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ALBUQUERQUE — New Mexico’s new elections director said allegations of ethics violations within the secretary of state’s office will not hamper the administration of this year’s elections.
However, some county clerks say they have little confidence in the secretary of state’s office, and political observers suggest the allegations and a recent string of corruption scandals involving New Mexico Democrats could result in fallout at the polls this year.
Secretary of State Mary Herrera, New Mexico’s No. 3 elected official and the state’s chief elections officer, was accused earlier this month by a former elections director of violating the Governmental Conduct Act.
Herrera has denied claims that she ordered certain employees to collect signatures for her re-election campaign and that she insisted employees solicit “sponsorships or donations” from businesses that contract with the state to support training seminars for county clerk staff.
While the allegations may not be as serious as those leveled in scandals that landed two former state treasurers and a former state Senate leader in federal prison, political analyst Brian Sanderoff said the claims against the secretary of state’s office could be used as political ammunition.
“Oftentimes, a single allegation in a single news day means nothing, but what will be its future consequences and
implications? Will the attorney general think it rises to the level of an investigation? Will Republican candidates take this allegation and use it as another example of a Democratic elected official’s misdeeds? It’s how it will be used that will determine its significance,” Sanderoff said.
Sanderoff and Lonna Atkeson, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico, also said voters seem more disappointed than surprised whenever new ethics allegations surface.
Atkeson said ethics reforms — along with ideas for turning around the economy — could make for “a pretty good storm for Republicans” during campaign season.
Herrera is up for re-election this year. She will be unopposed in the Democratic primary and will face Republican state Sen. Dianna Duran of Tularosa in the general election.
On Friday, Herrera appointed her deputy, Don Francisco Trujillo II, as the new elections director. He replaces A.J. Salazar, who in his resignation letter claimed Herrera and Trujillo retaliated against him for voicing concerns.
Trujillo said the secretary of state’s office overcame the intense scrutiny and logistical challenges of the 2008 election to “run a good election,” and it will overcome any stigma resulting from the ethics allegations.
“Politics is politics and if you’re going to be involved at any level, you better have thick skin,” Trujillo said.
Being an election year, Trujillo acknowledged that the office will be under greater scrutiny.
County election officials, including Fran Hanhardt in San Juan County and Denise Lamb in Santa Fe County, said they don’t believe the controversy swirling around the secretary of state’s office will directly affect voters because poll workers and clerks at the local level are the ones who actually administer elections.
“Each county clerk cares very strongly for the community that they serve. Elections in the state of New Mexico are going to go off without a hitch in spite of the secretary of state’s office,” Hanhardt said.