New Mexicans who are hoping the League of Women Voters guides will help them decide how to vote this year may be disappointed.
Southern New Mexicans won’t see any responses in that area’s guide from six Republican state legislative candidates in contested races — Joseph Bishop, Lee Cotter, Neal Hooks, Ceil Levatino, Andy Nuñez, and John Zimmerman.
Despite several attempts to contact them, those candidates provided no responses to the League of Women Voters of Greater Las Cruces’ questionnaire for its voter guide. The trend is statewide: Seven Republicans in contested races didn’t provide responses for the Albuquerque-area guide. Three shunned the Santa Fe-area guide. One didn’t respond for the Los Alamos-area guide.
Candidates aren’t just skipping the guides, which are often distributed at polling places for voters to peruse while they wait in line. Many candidates, most of them Republicans, have skipped various forums this year, especially those co-hosted by the League of Women Voters and public television stations. And three candidates — two of them Republicans — didn’t attend meetings with the Las Cruces Sun-News’ editorial board before it made endorsements.
Bishop skipped a forum that aired on KRWG-TV and refused to talk with the Sun-News. That means his opponent for the open District 35 House seat, Democrat Angelica Rubio, benefitted from free air time on KRWG, which conducted a one-on-one interview with her, and won the Sun-News endorsement.
Rubio said she’s never met Bishop because he hasn’t shown up to any events. She doesn’t know where he stands on the issues.
“Fact is, it’s a cop out to dismiss voters so easily,” Rubio said. “We have a responsibility to engage voters in this democracy.”
The Sun-News’ managing editor, Sylvia Ulloa, agreed.
“Candidates have a responsibility to let the voters know where they stand on things,” Ulloa said. “People deserve that information.”
The League of Women Voters is viewed by some Republicans as partisan because of its stances on a wide range of issues, from paying legislators to combating climate change. But its voter guides are different: It holds all candidates to the same word limits and publishes their responses verbatim. The guides provide information on how to vote and take no stances on issues or candidates.
The previous secretary of state, Republican Dianna Duran, didn’t allow the voter guides at polling places because of the group’s stances on issues. Current Secretary of State Brad Winter, also a Republican, reinstated a long-held practice of allowing the guides at polling places again this year.
Meredith R. Machen, president of the League of Women Voters of New Mexico, said the organization was “surprised and disappointed” that a number of Republicans didn’t respond to its questionnaire or attend its forums.
“We firmly believe that every candidate has a responsibility to inform those they wish to represent where they stand on issues of importance,” Machen said. “Voters deserve opportunities to ask candidates clarifying questions at forums.”
The League of Women Voters cancelled its planned secretary of state forums earlier this year after Republican candidate Nora Espinoza declined to attend and called the organization partisan. Espinoza wasn’t the only candidate in that race to skip forums. Her opponent, Democrat Maggie Toulouse Oliver, declined to attend two of three forums hosted by the New Mexico Business Coalition, saying the same thing about that group. The candidates did appear together at another forum in Albuquerque earlier this month.
Espinoza also refused to attend a televised New Mexico PBS forum, so the organization went ahead with a one-on-one interview with Oliver. Kevin McDonald, New Mexico PBS’ production manager, said he has “no doubt there are people out there that will say we are all ‘left-leaning,’ but we have done this before and never had a complaint from candidates about the way we conducted the forums.”
“I think that voters deserve to have these open discussions, and it’s a shame when they won’t participate,” McDonald said.
‘I want voters to know how I stand on issues’
Not all Republicans are shunning the guides and forums. In Southern New Mexico, incumbent Republican state Reps. Terry McMillan and Rick Little provided responses for the voter guide. So did Republican Senate candidate Charles Wendler. McMillan and Zimmerman are among the Republicans who attended KRWG forums. Incumbent U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce has attended two forums with his opponent.
But while Little filled out the League of Women Voters questionnaire, he skipped the KRWG forum. That gave his challenger, Democrat Willie Madrid, free air time.
Little said forums aren’t the best way to reach voters in his expansive, rural District 53, which stretches from Chaparral north past Las Cruces and east to Alamogordo. He said he tries to attend some forums, but legislative duties, including the recent special session in Santa Fe, forced him to miss some.
