By Mary Alice Murphy
With an audience of more than 100 people, the Grant County Commission, including its two newly elected members, Javier "Harvey" Salas and Chris Ponce, took on a difficult charge. It was to replace, according to statute, the vacant District 28 senatorial post, caused by the election of Sen. Howie Morales to lieutenant governor under the newly inaugurated New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham.
The meeting opened with public input, limited to two minutes each. Commission Chairman Billy Billings asked that all comments be positive.
Linda Pecotte spoke first. "I recommend Gabe Ramos. He will be tasked with filling out the term of Morales until 2020. Gabe is a moderate JFK Democrat. He was my commissioner, before the five-person Commission. He will be willing to cross party lines and vote for bills beneficial to all, as he has done as commissioner. He has made mistakes, so have I and so has every one of us. We learn from our mistakes."
Glenn Griffin commended Commissioners Harry Browne and Alicia Edwards for standing for democracy in the final commission meeting of 2018, by keeping to the plan of holding this special meeting to choose Morales' successor. "I am derailing the Ramos railroad. I served under Ramos in the eco-watershed committee. I know him. He never answered my calls or emailed responses. I support the nominee. I need the nominee's help in stopping trapping in Grant County and I need the nominee's help in stopping the $446 per squirrel under the county's Wildlife Services contract."
Ronnee-Sue Helzner of Pinos Altos thanked the commissioners for the opportunity to speak and for not changing the date of the meeting. "The Commission has the opportunity to give the governor two diverse choices. Ramos is already nominated in Catron and Socorro counties. Nominating Mary Hotvedt or Siah Hemphill would provide an additional highly qualified candidate. Skills I see needed in a senator are leadership skills, communication skills and conflict management skills. Mary and Siah come from therapist professions, where communications and conflict management skills are inherent. Their experience aligns with the governor's focus on education and government accountability."
Janet Wallet-Ortiz recommended a senator with the same vision as the new governor laid out in her inauguration speech. "If the Democrats pull together, then we will have access to clean water and air, protected rivers, protected lands, renewable energy, best practices in education and funding and a safety net that lifts people up. We need the Democrats to show Republicans how it is done right. The governor insists New Mexicans need to work together, to better health care, critical social programs, a higher minimum wage and growing businesses inside New Mexico. Please recommend a woman today who will completely support the governor's initiatives."
Andy Payne said he sees the commissioners' jobs as nominating a person who will have the best chance of being appointed by the governor. "Mr. Ramos has too many negatives associated with him. He supports the Gila Diversion. Our governor does not want the diversion. We risk not having a senator in place. Ramos has earned a reputation for unethical practices. You have many good candidates today. The women candidates are strong. Any could be named and would serve us well."
Herb Trejo said he was a lifetime resident of Grant County. "I have positive words about Mr. Ramos. He is one of us. He is married, a husband and father. He attended local schools and has been a long-time public servant, as county clerk, commissioner, school board member. He supports the U.S. Air Force in the interests of national security. He supports making full use of forest lands and the stopping of unnecessary closures of roads."
Jeff Carbajal said he knows Gabe Ramos. "I will stand with him today. I continue to support him. He is like a rhino, with a tough skin and a horn to push things out of the way. I pray that he is chosen, so that Grant County can move forward. He was working hard by campaigning for the newly elected commissioners. Congratulations to him for being an awesome community servant."
Luis Alvarez of Hurley said he was hearing talk about Democrats and Republicans. "It's not about that. We need someone to work for us. He got Diaz Avenue replaced and lighting installed We need someone who will see things through. I ask that you send Ramos' name up to the governor."
Michael Torres also asked that Ramos' name be submitted. "I have worked for him for six years. He has done so much for the community. I see his love of community. He works hard for the community. He has my utmost confidence to fill Morales' seat."
Hugh Epping said he feels like he is attending a testimonial. "I want someone to carry on Morales' legacy of education and local environmental issues. Look at the other candidates and take advantage of their experience in education and the environment. We would be better served by carrying on Morales' activities rather than going in a separate direction."
Nancy Gordon said she has lived here for 27 years, enjoying the hiking and fishing, and used to be a bow hunter. "I would like the other candidates to address and give support for hunting and fishing projects to improve hunting and fishing, as well as access to state lands. I want to hear views on Fort Bayard. I like the idea of a fishing pond there. Lastly, I would like to hear that they can be open-minded about a diversion on the Gila River. There is a need for a permanent diversion structure at the top end of the valley and at the ditches, so that a person doesn't have to go in with a bulldozer and push up a gravel diversion that washes out easily. I know you don't have an easy decision, but I hope you will choose a person who can look at things in a balanced manner and can be a good representative for this district. I wish you well."
