COMMENTARY: During a radio interview about her efforts to gather the signatures needed to run for secretary of state, Rep. Nora Espinoza, R-Roswell, directed listeners to her official legislative webpage to contact her and help.
“They can look on my legislative website and it’s on there, so that they can email me, and I can mail them a petition,” Espinoza said in February in response to a question from the radio host.
Democrats hit hard. The state Democratic Party filed an ethics complaint accusing Espinoza of inappropriately using public resources to campaign.
“Official government resources cannot and must not be used for campaigning. Period,” Debra Haaland, the chair of the state Democratic Party, said at the time. “It violates the law and it violates the public’s trust.”
Haaland is correct. Espinoza should not have directed people to the Legislature’s official website to contact her about her petition to run for secretary of state.
Some members of Haaland’s own party also need to take her words to heart. Like Michael Padilla, an Albuquerque Democrat who is the party’s majority whip in the state Senate.
On Monday, Padilla’s re-election campaign sent out an email inviting people to his fourth annual job fair. It claimed that, to date, Padilla’s job fairs have “helped over 1,600 people find new jobs.” And the email, which states that it’s paid for by Padilla’s campaign, does the very thing Haaland correctly pointed out as inappropriate when Espinoza did it.
“Click here for my legislative web site,” Padilla’s campaign-funded email states. The “here” links to the Legislature’s official website.
I’ve written on this issue many times. A former governor and lieutenant governor, former president pro tem of the state Senate, former secretary of state, former union president in Albuquerque, and a former Santa Fe County sheriff are among those who’ve used government resources for political purposes.
The amount of public money that gets misused in these cases is usually small or, in some cases, immeasurable (a line in an email that leads to a click to a public website). In other words, in a state plagued by government waste and corruption, there are more serious offenses than these.
But the mindset that it’s OK to mix campaign and official government resources leads to bigger problems. These offenses are serious because, left unchecked, they contribute to a culture that allows larger abuses of the public trust.
So let’s hope Espinoza has learned her lesson. Let’s hope Padilla does too. And that their examples help educate other government officials and shift our state’s culture to one that shows greater respect for the public trust.
Because New Mexico, which too often ranks at the bottom of all the important lists, isn’t going to improve until we collectively take the public trust more seriously.
We’ve made progress in this area in recent years. I believe most of our government officials avoid using public resources to campaign.
But clearly we need to continue efforts to educate officials on the importance of keeping their government and campaign activities separate. We all need to play a role in holding our government officials accountable by voting, paying attention to what they’re doing and speaking out in our communities.
And, as I’ve written before, we need to create a state ethics commission to set ethical standards in government, educate officials on those standards, and help police violations.