The first debate between Democrat Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham who is seeking a second term and TV Weatherman personality Republican Mark Ronchetti was billed by Channel 4 as an anticipated heated exchange, and the candidates did not disappoint. Libertarian Party candidate for Governor Karen Bedonie was not invited to debate. The debate was moderated by Channel 4 reporters Tessa Mentus and Matt Grubs. Both candidates intensified their attacks on each other, sometimes getting very personal.
Recent polls show that Ronchetti is trailing in the race by between 4% and 7% with one poll suggesting that Governor Lujan Grisham has a 12% lead. The polls also revealed that abortion, crime, the economy are the top 3 issues in the race.
It came as no surprise that Ronchetti, who spoke first, seized the chance to slam the Governor on New Mexico’s high violent crime rates and the shutdown of businesses and in-person schooling during the peak of the pandemic.
Lujan Grisham for her part stood her ground and pushed back sharply offering herself as battled-tested leader willing to make tough decisions in contrast to an opponent who’s never held office before and who has never had to make tough decisions in times of crisis.
The debate itself covered a wide range of subjects including crime, abortion, the state’s education system, the economy, the judicial system and the pandemic. Both stood their ground and exchange accusations and at times personal insults.
Abortion is considered the defining issue in the race.
In 2021, Lujan Grisham helped legislators repealed the dormant 1969 statute that had outlawed abortion procedures as felonies. The 1969 criminal law could have been enforced following the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.
Lujan Grisham had this to say:
“If Mark Ronchetti was governor today, abortion would be illegal in the state of New Mexico. … Because I’m governor, abortion is legal in the state of New Mexico. As long as I’m governor, a woman’s constitutional right to privacy to make her own highly, deeply personal decisions about her health care and her family’s will stay legal. … The fact that anyone should get to vote about my personal health care decision is quite frankly outrageous.”
Ronchetti has insisted on the campaign trail that he would not seek to ban abortion entirely despite his personal anti-abortion views. Ronchetti is advocating for a ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy with exceptions for rape, incest and risk to the physical health of the mother proposing a statewide referendum on abortion restrictions.
“Everybody in the state of New Mexico should be able to vote on it and come up with something that fits our shared values.”
In mid-July, Mark Ronchetti’s promise on the campaign trail that he would not seek to ban abortion entirely was seriously discredited when Legacy Church Pastor Steve Smothermon told his Christian fundamentalist “mega church” congregation in a Sunday sermon that Ronchetti personally confessed to him in private that he made the promise only to get elected. Smothermon was quoted as saying:
“[Mark Ronchetti] said, ‘listen, I just want to start with getting rid of partial birth abortion in the whole state’–which we should be happy with–and he said ‘but I can’t just go in and do it 100% because I won’t ever get elected.’ He said I just want to start but his goal would be to end abortion in New Mexico. Just so you know.”
Lujan Grisham for her part said in rebuttal that Ronchetti has shifted his positions on abortion “more than the weather changes right here in New Mexico.” Lujan Grisham also said no politician, no voter and no government has any right to tell a woman if she should have an abortion.
CRIME AND CRIMINAL JUSTICE
Ronchetti focused on New Mexico’s high violent crime rate pointing out that the state is second in the nation in 2020. Ronchetti faulted the governor on crime and public safety. He accused the Governor of appointing judges who are “soft on crime” and made it more difficult to be a police officer. He accused her of not trying hard enough to secure legislative approval to revise the state’s bail system for criminal defendants.
Ronchetti said this:
“We have soft-on-crime judges and we still have catch-and-release. … If you think the system is broken, she is the head of the system. … There has to be a change here — she hasn’t taken crime seriously.”
Lujan immediately shot back suggesting Ronchetti has only superficial plans for tackling complex problems and said this:
“Bold words from someone who’s never even been to a legislative session.”
Ronchetti ridiculed the governor as out of step with the struggles of ordinary New Mexicans and acted with sarcastic faux indignation at the idea that he had not spent time at the Capitol to understand New Mexico’s problems. Ronchetti said this:
“Are you kidding me? Everybody in Albuquerque lives it. We live it — we live the crime everyday. … You don’t have to go to the Roundhouse.”
