Two candidates, with a 30-year age gap between them and distinct resumes, are competing to be the Democratic nominee for New Mexico State Auditor.
Democrats have had a lock on the office for 51 years, except for the two years Republican Wayne Johnson served as an appointee of Gov. Susana Martinez from 2017 to 2019.
Brian Colón, the current state auditor, is not seeking another term, running instead for Attorney General. He would succeed Attorney General Hector Balderas, a fellow Democrat who has previously served as state auditor himself.
With no Republican candidates seeking the office in Tuesday’s primary elections, the winner of the Democratic primary for state auditor could prove decisive. The nominee will face Libertarian Robert Jason Vaillancourt in the Nov. 8 general election.
The OSA, with a $4 million budget and a full-time staff of less than 40, functions as an independent watchdog over public money managed by local and state government entities and agencies.
Joseph Maestas of Santa Fe is an elected member of the state Public Regulation Commission and among the last elected members of the body, which is transitioning to an appointed board. His term concludes on Dec. 31
Maestas, with degrees and professional experience in engineering, was elected to the PRC in 2020 following an unsuccessful run for Santa Fe mayor in 2018. He had previously served on the Santa Fe City Council, and earlier as mayor of Española and president of the nonprofit New Mexico Municipal League.
In an interview, Maestas pointed to his municipal government experience as well as his work in the federal government, including stints managing and auditing highway projects, as best suited for the role of state auditor.
Zack Quintero of Las Cruces, a millennial who lost a bid for the Albuquerque City Council in 2019 and served as state ombudsman in Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration during the COVID-19 pandemic, countered by saying his experience accounting for agencies’ use of federal relief dollars and the practices of hospitals and long-term care facilities made him the best-suited candidate.
“People’s care was dependent on my investigation,” Quintero said.
Both candidates said they planned to make the office public-facing and proactive in order to head off waste, fraud and abuse. Both emphasized up-to-date software available to detect issues in procurement procedures and other concerns. Maestas, for his part, also promised to seek a higher budget from lawmakers to support the office’s investigative arm.
Maestas said he would direct resources to promote best practices and compliance with administrative codes and law, and encourage the hire to internal auditors or inspectors general. He also suggested the OSA’s government accountability office, limited to one full-time staffer, would take on a more direct investigatory role under his supervision.
“There’s a number of best practices that can be used to build capacity, to bolster and improve internal financial controls, especially in organizations that have had difficulty reconciling their financial books,” Maestas said.
Quintero emphasized that the state auditor’s responsibility included a “social justice element,” citing former auditor Tim Keller (now Albuquerque’s mayor), who conducted a special audit of a backlog of untested sexual assault evidence kits held at law enforcement agencies statewide in 2016.
With the June 7 primary approach, the candidates have sharpened their comments about their rivals and questioned each other’s integrity.
Maestas has emphasized Quintero’s younger age and alleged that Quintero has inflated his experience and resume. He also downplayed the significance of the Democrats’ preprimary convention in March, where Quintero took 62 percent of delegates’ votes for the office.
Maestas holds an edge over Quintero in fundraising and has outspent his rival by $157,484 to Quintero’s $124,179. Vaillancourt, the presumptive Libertarian candidate, has only $100 in his campaign account.
Quintero, meanwhile, has pointed to donations Maestas received from donors who have had business before the PRC.
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers filed an ethics complaint over a $250 donation from Mariel Nanasi, executive director of the nonprofit New Energy Economy, a frequent intervenor in cases before the PRC.
On Tuesday — exactly one week before primary day — IBEW publicized another contribution to Maestas’ campaign, this one from renewable energy executive Joseph Henri, who sits on the board of the Coalition for Community Solar Access, a lobbying group that successfully petitioned the PRC for additional time to comment on new solar energy rules. The campaign contribution from Henri was for $2,500.
Quintero denied receiving any support from IBEW, although he has touted endorsements from other union organizations.
He demurred on commenting about IBEW’s allegation, but Maestas argued the suggestion of impropriety over a legal donation was timed to tarnish his candidacy in the campaign’s final days.
Maestas called IBEW’s leadership “corrupt” and said he had earned the union’s disfavor after opposing a proposed $8 billion merger of the Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM), the state’s largest utility company, with energy corporation Avangrid. The merger was rejected unanimously by the PRC’s five commissioners.
“This is the last gasp of a very deceptive, fraudulent campaign that the voters are really not going to listen to,” Maestas said.
Algernon D’Ammassa can be reached at 575-541-5451, [email protected] or @AlgernonWrites on Twitter.
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