Anthony Gutierrez said he supports the appointment of Gabriel Ramos. "I've been a public servant for more than 20 years and have known Gabe during many of those years. I also have 20-plus years of attending New Mexico legislative sessions. I have seen, especially for the past 10 years, the attacks by special interest groups against the culture of New Mexico. There have been consistent attacks on oil and gas, on mining, which is important to this community, ranching and farming that is outside the Rio Grande Corridor, and restrictions on public land use by these industries and hunters and sportsmen alike. I have seen attacks on the Second Amendment rights. These are some of the small parts of the progressive agenda, which to me shows no progress whatsoever. We must continue the responsible use of our natural resources, including hunting and fishing. Mr. Ramos has always been an out-spoken advocate for the mining industry, which is the backbone of our local economy and responsible use of our natural resources. He also represents what Democrats used to stand for."
José Diaz said he supports Ramos. "He has been on the Commission for eight years. He has been working hand-in-hand with Howie Morales. We have had problems in Grant County, some which were here when he started on the commission. It's getting better."
James Baldwin spoke in support of Michael A. Carillo. "He is level-headed and comes with no biases. He is a worthy candidate. I request your consideration of this candidate."
Mary Jemin, said in her opinion, Ramos already has two votes. "I support either of the two women."
José Ray said he supports Ramos. "He will have input on veterans and elderly issues. Put aside the negative comments. Sometimes, we mess up, sometimes, we don't. I support Mr. Ramos."
Cari Lemon said she realized the commissioners do not have an easy task. "I request you to look at the characteristics of the candidates and their ability to hear, to listen and to hear opposing views. As a woman, I would like to see a woman take the position. I trust you will make the right decision."
Robert Donnelly said it was an important decision the commissioners have to face. "Give the governor a choice. Name someone else as your choice."
Dominic Dahl-Bredine said he agreed that giving the governor another option would be good. "I know Siah personally. She would be a good candidate. She would listen and would be good as our representative. It is an important time for our planet, please make the right decision so we have a place for us to live."
John Song said the world is changing; the culture is changing; and technology is changing. "We need someone recommended who can build the new culture, the new technology. Choose someone you may not love, but don't hate."
Pete Krogseng said he didn't think negative comments were not positive when they were speaking of someone who is not qualified. "Send someone to Santa Fe who is much more rounded and sympathetic to issues they may not agree with. Mr. Ramos comes across as autocratic. We need to shed the image of the old-boy system. Send the governor someone she can work with and relate to."
Dennis Martin said he thinks the community got ahead of itself. "Let's hear from all the candidates and have an open process to hear and decide."
Lorna Rubelmann said she is a Democrat but has argued with other Democrats such as Magdaleno Manzanares. "The last forum we held with the Republicans was the forum addressing whether to put in a five-person commission. The mission of the forums is to talk about what is best for the community. Negative or positive does not depend on party, but on how the person can govern best."
Merrick McDaniel said he was there to ask the commissioners to name the best for the Senate District, but not Mr. Ramos. "The Senate leadership, Peter Wirth and Mary Kay Papen, neither would like to see Ramos representing this district in Santa Fe. Wirth would like to see Siah. If you are not sending someone who can work with the senate leadership, then you're sending the wrong one. Siah can work on education and health care."
Jim McCauley said when one lives in the rural parts of New Mexico, which are most of the state, "we have a hard time having representation for rural New Mexicans. Maybe you have received calls from Santa Fe. I would just as soon you not send someone who is already indebted to someone in Santa Fe. I ask you to send someone to represent our concerns down here, not someone who will come back and tell us what Santa Fe wants us to do. I think there is one someone here who has stood up to special interests, and I ask you to name Gabriel Ramos to this seat."
Mike Morones said he has been in similar seats to those the commissioners were occupying. "A couple of the new candidates are very exciting to me and I am looking forward to seeing how they do in the future. You have an opportunity here to name someone who will have two years to represent and support us. With the lieutenant governor running the senate, we will have the opportunity to have two Grant County residents representing us. That is huge. If Grisham and Morales receive a second term that is eight years of two representatives. What you have to look at is who has proven to be electable in this county, as well as in Socorro and Catron counties. I was interested in the position. I developed my resume and talked to people and gained some interest, but my resume paled in comparison to Gabriel Ramos'. Had I even lucked into this appointment, I would have been losing in two years to Gabe Ramos. It wouldn't serve us to have two different senators. We have to make sure we have strong Grant County candidates. I want someone there for the eight years."
