While she was gathering signatures to run for a seat on the Las Cruces City Council several weeks ago, state employee Kasandra Gandara sent a campaign-related text message from her government cell phone.
State law doesn’t let government employees use public resources to campaign. Gandara knows the text wasn’t appropriate.
“I wish I could take it back, because it was never my intent to spend taxpayer dollars on that,” she told NMPolitics.net.
Gandara manages nine offices in southern New Mexico for the state’s Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD). She’s currently on leave from her job while she campaigns for the open District 1 City Council seat, so she no longer has the CYFD cell phone.
But Gandara was setting up her campaign and gathering voters’ signatures to qualify for the ballot before she took a leave of absence. Anna Juarez, who lives in the district Gandara is seeking to represent, was helping the campaign gather signatures before filing day in late September.
That’s when Gandara sent the text message to a non-governmental phone belonging to Sally Carter, her campaign treasurer. Carter is also CYFD’s financial coordinator in Las Cruces.
“Angelica is going to deliver the petition to Anna Juarez,” the text states. It’s referring to Angelica Rubio, Gandara’s campaign manager.
Gandara told NMPolitics.net she and Carter were having a work-related conversation about buying plane tickets for a CYFD staffer and client. Gandara was on the road, juggling phone conversations and driving, and at one point had to pull over to send an email related to the tickets.
Gandara said she was having problems with her personal phone, which was in and out of service on the drive. In the middle of all of that, she sent the campaign text from her government phone.
“It was just an afterthought,” Gandara said. “I just didn’t even think about it, honestly.”
Gandara said that’s the only campaign-related text she sent using her CYFD phone. A review of texts CYFD provided in response to a records request didn’t turn up others that are obviously campaign-related. Gandara said she had no campaign-related conversations using that phone.
CYFD is investigating.
“State policy is very clear: Employees are not allowed to use their state-issued equipment for political purposes,” agency spokesman Henry Varela said. “Any violation of this policy is unacceptable.”
While Gandara’s text was inappropriate, it isn’t the most egregious example of someone using government resources to campaign. Several officials have been scrutinized in recent years for appearing in pricey government-funded TV ads while candidates for office. And then-Lt. Gov. Diane Denish’s gubernatorial campaign reimbursed the Lieutenant Governor’s Office for almost $800 spent on political news releases in 2009.
A text message has value. But CYFD phone plans come with unlimited texts, so Gandara’s political message didn’t cost taxpayers additional money.
“I think this is a little bit different than the Denish situation because it seems like in this instance no public money was spent,” said Viki Harrison, executive director of the good-government group Common Cause New Mexico.
“Of course there shouldn’t be any private messages on a work cell phone, but I can’t imagine there is anybody in state government who hasn’t used their work phone to make a personal call or send a personal text once or twice,” Harrison added.
Gandara’s text messages became an issue after political operative Jeffrey Isbell obtained copies through a records request to CYFD. The anonymously run Facebook page Close the Cafe, which is focused on Las Cruces-area politics and ideologically aligned with Isbell, posted on Oct. 17 that a complaint would be filed with the Office of the State Auditor on Oct. 19.
A week later, Sunalei Stewart, chief of staff in the auditor’s office, said Monday that no one has filed a complaint. Isbell declined to comment for this article.
Gandara faces Eli Guzman in the Nov. 3 election. Steve Calderazzo’s name is also on the ballot. Calderazzo tried to drop out after the deadline had passed. He could also win, though it’s not likely since he’s not campaigning.