“I do try to do everything I can to try to reach my voters,” Little said. “Door to door, especially in rural areas, is probably the best way go.”
He said he has no problem filling out the League of Women Voters questionnaire because the group publishes responses verbatim. “I’m on record, and what you see is what you get,” he said. “I want my voters to know how I stand on issues.”
Temple Beth-El and Sonoma Springs Covenant Church teamed up this month to hold two candidate forums in Las Cruces. Susan Fitzgerald, who was involved in setting up those forums, said this is the first year some candidates didn’t even respond to invitations to attend.
“I understand prior commitments, but not even saying ‘no thanks’ makes me wonder what sort of commitment candidates have,” Fitzgerald said.
Three candidates skipped editorial board meetings with the Sun-News: Republicans Bishop and Hooks, who’s challenging Democratic incumbent Bill McCamley in the House District 33 race, and incumbent Doña Ana County District Attorney Mark D’Antonio, a Democrat.
Hooks, like Bishop, wouldn’t talk with a Sun-News reporter for a profile of his race. D’Antonio did conduct an interview for a profile. But candidates who don’t meet with editorial boards usually don’t get newspaper endorsements. In addition to backing Rubio, the Sun-News endorsed McCamley and Brad Cates, the Republican running against D’Antonio.
A spokesman for D’Antonio’s campaign said the newspaper used incorrect contact information to invite him to the editorial board meeting. D’Antonio would have attended if he had known about it, spokesman Patrick Hayes said.
“No disrespect was intended,” Hayes said.
‘Where do we go?’
McCamley said he hasn’t seen Hooks at any events. He acknowledged that he has declined conservative talk radio invitations, and said sometimes he and other candidates have scheduling conflicts. But McCamley said he is generally willing to attend any forum, regardless of the ideological leanings of the group that’s hosting it.
McCamley said he’s also concerned that so many candidates are shunning the League of Women Voters guides — which he’s directed voters to in the past when they ask for information about races.
“If there’s going to be a strategic move on behalf of one party to not participate in those candidate guides, where do we go? The only place left is paid advertising,” McCamley said.
Machen said that’s concerning. “Sound bites in ads and social media are often filled with promises with no details and attacks on opponents,” she said. “Democracy demands civility, which has been in short supply this election season. The electorate deserves better.”
She added that the League of Women Voters “is proud to provide clear, unbiased information on candidates and ballot questions as voters head to the polls to stand up for what matters most in their communities and their lives.”
Registered Democrats in New Mexico outnumber Republicans 47 percent to 31 percent. In many races, Republican candidates can’t win without support from Democrats and independents. Daniel Sambrano, a Democrat from Doña Ana, said he’s less likely to vote for a candidate who skips forums and voter guides.
“If a person is open and willing to stand up for their ideas, it should be easy to defend those ideas in any open or closed forum,” he said.
Democrat Lucas Herndon of Las Cruces, the communications manager for the left-leaning activist organization ProgressNow New Mexico, said he’s concerned that some candidates seem to think “something that isn’t pushing your agenda isn’t worth doing.” Herndon relies on forums to help him decide how to vote, and said he is voting for at least one Republican this year “based on meeting them and hearing them at a forum.”
Barbara Alvarez of Las Cruces, a Democrat, said she is “much, much more likely to vote for a candidate who has stated their positions or taken part in a public forum.”
“At least I know about their beliefs, even if I don’t agree with every one of them,” she said.
On the other hand, Debra White of Las Cruces said she filled out the League of Women Voters questionnaire and attended their forum when she ran for office as a Republican several years ago. She said the group takes “great delight in sabotaging and blindsiding anyone who’s not a Democrat or liberal.”
“I can definitely understand why the Repubs are bowing out of that circus,” White said.
David McCollum, the former publisher of the weekly Las Cruces Bulletin and a Democrat, said he considers the League of Women voters to be “a partisan organization.” But he defended the group’s voter guides, which the Bulletin used to produce and distribute in the Las Cruces area, as “absolutely an arms-length, nonpartisan publication.”
“I cannot understand why any candidate would want to avoid participating in this important publication,” McCollum said.