Jim Goodkind said he voted for Howie. "If the commissioners choose someone radically different from Morales, that disenfranchises me."
The next section of the meeting was the consideration of the potential candidates.
Billings said each would have five minutes to speak and would be given a one-minute notice.
The candidates spoke in alphabetical order of their first names.
Armando "Mandy" Arzola said he was a product of Cobre Schools and spent 30 years in military service with the U.S. Air Force. "I was Bayard city councilor for eight years. I have chosen to serve my community. There is no military veteran in the Legislature. I like balance. I will not use the seat for personal gain. I am the most qualified. I have honesty, integrity and unselfishness. This seat needs to stay here in Grant County. I have not promised anyone anything. I am doing this in good faith to do what is right for the community. It's government of the people, by the people, for the people. My first priority is education. Our educators are leaving for better paying jobs. They are not being given community support. We need to give educators the tools they need to have children gain educational success. My second priority is the V.A. We need to keep our veterans local. I will build a V.A. hospital locally. I also support the issues of the environment and want to address domestic violence."
Brandon Perrault said it was nice to see democracy in action and the freedom of speech, with people giving their opinions. "I have five children and I am a musician and teacher. I always joked that if I won the lottery, I would still want to teach. I am a product of Silver and Cobre Schools and received my teaching degree from Western New Mexico University. If chosen, I would take this responsibility very seriously. I am ready to make things better for our children, our families, our seniors, veterans and small businesses. I want to be your senator in Santa Fe. I was and am inspired by the late great Senator Benny Altamirano, who brought home the bacon year after year. I am inspired by our lieutenant governor Howie Morales. We grew up together in the same neighborhood in Brewer Hill. We graduated the same year. I am a registered Democrat and my philosophy is pretty much in line with that of Lt. Gov. Howie Morales and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. My legislative priorities are to continue to set in motion what Morales started. I will focus on challenges in public education, will ensure pre-K is fully funded, raise salaries, provide sufficient funding for CYFD to take care of our beautiful children and fight crime. I want to make sure everyone has access to affordable health care, including behavioral and mental health; I will take care of our veterans; I want clean energy; and I want to protect our clean water and natural resources. I promise to serve with honesty, integrity, with compassion for all. I promise to listen to all constituents. I want to serve you. Quiero servirlos. ¡Dios le bendiga!
The next candidate, Cindy Renee Provencio, withdrew her candidacy. Daisy Brianne Matson did not attend.
Gabriel Ramos said it was a great pleasure to be there in front of the Commission and all the constituents. "I feel I'm one of the best candidates." He introduced his parents, his wife of 24 years and his son and daughter. "I graduated from Cobre High School and at Western New Mexico University I received a bachelor's of science in business and public administration. At age 17, I joined the U.S. Army National Guard and spent 9 years serving. I was elected at age 25 as one of the youngest county clerks. I served with the Clerk's affiliate and on the New Mexico Association of Counties executive board. I served on the school board and had the privilege of restoring two schools – Hurley Elementary and Snell Middle School. I served on the Hurley Town Council. We got Diaz Avenue paved, sidewalks put in, as well as lighting. I was elected twice to the County Commission. During my tenure, we have built fire stations, constructed Tu Casa and reconstructed the Grant County Veterans Center. We put a lot of money into Bataan Park, fixing drainage issues and putting up batting cages for our children. I spearheaded with Santa Clara a safety project that will start in 2020. I have held leadership roles in the Southwest County Commission Alliance, Corre Caminos, the Eco-Watershed Committee and the Grant County Water Commission. I have given the majority of my life serving the community. I am the only candidate in private business. I serve because I want to, not because I was asked by any special interest group. I am the only candidate with state board and policy experience. I gave you a copy of a petition supporting me signed by 25 elected Grant County officials. I've been involved. I'm not a newcomer. My legislative priorities if I am awarded the position are protecting the elderly, protecting veterans and being one of only eight or 10 senators who are veterans, better education, better pay for teachers, better health care and taking care of the labor force. I want to protect our water by keeping it here in southwest New Mexico. Water is precious. I will work on capital outlay projects. I will do my best to represent everyone and I will listen to everyone. I will count on the Grant County Commission for information on where we need to go."