A voter-approved constitutional amendment in 2016 made it harder to deny bail while defendants await trial. Lujan Grisham did attempt to make changes to the law of pretrial detention, but the legislature failed to adopt a “presumption of being violent” standard to hold defendant charged with a violent crime in jail pending trial.
Governor Lujan Grisham was also critical of the state’s bail system but also pointed to accomplishments that will improve the judicial system. She noted that she signed legislation that boosts retention pay for municipal police and sheriff’s deputies, bestows million-dollar death benefits for relatives of police killed in the line of duty and expanded intervention programs to rein in gun violence. Lujan Grisham had this to say:
“We’re giving our police officers the raises and dignity they deserve, the professional development training, the tools to keep them safe, the equipment and vehicles, a new crime lab.”
When asked about education, both candidates agreed that smaller class sizes would help boost New Mexico student outcomes. Ronchetti focused on New Mexico’s dismal academic proficiency rates for students.
But neither Ronchetti nor Lujan Grisham laid out a plan to respond to the 2018 landmark public education court decision Martinez-Yazzie that found New Mexico was failing to meet its constitutional obligation to provide an adequate education to all students, particularly Native Americans and English-language learners.
Lujan Grisham urged the public to support her increase in new state spending in public education and college subsidies, arguing the small businesses crave a prepared workforce. Lujan Grisham said this:
“We’ve invested billions of dollars into public school classrooms and to the pay raises for teachers and to expanded pre-K and daycare and … tuition-free higher education for thousands of New Mexicans. The seeds are planted. Positive change is truly our destiny.”
THE ECONOMY AND STATE REVENUES
Ronchetti repeatedly asked viewers if they thought they were better off amid pressures of inflation, and whether they could feel the effects of the governor’s programs. Ronchetti said this:
“Have you felt it in your bottom line? Do you look at things now and say, ‘yes, I can afford what I need to afford. … A lot of your programs are not making a difference for people on the ground.”
Lujan Grisham responded by noting her administration this year delivered tax cuts on sales and gross receipts, along with tax rebates of up to $1,500 per household, touting her ability to work with a Democrat-led Legislature. Lujan Grisham said this:
“He says he proposes it, I already did it.”
On the issue of the state’s projected $2.5 billion in “new” revenue for the coming budget year, Lujan Grisham attributed the windfall to her administration’s efforts on the economy and she said this:
“These record revenues are because our economic policies worked.”
However, legislative economists have said that roughly two-thirds of the projected revenue growth is expected to come directly from oil and natural gas receipts.
As expected, Ronchetti took issue with the Governor’s handling of the pandemic with business closures and school closings saying how it damaged the state’s economy and education system. However, Ronchetti failed to elaborate on exactly what he would have done differently.
Lujan Grisham acknowledged the pain of the pandemic and state’s largest wildfire. But she said her experienced as a leader was needed in the time of crisis and she said this:
“We’ve come a long way in four years. … As New Mexicans we’ve been through a lot. I remain steadfast in my optimism about what comes next.”
Links to quoted news source materials are here:
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS
Like it or not, physical appearances and mannerism do make an impression in live TV debates.
Not at all surprising is that Mark Ronchetti, a longtime TV personality and former meteorologist for KRQE Channel 13, looked comfortable on camera wearing a dark suit and tie that stood out which is in sharp contrast to the blue jeans and dress shirt he is known to wear on the campaign trail. During the debate, he frequently came across as downright angry and his over pronunciation of words gritting of his teeth was annoying. What was downright unprofessional was Ronchetti’s exaggerated, childish facial expressions he made to show his displeasure with the Governor and make a point when he did not like what the Governor was saying in response to questions.
Lujan Grisham, a former congresswoman with lengthy TV debate experience, for her part did a good job in pivoting from Ronchetti’s attacks and pitched her experience in office. What was annoying is that she wore a light blue outfit that seem to have her blend into the TV backdrop as she was forced to speak around a TV microphone that obstructed a clear view of her.
Ultimately, there were no major gaffs by either candidate and the debate did not produce a clear winner. Given the fact the debate occurred on a Friday night at 7:00 pm on Channel 4, the likely viewership was very low and had no impact on the race. Las Cruces is not within Channel 4’s market media and therefore the residents of the state’s second largest city were unable to see the debate.
Absentee voting begins October 11. Election Day is November 8.