Repub­li­can Pearce out to defy vot­ers’ as­sump­tions

The Taos News - - ELECTION 2018 - By Tripp Stel­nicki tstel­nicki@sfnewmex­i­

AL­BU­QUERQUE–These are quiet con­ver­sa­tions.

A few dozen con­ser­va­tives have as­sem­bled in the back­room of a North­east Heights restau­rant, and here, clois­tered away from what they be­lieve is the in­creas­ingly lib­eral tenor of the state’s largest city, they can talk freely.

It’s a safe space. Still, voices are low.

These sex­ual as­sault al­le­ga­tions can ruin a man’s ca­reer, one says. The fam­ily sep­a­ra­tions at the bor­der started un­der Pres­i­dent Barack Obama – and you didn’t hear the lib­er­als com­plain about it then, did you? Be­sides, if you com­mit a crime, like these folks try­ing to en­ter the coun­try, you’re go­ing to pay a price.

“I’d like to have a con­ver­sa­tion with one of these so­cial­ists where they don’t call me a racist in 15 sec­onds,” one man says, and his seat­mates chuckle. “I’d like to have it.”

The main event be­gins on the big screen, and the Demo­cratic can­di­date holds forth at her lectern, men­tion­ing the “dra­matic ef­fects of cli­mate change.” The room groans.

Their man re­sponds: I rep­re­sent a fo­cused new era, ap­pren­tice­ships for kids and a health­ier econ­omy, not a re­turn to “cor­rup­tion.”

This is ex­actly what they’re talk­ing about. This is ex­actly why they’re for him.

“The things he’s say­ing – if he can do ‘em – it’ll be great,” says Fred Brust, re­tired from a ca­reer in man­u­fac­tur­ing metal de­tec­tors.

“He’s a very straight­for­ward man,” says Abra­ham Key­van, study­ing for a grad­u­ate de­gree in ac­count­ing at the Univer­sity of New Mex­ico. “He goes straight to the point.”

Their can­di­date, Repub­li­can Steve Pearce, ar­rives af­ter the tele­vised de­bate. Like a con­quer­ing hero, he re­ceives a stand­ing ova­tion as he moves through the crowd, slap­ping backs and pos­ing for pho­to­graphs.

“Stay ag­gres­sive,” a man solemnly tells him.

“We will,” Pearce says.

Mr. Mod­er­ate

Pearce, 71, is not the­atri­cal or par­tic­u­larly com­bat­ive. He’s not a Don­ald Trump Repub­li­can in that sense.

He’s easy­go­ing and says he’s glad to roll up his sleeves and work with you, who­ever you are. He’s not a Su­sana Martinez Repub­li­can.

That’s the idea the seven-term con­gress­man and Air Force vet­eran has sought to present to an elec­torate that has watched its ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem lan­guish and its econ­omy hang on the capri­cious tides of oil rev­enue un­der Martinez’s eight years on the fourth floor of the Roundhouse.

State Democrats have coun­tered with an­other pic­ture: Can­di­date Pearce is lit­tle more than a dis­guise for Con­gress­man Pearce, the con­ser­va­tive cul­ture war­rior whose votes in Wash­ing­ton be­lie his sunny cam­paign-trail mes­sage about help­ing teach­ers and diver­si­fy­ing the econ­omy.

Pearce has in­sisted none of his mod­er­a­tion is con­trived.

“Ex­treme en­vi­ron­men­tal groups,” he said in re­cent in­ter­view, “they pour in about a mil­lion each elec­tion against me, and that has caused peo­ple to think, ‘Oh, he’s this way.’ Ac­tu­ally, I’m the way I am. I’m the way I am sit­ting here. I ac­tu­ally get along ex­tremely well with peo­ple I don’t agree with philo­soph­i­cally.

It’s not just pre­tense, and it’s not just com­ing along right now,” he added.

On the cam­paign trail, he of­ten high­lights his pos­i­tive work­ing re­la­tion­ship with Max­ine Wa­ters, the fire­brand Demo­cratic con­gress­woman from Los An­ge­les, who has called on Democrats to dis­rupt the per­sonal lives of Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials.

