County parties primed to fight
Groups begin push for candidates
By Mike Cook
Las Cruces Bulletin
“All politics is local,” former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill once said, and officials of both the Doña Ana County Republican and Democratic parties know it.
Republican Donald Trump and Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders may be getting most of the headlines, but once the New Mexico June 7 primary election is over, it will be up to the local parties and candidates to turn out every voter they can for the Tuesday, Nov. 8 general election.
“There’s more at stake here than just the presidency,” said county Republican Party Secretary Susan Mc-Gonnell. “We focus on our local elections. They’re all important,” she said. “I not only want to retain the offices we hold, I want to gain more.”
Democratic County Chair Liz Gonzales-Johnson said she doesn’t see a split locally or nationally in the Democratic Party because of the hard-fought battle for the presidential nomination between Clinton and Sanders. “I don’t think there’s going to be a split. I think the Democratic Party is going to come together,” she said. “We’ve got to win it one district at a time, one community at a time.”
City and county elected officials have “not represented city voices” on issues like the gross receipts tax and the county transit system, McGonnell said. “Let’s get some Republicans on that county commission to help Ben Rawson,” she said. Rawson is the only Republican on the five-member commission. His seat is not up in 2016, but three of the other four commission seats are up, and all are currently held by Democrats.
“The huge lesson learned” city and county- wide in non-partisan elections for mayor and city council held last November was that “the money didn’t win,” Gonzales- Johnson said. The results showed strong support for individual candidates. The winners, she said, knocked on doors and “it paid off.”
The same will apply countywide in the 2016 general election, Gonzales- Johnson said. “We’re the Democratic Party of Doña Ana County, not the Democratic Party of Las Cruces.” The party holds meetings in communities across the county and is putting together a “strong core of volunteers” to help both incumbents and firsttime candidates, she said.
And, even though more Democrats traditionally turn out for presidential elections than they do in non-presidential years, “we’re not taking that for granted,” she said. Turnout was higher in 2012 than it was in 2008. We want to turn that around,” Gonzales-Johnson said.
Overall, she said, “voter turnout is so poor.” It’s better in Doña Ana County than statewide, “but not good enough” she said.
“We’re going to do better.”
Getting out the vote for every office on the ballot is also a focus for Republicans, McGonnell said. Voters should elect a new county treasurer and clerk – both incumbent Democrats are term limited – that “listen to the public and address their concerns,” she said. Those elected to county offices should “stand up for what is right, (be) business friendly and citizen friendly,” McGonnell said. It’s the party’s job to help convince local voters that Republican candidates will do that, she said.
Both parties are aware that legislative races in Doña Ana County could determine the balance of power in the New Mexico Legislature in the 2017 and 2018 sessions.
For example, incumbent Republican State Sen. Lee Cotter in District 36 is “a major target” for the Democrats in 2016, Gonzales-Johnson said. In 2012, Cotter defeated former State Sen. Mary Jane Garcia, who had held the seat for 24 years. “We’re going to take that back,” Gonzales-Johnson said. In fact, one of the things that made her decide to run for Democratic county chair (she was elected in April 2015) was seats the Democrats had lost because “candidates were out there on their own,” she said.
Republicans want to hold Cotter’s seat and take back the District 37 seat, where City Councillor Ceil Levatino, a Republican, is challenging incumbent Democrat Bill Soules. Republicans Jimmy Rogers (one term) and Leonard Lee Rawson (four terms) held the seat for 20 consecutive years before Democrat Steve Fischmann defeated Rawson in 2008. Soules held the seat for the Democrats in 2012. “We want that one,” McGonnell said.
Both parties are also focused on a number of county races for the state House of Representatives. Currently, Republicans hold a 37 to 33 advantage in the state House, while Democrats have a 24 to 18 advantage in the state Senate.
McGonnell and Gonzales- Johnson both acknowledged that party members don’t always agree with each other. “We’re not all singing Kumbaya,” Gonzales- Johnson said. But her party has to help define “what it means to be a Democrat.”
Republicans “are not going to agree with everything,” McGonnell said. “They don’t love everything 100 percent. We keep working to make it better,” she said.
McGonnell came to Las Cruces from Florida in 2009 (“You all got a lot of beach,” she said about New Mexico. “You just don’t have any ocean.”) McGonnell owns the Massage Club at 141 N. Roadrunner Parkway. She is active in the Las Cruces Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Women’s Junior League. Her grandfather, a farmer and constable, immigrated to the United States from Spain. “I was always the kid that stuck up for the kid being bullied,” she said.
For Republicans, she said, Christian values are important, along with freedom of speech and following the Constitution. Republicans, she said “want to take more of their paycheck home.” Gonzales Johnson, a native of San Benito, Texas, moved to Las Cruces at age 14 and then to California after graduating from New Mexico State University. She returned to Las Cruces after a 30-year career with the U.S. Department of Defense and now works from her home for Concurrent Technologies Corp. “I’ve always been interested in politics,” Gonzales- Johnson said.
“This business of politics is difficult and it’s dirty,” Gonzales-Johnson said. It’s not always pleasant. But it’s something that just has to be done if we want to improve our community. Those of us who can should do something to help. That’s why I’m doing this,” she said.