Karen Whitlock withdrew her candidacy and gave her support to Siah Correa Hemphill. "I am qualified and I have experience with the Legislature, having worked up there for four year. This is not my time. But I feel it is time for women of color to come into the Legislature."
Mary Hotvedt, when she stood behind the tall podium, noted that Gov. Lujan Grisham had announced at her inauguration that all podiums will be lowered in the state. "I ask Grant County to follow suit. I feel like an ant here." She said the past and present commissioners had been great in giving their time to the candidates during the past month. "My credentials speak to my love for Grant County and the state of New Mexico, even as an outsider. I want to talk about Common Sense, which was written by Thomas Paine. Common sense has to be used in making this decision. You need to decide what is good for Grant County. Make this decision not out of fear or intimidation. Common sense says we need better gender balance in the Senate. Consider sending a qualified woman, which sends a strong message that we are in favor of gender equity. You need to look at who is electable in 2020. It isn't just the candidate, but also who works with the candidate, with fat wallets or as volunteers walking with and driving the candidates. You need a candidate who has the support of the worker bees. Maybe a new fresh face is electable. Xochitl Torres-Small swept Congressional District 2. I want that kind of person in Santa Fe. I want to see a unifier, not a divider. We have insiders and outsiders. We need someone who can speak to both groups, as well as to the dominant cultures – Hispanic and Anglo. Morales and Rudy Martinez have done a good job at that. Common sense dictates that we listen to the will of the governor and senate leadership. They want a woman. I give my support to Siah Correa Hemphill."
Michael A. Carillo said he was born and raised and educated in Grant County. "I have three decades of public service in two counties, Grant and Luna and at the state and federal levels. I was nominated to serve as the representative of rural law enforcement, along with a sheriff from North Carolina, to serve at the federal level. I was chosen to testify before Attorney General Janet Reno and gave a report on southwest border issues, because we needed to let Washington know what we have to face on the border. I was invited to report to the U.S. Drug Czar. We've always had border issues and they are coming back. I understand the issues. I wanted to improve the quality of life for southwest residents of the border. At the state level, I served on the Sheriff's Affiliate of the New Mexico Association of Counties and as the president of the state Sheriffs' Association. I chaired a committee that oversees money from the Department of Justice sent to New Mexico for programming. I understand grants management. I was the director of the New Task Force on gang management. I was an originator of El Refugio domestic violence shelter and Tu Casa. With all this experience, I never forgot where I came from. My legislative priorities would be behavioral health and building a regional hospital for mental health, education systems and teachers and their pay and water. Once the water is gone, we won't be able to afford it."
Siah Correa Hemphill has been an educator for 25 years. "I am a small business owner, a wife and a mother. Women like me don't typically serve politically. My family has lived for generations in Grant County and we have continued to experience economic decline. School budgets have been cut so drastically that teachers can't meet the needs of all their students. Senior citizens and the disabled, like my son, have a harder time in rural areas accessing affordable health care. They are people who need a voice. We now have an administration who is willing to listen. I want to see social and economic growth and it can happen with the right representative, who is a problem solver and collaboratively bi-partisan. There will be nowhere where my voice ends and yours begins. If a child is hungry in Hurley that affects me. If a senior citizen in Santa Clara can't pay his electric bill that affects me. My legislative priorities are that people in rural areas have access to affordable health care. My son got bone cancer at age four and had to have his leg amputated. It took four years and jumping through lots of hoops to get him a wheelchair. It is unreasonable for rural areas not to get the care and equipment they need to maintain a basic level of quality of life. My second priority is infrastructure for safe roads and bridges and internet access so people can access it in rural communities. My third is education, which is interconnected to health and the well-being of the community. New Mexico is violating children's constitutional rights by failing to provide education for all children to succeed. We have long-term substitutes teaching our children without the skills and training they need. We must adequately fund early childhood and vo tech training. We have to make sure children have a safe place to go when school is not in session. It would be an honor to represent you and create a safer, healthier and more prosperous community."
Billings said that Simon Ortiz had withdrawn.
Commissioner Harry Browne moved to nominate Siah Hemphill. Billings interrupted him to say there was one more candidate who hadn't made the list.
