham brought up the Yazzie-Martinez case, in which a judge ordered the state to boost educational access for students who are Indigenous, learning English as a second language, have disabilities or come from families with low incomes. She said her administration has hired more teachers, and created pay raises and incentives to recruit more educators in school districts with the highest need for reform. 

“Yazzie-Martinez was a clear indication that we failed to provide the investments into public education that we were required to,” she said. “We now have the highest-paid educators in the region. We’ve invested billions of dollars in the classroom for small class sizes. We’ve reduced the teacher vacancies to about 34%.”

Ronchetti didn’t address the parameters of Yazzie-Martinez or how the case would impact his education priorities. He did fall in line with Lujan Grisham’s idea about investing more money into schools for teachers and reducing classroom sizes.

“We’ll provide stipends for extra tutoring. Yes, we’re gonna get into the classroom, spend more money, and there’s no doubt there will be no education cuts,” he said.

The candidates briefly disagreed on social studies requirements that are changing in public schools. Ronchetti incorrectly asserted that the new policies “are designed to divide kids by race or gender in any way possible.”

New social studies standards do include curriculum about race and gender, much of which is designed around the Yazzie-Martinez requirement to adapt culturally relevant curriculum. This translates to class assignments that meet the students’ diverse needs and backgrounds.

Lujan Grisham noted that the social studies curriculum updates were necessary after more than 10 years without any changes. “We’re being directed by the courts,” she said.

The conversation about the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit was the only topic specifically concerning Native Americans in New Mexico that showed up in the debate. Neither candidate was asked or shared their views on government-to-government relationships, language access, land conservation and other topics concerning Indigenous voters. While topics about the economy, crime and substance use, early childhood education and unhoused populations do intersect with Indigenous people’s concerns there was nothing specifically addressed to Native people who are more than 10% of New Mexico.

It’s unclear if the candidates will have any time together to discuss their ideas ahead of the Nov. 8 general election. Early voting started Oct. 11, so many people might already have their minds made up. A recent poll released by KOB-TV shows Lujan Grisham with a commanding 16-point lead over Ronchetti.

Tomorrow, a candidate forum at the Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. is scheduled by the All Pueblo Council of Governors. Confirmed attendees include candidates for Congress, attorney general, land commissioner, secretary of state and treasurer. 

Not confirmed to attend: either candidate for governor.

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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.