Republican Pearce out to defy voters’ assumptions
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.
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.”
Pearce fist-bumps Justin Fitzgerald at Mykonos Cafe in Albuquerque, where supporters gathered in mid-October for a gubernatorial debate watch party.