On the flip side, he also men­tions how John Boehner, the for­mer Ohio con­gress­man and speaker of the U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, found him dif­fi­cult, cit­ing this or that episode of in­tra­party dis­con­tent from ear­lier in the decade. Nei­ther Wa­ters nor Boehner re­turned mes­sages seek­ing com­ment on their re­spec­tive re­la­tion­ships with Pearce.

Pearce’s in­tent is clear. He has pitched him­self as an in­de­pen­dent-minded man­ager.

Now, in the race for gover­nor, he’s rid­ing the name recog­ni­tion that comes from a decade­plus in the state’s con­gres­sional del­e­ga­tion while also try­ing to demon­strate to vot­ers he’s not who they might have heard he is.

His mes­sages are blunt. Put money into class­rooms, al­le­vi­ate crime, re­me­di­ate poverty and build the econ­omy. Pearce’s Demo­cratic op­po­nent, Michelle Lu­jan Grisham, has is­sued pol­icy pack­ets on some of the same is­sues, but those ideas are the heart of it, he said, sim­ple as that.

“Even be­fore we had a (cam­paign) team, those were the path­ways, and they were just nat­u­ral to me,” Pearce said.

That means you won’t hear much of any­thing from Pearce, at least on the trail, about his anti-abor­tion record, “tra­di­tional mar­riage” or even the pres­i­dent. Pearce cam­paigned with Trump in 2016 but has since seen the pres­i­dent’s un­pop­u­lar­ity in New Mex­ico metas­ta­size.

Asked point-blank whether he would en­ter­tain a Trump rally held in his honor, the con­gress­man said, “I don’t know,” and sug­gested it’s not likely to hap­pen.

Some con­tend Pearce is a mys­tery man out­side South­ern New Mex­ico.

“I know that he’s a con­ser­va­tive con­gress­man, but I don’t know how much the rest of the state knows he’s a con­ser­va­tive con­gress­man,” said Lonna Atke­son, a po­lit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of New Mex­ico. Pearce, though, has

run two statewide cam­paigns be­fore, los­ing U.S. Se­nate con­tests in 2000 and 2008. He said he hides noth­ing.

“I’m just fairly stan­dard,” he said. “The gen­eral con­sen­sus I get is, ‘You’re not nearly like the me­dia por­trays you.’”

Then there’s the other part of the ar­gu­ment. Pearce, trail­ing in the polls, has re­lent­lessly at­tacked Lu­jan Grisham, the three-term con­gress­woman from Al­bu­querque.

Most im­por­tant, how­ever, in a midterm year Democrats are ex­pected to dom­i­nate, is the ap­peal to vot­ers in the mid­dle of the spec­trum.

A mid-Septem­ber poll showed Pearce had a sig­nif­i­cant ad­van­tage with the state’s reg­is­tered in­de­pen­dents.

The Pearce cam­paign has trum­peted the en­dorse­ment of for­mer Gov. Jerry Apo­daca, a Demo­crat who served a term in the late 1970s. Apo­daca’s son, Jeff, lost to Lu­jan Grisham in this year’s Demo­cratic pri­mary elec­tion.

Russ Spicher, a re­tired Air Force vet­eran who worked in se­cu­rity for New Mex­ico’s mil­i­tary bases, said Pearce “makes things hap­pen. He’ll work across the aisle.”

A reg­is­tered in­de­pen­dent, an Al­bu­querque man who works in qual­ity con­trol for a con­struc­tion out­fit, came to a Pearce cam­paign event this fall. The man, who de­clined to give his name, said he liked that Pearce is “busi­nesslike.”

“All politi­cians have their BS,” he said. “But then again, how much? He’s a straight shooter.”

Pearce has also put his back­ground in small-busi­ness man­age­ment to work in his ar­gu­ment that he would be a dif­fer­ent kind of gover­nor than Martinez, who has clashed in­ces­santly with the Leg­is­la­ture.

