New Mexico’s CD3 candidates spar over wildfire response in their final televised debate

By: - October 30, 2022 9:31 am

Left: U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez speaks at an event in Albuquerque for victims of the fire in northern New Mexico in late September just before Congress approved billions for compensation, aid and recovery. Right: Alexis Martinez Johnson, Republican candidate for Congressional District 3, at the All Pueblo Council of Governors forum in mid-October. (Photos by Gino Gutierrez for Source NM)

The disaster that ripped through northern N.M. this summer consumed about a third of the final debate between the two people seeking to represent the region in Congress. 

The two candidates fighting to represent Congressional District 3 in New Mexico met for a televised debate Friday night in what’s likely to be the final chance for voters to see the pair on the same stage before Election Day.

U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez, a Democrat from Las Vegas, N.M., is trying to keep her seat in the newly drawn district, one that previously contained all of northern New Mexico, plus parts of Albuquerque and Rio Rancho. After the contentious, once-a-decade redistricting was completed late last year, CD3 now encompasses huge tracts of southeastern New Mexico, including Roswell and Portales.

Watch the debate here.

Election Day is Nov. 8. Polls are open for early voting through Saturday. You can register and cast a ballot on the same day in New Mexico.

Her opponent is Republican Alexis Martinez Johnson, an environmental engineer from Roswell.

KOB-TV hosted the pair for a 30-minute debate on topics like abortion, crime, cannabis and oil and gas production in southern New Mexico. The competitors spent about eight minutes on the first two questions, which centered on the federal response to the biggest fire in state history. 

The Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire was started by the United States Forest Service as prescribed burns but went on to torch more than 530 square miles in the district, destroying more than 500 homes, ushering in destructive flooding and threatening the water supply to downstream Las Vegas. 

Martinez Johnson accused Leger Fernandez of taking too long to shake down federal aid to the burn scar and not having the skills required to respond to such a disaster. In late September, which is about five months after the fire started, Congress enacted a stopgap spending bill that included $2.5 billion for fire victims. 

“We don’t need someone with on-the-job training. These communities are still hurting,” Martinez Johson said. “And my opponent, half a year later, is talking about providing funds.”

Martinez Johnson pointed to her experience as an engineer and said she’s heard from Democrats in the burn scar who are frustrated with the federal response. 

“I have the experience and expertise. My job experience deals with project management. It deals with negotiation, stakeholders, from environmentalists, to regulators, to government officials, to community members to making sure that we have the best possible solutions,” she said. “And I would be meeting monthly making sure that this never occurs again.”

Leger Fernandez said Congress passed the aid package as quickly as possible, and it’s a historic amount of money. She introduced the legislation that eventually was included in the September spending bill in May, just a few weeks after the fire started, and she also secured an independent investigation into how the federal agency made such a huge mistake in lighting prescribed burns that went on to cause the biggest wildfire in the state’s recorded history. 

At least 40 acequias still damaged after Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire, association says (see map)

“We have been holding the Forest Service accountable for their errors,” she said. “This is what justice looks like.”

Spending such a large windfall will take time, she said, because the Federal Emergency Management Agency needs to set up rules and regulations first. But she noted that the aid program will be built differently from the way FEMA typically is set up to help in the aftermath of disasters, an initial response that has frustrated many fire victims.

FEMA is expected to establish the rules for the $2.5 billion program in mid-November, followed by a public comment period. It’s not clear exactly when the first payments will be made to fire victims. 

“Normally regulations take a year, six months,” she said. “We required that the regulations need to be done within 45 days. That’s an example of how we built into the law. We want this done fast.”

Fivethirtyeight, a poll aggregator and analysis website, projects that Leger Fernandez is “clearly favored” to win the race, beating her opponent in 96% of simulated outcomes. After the redistricting process, the site gave Democrats an advantage of 5 percentage points

Leger Fernandez has also far out-raised her opponent, heading into Election Day with more than $610,000 in cash on hand. Martinez Johnson has a little more than $34,000, according to Federal Election Commission records.

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Patrick Lohmann
Patrick Lohmann

Patrick Lohmann has been a reporter since 2007, when he wrote stories for $15 apiece at a now-defunct tabloid in Gallup, his hometown. Since then, he's worked at UNM's Daily Lobo, the Albuquerque Journal and the Syracuse Post-Standard. Along the way, he's won several state and national awards for his reporting, including for an exposé on a cult-like Alcoholics Anonymous group and a feature on an Upstate New York militia member who died of COVID-19. He's thrilled to be back home in New Mexico, where he works to tell stories that resonate and make an impact.

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