Gilbert Guadiana apologized for not knowing about the deadline. "I appreciate the opportunity to speak. I was born and raised here. I went to Cobre and attended Western New Mexico University. I have worked at Chino and served on the school board. I had good mentors and was successful in my application to Harvard. I graduated from Harvard and came home to Grant County. I had family in California who urged me to move out there. I did and was overseeing places with serious problems. I reviewed short-term disability claims and found $1.2 billion of claims not qualified. I worked with the Legislature and saw the 'making of sausage.' I worked in Orange and Marin counties in California. I had oversight over the Health and Human Services budget. Then I served in the assessor's office where I learned about taxes. I came back to New Mexico. I worked for a time at Fort Bayard. I have a great affinity for the property. I would like to see it be resurrected. There are 468 acres which have enormous potential, with the history of the Buffalo soldiers, the internment of German POWs and the Apache. One of my primary focuses is education. I have worked in behavioral health. I have also worked on living wages, which we passed in California. I firmly believe in helping the disenfranchised, so health is the biggest issue. Thank you for allowing me to speak."
Billings noted that six candidates had spoken. "What procedure should we do going forward? Do we want to take a vote or narrow the field?"
Browne said the commission follows Robert's Rules of Order, so a motion can be made and then discussion follows.
"I would like to move we name Siah Hemphill to fill the District 28 vacancy," Browne said. Commissioner Alicia Edwards seconded it.
During the discussion, Commissioner Xavier Salas said he appreciates the gravity of the decision. "I love seeing the people here and hearing the opinions. We have a great group of candidates. We are a small community, and we know most of the candidates. It makes the decision tougher. I want to assure you we have done our due diligence. We may not agree, but it will not be spur of the moment. We will decide for the best of the county. I would like to narrow the choices, after a short recess."
Commissioner Chris Ponce said they had heard quite a bit from the public and from the candidates. "The biggest thing I want is to be fair."
Salas said he wanted to reflect a bit and look through his notes.
Billings asked for a short recess for bathroom breaks. Browne withdrew his motion and the commissioners went on a short recess.
When they reconvened, Browne moved that Siah Correa Hemphill be nominated to fill the District 28 vacancy. "We have all received a lot of information. I appreciate your willingness to serve as volunteers. The governor asked for positivity and said it begins in the homes. She also called for a better, thriving New Mexico as we work side by side. She also called for revolutionizing education by tapping the Permanent Fund. And she advocated for raising the minimum wage and called for renewable clean energy. I believe several candidates have agreed with these priorities. But one bridges the old culture and the new. Siah was a Dreamer before it was a term. She understands the plights of individuals, of hard-working individuals. She has managed great personal challenges with dignity. She has the support of her boss and her follow workers, as well as the community. I urge you to name Siah Hemphill to fill the vacancy."
Billings said he agreed with what Browne said about a few who rose to the top. "I met with Siah and another candidate that rose to the top for me."
Ponce said he got to know Siah and she is a great person. Salas said he has known Siah for a long time, and she is almost like family. "I appreciate the rest of the candidates. I was glad to have so many candidates."
Edwards thanked everyone and the public members who spoke. "I sincerely appreciate the candidates who are willing to work as volunteer legislators. I support the governor's issues. I would like to see the state pay the representatives and senators and have longer than 30-day or 60-day sessions. I try to be as bi-partisan and ungendered as possible, but I think more gender equity in the senate is needed. I think when women are in government, governance goes better. We need a balance to make sure we take care of vulnerable residents. I am in favor of Siah Hemphill."
Billing said he might not have an opportunity to speak on behalf of his candidate, Gabe Ramos. "He has worked with youth, which I admire. When he says he will do something, I can take it to the bank. Mr. Ramos, I have learned, is honorable, and I learned I could count on him. He runs a small business. I'm afraid too many legislators don't have business experience. I have received negative messages, but because they were so repetitive, I figured they came from the same source. There was no fraud, as people threw out the accusation. He has the overwhelming support of the community. He represents diversity. It has been mentioned that we should give the governor a choice. I read the statute thoroughly and the decision comes from county commissions, not Santa Fe. Once we send my candidate, the bullying from Santa Fe should stop. Gabe Ramos can step right into Howie's shoes. I agree a woman would be nice, but my wife would tell me it's discriminatory to choose on the basis of gender."
He called for the vote. Browne and Edwards voted yay and the other three voted nay, so the motion failed.
"I nominate Gabe Ramos," Billings said. The motion received two seconds. The vote was taken, and Ramos won three to two, with Billings, Ponce and Salas voting for Ramos and Browne and Edwards voting nay.
"I do appreciate it," Ramos said. "I will be here for the people. Please come see me."
Billings said: "Before we adjourn, I received exciting news from Advanced Air. They will be offering 10-pack books of tickets at $62 and some cents each one-way to or from Albuquerque."
The meeting adjourned.