A dozen candidates in N.M. running on small donations and public funds
Candidates say public campaign financing insulates them from wealthy donors
“Having unlimited amounts of money in political races ultimately leads to political corruption, and having to be beholden to your donors,” said Alma Castro, who is running for a seat on the Santa Fe City Council. (Getty Images)
A dozen people running for local office in New Mexico are paying for their campaigns with small-dollar donations matched by public money.
In interviews with Source NM, nine publicly funded candidates say the system bridges the growing divide between politicians and most people they represent. They also said public financing allows for a more diverse array of candidates to run for office in the first place.
Santa Fe, the state’s capital, and Albuquerque, its largest city, opted into the New Mexico Local Election Act of 2018, allowing candidates in local elections to receive limited public funding to use in their campaigns. The candidates that go this route are not allowed to take in any private donations once they receive their public financing.
Privately funded candidates do not have the same spending limits.
They are the only two localities with public financing of election campaigns, according to a spokesperson for the New Mexico Secretary of State’s Office.
In Albuquerque, when a candidate wins, loses, or withdraws from the race, any unspent public funds must be returned to the city government. All candidates must make a final report of campaign contributions and spending by Nov. 13.
In Santa Fe, candidates must return unspent public funds by Dec. 22. All candidates must report campaign contributions and spending on Oct. 31, Nov. 6 and Dec. 7.
Early voting is already underway for local elections statewide. Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 7.
To qualify for public financing in Santa Fe, candidates must collect signatures and $5 donations from at least 150 people. If they meet the threshold during the time limit, they are given $15,000 initially.
If they can get more contributions, the city government matches them up to a maximum of $22,500 in public funding.
The filing deadline for publicly funded candidates in this election was July 24, while the deadline for privately funded ones was Aug. 29. Several candidates told the Santa Fe Reporter they didn’t pursue public funding because it pays too little.
Two candidates with publicly financed campaigns are running for the District 1 seat on the Santa Fe City Council: Brian Gutierrez and Alma Castro.
Kathy Rivera and Geno Zamora are running privately funded campaigns for the seat.
Castro, a political newcomer and former labor organizer, said publicly financed campaigns allow more candidates from lower socioeconomic classes to run for office.
“Having unlimited amounts of money in political races ultimately leads to political corruption, and having to be beholden to your donors,” Castro said.
Gutierrez ran for this same seat in 2021 and came in second place. He agreed with Castro’s comment about the influence of wealthy donors, and said having a publicly financed campaign means he does not owe favors to wealthy donors.
He pointed to the city’s charter, which includes public campaign financing among measures to make elections more democratic, and “to eliminate financing inequities, conflicts of interest, and the potential for corruption.”
In Citizens United v. FEC, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal law that prohibited corporations from spending money to support or oppose candidates. Castro said the decision shows people with financial means will use them to influence politics.
“One thing that all candidates are saying — across the board — is that we need a strong middle class,” Castro said. “Yet, not everyone in my race is publicly financed. They have received donations from developers, realtors, and other folks who have skin in the game.”
Castro said the housing crisis in Santa Fe is part of a shrinking or missing middle class in the city. Some candidates have received money from developers and realtors, Castro said.
District 2 incumbent City Council Michael Garcia initially ran for the seat with a publicly funded campaign, and is doing so again in his reelection bid. He said it insulates him from the influence of special interests.
His challenger, Phil Lucero, is running a privately financed campaign.
“It provides that fair and equitable process,” Garcia said. “I wanted to do everything to ensure that I was keeping special interests out and make sure the priority was that I was focusing on the District 2 residents.”
Louis Carlos is running a publicly financed campaign for the District 3 seat on the Santa Fe City Council. He could not be reached for a phone interview before press time. Pilar Faulkner is running a privately funded campaign for the seat.
Both candidates for the District 4 seat on the Santa Fe City Council, incumbent Jamie Cassutt and challenger Joel Nava, are running privately funded campaigns.
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In Albuquerque, to qualify for public financing, candidates must collect signatures and $5 donations from 1% of registered voters in their district. They must also collect at least 500 signatures to appear on the ballot.
The amount of public funds a given candidate receives also depends on the population living in their district. At minimum, the city government hands out $40,000.
Loretta Naranjo Lopez and Joaquin Baca are each running publicly funded campaigns for the District 2 seat on the Albuquerque City Council. Moises Gonzalez is running a privately funded campaign for the seat.
Naranjo Lopez said public campaign financing could reduce the political influence of developers, and encouraged her campaign to go door-to-door and ask voters for their support.
“It’s an opportunity to engage more with the community,” she said. “Public financing allows people like me to run for office, people who don’t have the finances to run.”
Baca could not be reached for comment before press time.
District 4 incumbent City Councilor Brook Bassan is running a publicly funded campaign to keep her seat. Challenger Abby Foster is running a privately funded campaign.
Bassan said $40,000 “should be more than enough money to run a campaign for Albuquerque City Council.”
“I believe it creates a fair opportunity and level playing field for candidates,” she said.
Political newcomers Abel Otero, Kristin Greene and Nichole Rogers are each running publicly funded campaigns for the District 6 seat on the Albuquerque City Council. Jeff Hoehn is running a privately funded campaign. Joseph Pitluck Aguirre also ran.
Otero, a small business owner, said he’s not tied to political elites, and that a grassroots community runs his campaign.
“Show me another politician that has face tattoos, gauged earrings and painted nails,” Otero said.
Rogers said she and her friends aren’t independently wealthy and so it would have been harder for her to privately finance her campaign. She is Black and Hispanic and previously worked as a community liaison for Albuquerque mayor Tim Keller.
“There’s never been someone like me on City Council, especially a Black woman,” Rogers said. “It’s long overdue.”
Greene, an Elder Homestead Neighborhood Association board member whose legal name will appear on the ballot but who goes by Raven Del Rio, said her publicly funded campaign means it is transparent.
“Voters have a right to transparency, to know who’s backing a candidate, and how that candidate chooses to spend taxpayer money,” Greene said.
Idalia Lechuga-Tena and Daniel Champine are each running publicly funded campaigns for the District 8 seat on the Albuquerque City Council. There are no privately funded candidates for the seat.
Lechuga-Tena, a former state representative who immigrated from Mexico, said the beauty of running a publicly financed campaign is it eliminates the need to fundraise and allows more time for campaigning on the ground.
The challenge of qualifying for public funding weeds out the less serious candidates, she said.
“You’re not indebted to special interest groups, so if anyone has the opportunity to do public financing, they should,” she said. “It is challenging but it’s worth it. You want to be accountable to the people.”
Champine did not respond to two emails seeking comment for this story.
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