Thursday, May 26, 2016

Oscar and Jeff Square off at the Blue Moon Bar:  Part II

Jeff Steinborn and Oscar Vasquez Butler are both itching for a chance to take on incumbent State Senator Lee Cotter in the fall and snatch back Senate District 36, which is so highly gerrymandered (click here for a map of the district) it has never developed an identity or, perhaps, even a sexual orientation, of its own.  This is basically a Democratic seat except for Picacho Hills, which is upscale Republican, and a few precincts scattered to the East of Picacho Hills in relatively new upper middle-class neighborhoods.  It covers lots of mutually incompatible territory, lumping voters from the farming communities near Elephant Butte Dam (Garfield to Hatch) down to the aging yuppielands near Picacho Hills and working class urban residential precincts in the heart of Las Cruces.  No one can adequately represent all the different and often conflicting interests of the voters of this district, and the incumbent is likely, as in the past, to rely on the ignorance or inattentiveness of local voters to escape cross-pressure scrutiny on specific votes.  Cross-cutting cleavages could be the middle names of this district, and when voters are paying attention, you will make enemies no matter what you do.

Mary Jane Garcia held onto the seat for many years essentially involving herself with statewide, not local, interests (except for capital outlay), and as a cheerleader for Governor Bill Richardson and the state Democratic Party.  She was defeated soundly in 2012 by a virtual unknown, Lee Cotter, after getting caught taking campaign funds for travel expenses while asking for reimbursements for the same trip from the state.  She had been dogged by other ethical accusations for many years.

For a brief background on each candidate, click here for the LC Sun News official version.
Oscar Vasquez Butler

Jeff Steinborn

Butler is familiar with the lack of coherence of this district, since he represented a very similar one as a county commissioner, stretching from Caballo Lake in the North down to the South Valley.  In spite of a great deal of essentially condescending (or simply racist) social pressure, Butler was known for his strong advocacy of people living in colonias (by definition, substandard housing neighborhoods), and helped mobilize county attention to the programs and funding available.  While doing so might have been unpopular in establishment circles, he managed to become chair of the Dona Ana County commission, and President of the NM Association of Counties--so he knows how to get along with fellow office-holders.  He was never, however, so ingratiating as to become an establishment figure within the Democratic Party--always a bit of outlaw in him stemming from his days as a volunteer for Cesar Chavez.

Steinborn has also been around a long time, having been elected to the House first from 2006-2010; and then again in 2012 and 2014.  Like Nathan Small, he has been associated with the Liberal organization known as the Progressive Voters Alliance.  Also like Small, Steinborn works for the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, as Southern NM Director.  Also like Small, he is best known for his leadership in creating the Oregon Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument.  But he is also known for his help with many civic activities, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, Boys and Girls Club, Klein Park improvements, Radium Springs Community Center, and so on.  Click here for his website for more background. 

Turnout is critical in a primary election, and in this aspect of the campaign Steinborn may have an advantage.  He is skilled with social media, election technology, and is likely to make serious efforts to get his identified voters to the polls.  On the other hand, if overall turnout is decent, Butler probably is closer to the cultural core of the district, giving him an advantage, turnout notwithstanding.

There isn't much statewide interest in this campaign.  The winner of the primary is expected to beat Cotter in the general, for a net gain on one seat for the Democrats.  But there are other senate seats said to be in contention:  Democrat John Sapien, for example, has a primary opponent and the general election is likely to be competitive, so the D's could lose a seat there, offsetting a defeat, should it materialize, of Cotter.  Another seat said to be in play is that of Bill Soules, Democrat, said to be in a tough race against a Republican challenger.

One element that remains unknown in the general election is the Trump factor.  It remains to be seen whether the anger Trump taps into against the political class goes down to the New Mexico precinct level.  There are some initial signs that it does, at least in some areas normally solid for the Democratic Party.  With Bernie, who directs existing anger not toward people, but toward policies, apparently out of the picture, and with Hillary continuing to slump in national polls due to questions about her character, a surge for Trump among voters of both parties could have a significant impact on the down-ballot elections.  But this is beyond predictability at this point in time.

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