Martinez, a two-term Repub­li­can who has seen her pop­u­lar­ity wane, is nowhere to be found in the race. In­deed, she seems to be more in­ter­ested in the gu­ber­na­to­rial elec­tion in Ne­vada, cam­paign­ing for the Repub­li­can can­di­date there ear­lier this month.

In the state she gov­erns, she has de­clined to of­fer any­thing more than a per­func­tory state­ment of sup­port for Pearce. Mes­sages to her spokesman seek­ing com­ment on the race were not re­turned.

But Martinez is a fac­tor in the race, whether she wants to be or not. The last time New Mex­ico elected a Repub­li­can to suc­ceed a Repub­li­can gover­nor was 1920. Gov­er­nors served twoyear terms then.

And the state has al­ter­nated two-term gov­er­nors of dif­fer­ent par­ties since Gary John­son was first elected in 1994.

Some Re­pub­li­cans, like state Rep. Re­becca Dow, R-Truth or Con­se­quences, say it won’t mat­ter.

Pearce has the R by his name, she said, but he’s not the typ­i­cal po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tor.

“You don’t achieve what he’s achieved by be­ing par­ti­san,” Dow said. “You might in­herit that if you’re a trust fund baby. You might in­herit that op­por­tu­nity. The dude grew up in a chicken coop.”

Mak­ing the case

The eye-pop­ping oil pro­duc­tion from the Per­mian Basin means a pro­jected $1.2 bil­lion in new rev­enue for the state, per­haps even more.

“This can­not be squan­dered,” Pearce said. “We need to ap­proach it very care­fully in­stead of like a feed­ing frenzy.”

The con­gress­man said he wants to in­vest in the state’s in­fra­struc­ture: roads, sewer sys­tems, broad­band in­ter­net.

“I do not want to grow gov­ern­ment. Some things might have to be made whole,” he said, re­fer­ring to cuts in ed­u­ca­tion and other ar­eas in re­cent, more aus­tere bud­get cy­cles.

He has pro­posed a se­ries of hy­dro­ponic green­houses across the state to pro­vide fresh food for schoolchil­dren – and a lit­tle lo­cal rev­enue to boot.

Pearce won’t bend on recre­ational cannabis, un­like Lu­jan Grisham, who has said she would usher in le­gal pot if the Leg­is­la­ture drafted a re­spon­si­ble ap­proach.

He has big ideas for Space­port Amer­ica, say­ing he en­vi­sions the fa­cil­ity near Truth or Con­se­quences serv­ing as a base for Trump’s newly pro­posed Space Corps, a fourth branch of the mil­i­tary, as well as the space tourism in­dus­try ob­servers ex­pect to grow rapidly in the near fu­ture.

And even if he has left the con­ser­va­tive dar­lings on the cam­paign side­line, a proud Chris­tian Repub­li­can in the Gover­nor’s Of­fice would be wel­come for what it would sig­nal, at the least, on those is­sues, some con­ser­va­tives said.

“It would be great to see a gover­nor cham­pion the cause a lit­tle bit more,” said Elisa Martinez of the New Mex­ico Al­liance for Life, an anti-abor­tion group.

But with Democrats in con­trol of the state Se­nate and likely to main­tain, if not ex­pand, their ma­jor­ity in the state House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, a Repub­li­can gover­nor would need to sing a bi­par­ti­san song to be suc­cess­ful. Pearce ac­knowl­edged as much.

“I saw (for­mer Gov. Gary) John­son stay up on the fourth floor,” he said. “You can get iso­lated up there. We need to work out the things be­tween us be­fore we can get it on a piece of pa­per.

“As to whether Pearce could be that bi­par­ti­san gover­nor, House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said he would be “hope­ful but very, very skep­ti­cal.”

“I’ve been do­ing this for two years,” he added. “I know the kind of Re­pub­li­cans we can work with. I don’t see any­thing in Steve Pearce’s record that makes me think he can do that.”

Gabriela Cam­pos/The New Mex­i­can

Pearce fist-bumps Justin Fitzger­ald at Mykonos Cafe in Al­bu­querque, where sup­port­ers gath­ered in mid-Oc­to­ber for a gu­ber­na­to­rial de­bate watch party.

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