Commissioner of Public Lands race presents some broad differences in future of the SLO

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ProgressNow New Mexico will be looking at some top-level races more in-depth over the next few weeks to bring our perspective to the key races we’re expecting to see in New Mexico this year. New Mexico is in the national spotlight as one of the “most likely to flip” states in terms of our governor’s race. Our series will focus on the offices that New Mexicans can vote for statewide. This is the fourth piece in our series.

The New Mexico State Land Office (SLO) is first and foremost charged with managing the vast amounts of land within our state’s borders, managing leases and sales to entities who use the land, and collecting monies from those sales and leases to fund education in the state.

New Mexico was granted land from the federal government when it became a state in 1912. Unlike Eastern states that were semi-autonomous before the US became an independent country or southern and midwestern states that were purchased outright under President Jefferson, southwestern states were born from the remnants of Mexico’s territory before losing what is known as the Mexican-American War. The only purchased land is the small sliver of land in southern New Mexico and Arizona known as the Gadsden Purchase, but even then, all the land that eventually made up the state of New Mexico was federally managed as a territory before becoming a state.

Knowing this is important in an age when Sagebrush Rebellion types like the Bundy family and their ilk try and claim that western states are “sovereign” in any way. Over a century of legal rulings backs the view that states were deeded land and that other land inside the state is still managed federally. This issue is still very much relevant to voters as they make choices about who the next Commissioner of Public Lands will be, starting with primaries in June.

Let’s start by highlighting how the office has changed in just the last 4 years. When Aubrey Dunn defeated Ray Powell in 2014, Dunn made some very obvious changes to the outward appearance of the SLO, most visibly by removing a piece of public art from in front of the SLO’s physical office in Santa Fe and replacing it with a model pump jack. Most (correctly) took this as a sign that Dunn’s mission would be to push extraction on the state’s holdings and that it would be a struggle for New Mexicans concerned with public lands (Dunn resoundingly does NOT believe state lands are public lands in the same way federal public lands are). Four years later and that all mostly holds true. Dunn has done what he can to issue more drilling permits throughout the state, as well as not fighting for stream access for anglers in the state or pushing back against the Governor’s Stream Commission (a different body) as they ignored public sentiment and moved forward with plans to dam the Gila River.

Another physical and noticeable change at the SLO under a Republican Commissioner is the website. Take a look here to see what the SLO website looked like BEFORE Dunn took over the office. You can see that under the Democratic leadership of Powell, the site highlighted the multiuse function of New Mexico’s state lands, with an emphasis in renewable energy and outdoor recreation. Dunn’s management changed the site to literally using Old West fonts and narrowly focusing on extraction.

And now, because Dunn has changed his party affiliation to Libertarian and is running for Senate, the seat for New Mexico’s Commissioner of Public Lands is open once again. And the field is a little crowded.

The Republican

Patrick (Pat) Lyons was the CPL from 2003-2010 under Gov. Bill Richardson. He has been servicing in the Public Regulation Commission since his time at the SLO, where he’s continued to tow conservative values as he has throughout his time in public office. If there’s any question about his values in terms of how state lands should be used, during his third year as CPL back in 2006 he was recognized by the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association “for outstanding contribution to New Mexico oil and gas industry.” He’s also openly backed opposition to protecting important cultural and recreational areas as national monuments such as Rio Grande del Norte and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and says he’d demand payment or land swaps to compensate the state for the loss of state lands inside those monument boundaries. But he doesn’t exactly have a great track record with making those kinds of deals, most notably (and egregiously) with the Dixon’s Apple Orchard deal when he was CPL in 2006. While much of the bad press of that debacle fell on his predecessor, Lyons is and should be held accountable for making the bad deal in the first place.

The Democrats

Three Democrats are in contention for the Commissioner of Public Lands this year, creating yet another crowded primary race in June for their party.

Using the metrics from the Democrats March pre-primary convention we’ll start with the seeming front-runner, State Representative Stephanie Garcia Richard. Garcia Richard has said she had considered running for the seat before Powell announced he was running, but opted to get back into it after he told her of his plan to drop out for health reasons. The three-term state representative is Chair of the House Education Committee, giving her a unique view of the role state lands plays in funding public education in the state. She also has a pretty good record of voting for environmental protections that conservation-minded voters would likely care about, with an 85% lifetime score from Conservation Voters of New Mexico.

Garcia Richard, if elected, would be the first woman in the state of New Mexico to hold the position of Commissioner of Public Lands. But, her victory in the pre-primary was a narrow one, garnering about 44% of the vote from delegates to her next closest contender, Garrett VeneKlasen, who received 39% from delegates.

VeneKlasen is (although he’s officially on a leave of absence during his campaign) the Executive Director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation. He was the second candidate to announce his running after Powell had initially announced, making him the longest running candidate in this race, technically. VeneKlasen hasn’t held any major elected positions to have a clear vision of his stance on issues, but his life outside does point to someone extremely dedicated to land preservation. His bio consists of being a professional guide and outfitter in New Mexico, working with major groups besides NMWF on land issues, and of course being one of the loudest voices in recent years for the State Land Office to do more to protect state lands for access and conservation issues.

VeneKlasen has also picked up some pretty high-profile endorsements from Senator Martin Heinrich, a fellow outdoorsman, a slew of statewide elected officials who’ve worked on conservation issues in the state including State Representative Angelica Rubio, State Senator Bill Soules, and local county commissioners from around the state in areas where conservation issues have been localized. He’s also received endorsements from the major conservation groups in the state including Conservation Voters of New Mexico and Sierra Club.

The third Democrat on the primary ballot this June is George Muñoz, a state senator from Gallup that the Santa Fe New Mexican calls “conservative” in their pieces about him. Given his paltry 45% score from CVNM and 100% score from the NRA, it does seem that this Democrat is not as far left as voters are hoping for. Indeed, he only garnered 17% of delegates’ votes in March, having to then turn in more signatures to stay on the ballot. In a crowded field with a traditional Republican AND a Libertarian candidate as well, it will be interesting to see if Muñoz can pull out enough support in June to vie for the position in the General.

That being said, he is being endorsed by front-runner in the Lt. Governor’s race and fellow state senator Howie Morales and seems to be keeping pace with other candidates in terms of his grassroots outreach.

The Libertarian

As with other Libertarian candidates, it’s been difficult to find much on Michael Lucero that’s readily available. What we do know is that he ran as a Republican in 2016 but lost in the primary to Michael Romero. He’s apparently switched to the now third major party in NM and is running for CPL as a Libertarian. His campaign Facebook appears to be recycled from that 2016 congressional run as pictures show campaign info for that race, but there are a few news articles out there to give you a sense of Lucero’s positions on state lands.

He’s a rancher who has battled with the federal government over access to grazing areas within his permit for years, even going to Washington DC at some point to press his case. The issue was apparently an around endangered species that federal agencies were seeking to protect, which Lucero considered “wasting” resources. Unlike some of his fellow Libertarian candidates, Lucero appears to be fully qualified on the ballot already and so will likely be a viable candidate in November.