Attorney general race centers on fighting corruption

The Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE — When New Mexico last elected an attorney general, it was against a backdrop of a corruption scandal involving two former state treasurers.

Since then, a powerful former lawmaker was sent to federal prison, Gov. Bill Richardson’s Washington ambitions were derailed by a pay-to-play investigation and a former secretary of state was indicted.

It’s no wonder that public corruption remains a central theme in this year’s race for New Mexico attorney general, the Albuquerque Journal reported Sunday in a copyright story.

Democratic incumbent Gary King is running for re-election on what he says he has done in his first term — to fight corruption and otherwise.

Republican Matt Chandler, a district attorney from Clovis, is running on what he says King hasn’t done. He calls King — the son of the late Bruce King, three-time governor of New Mexico — a “career politician.”

Voters should choose a “career prosecutor” instead, Chandler says.

During a recent forum at a senior center in Valencia County, Chandler wasted no time in launching the attacks that have been a staple of his campaign.

“We have possibly one of the most corrupt states in the nation,” he told the crowd. Although King promised four years ago to do something about that, it has instead been federal prosecutors who have tackled the highest-profile cases, Chandler said.

King ignored Chandler’s charges. He talked instead about his experience, from heading his homeowners’ association to directing an office at the U.S. Department of Energy. He also cited his work on domestic violence and border violence, his success at getting a human trafficking law enacted and his efforts against Internet child predators.

King said protecting New Mexico citizens requires a variety of approaches.

“You’ve heard that philosophy that if the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail to you?” King asked the crowd.

“Well, I will tell you, if the only thing you’ve ever done in your life is being a prosecutor, then indeed you will perceive every problem as one that you can prosecute your way out of. … You need more than that to be attorney general.”

Chandler kicked off his campaign earlier this year in Albuquerque at the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Courthouse, the project at the heart of one of New Mexico’s biggest corruption scandals.

Former Democratic state Senate leader Manny Aragon pleaded guilty in October 2008 to federal charges of pocketing more than $600,000 on courthouse contracts and was sent to prison for 67 months.

Chandler claims King’s office cooperated with federal prosecutors in the Aragon case “on paper only.”

King argues that it was a joint prosecution in which his office was active.

Chandler also accuses King’s office of not being aggressive enough in investigating possible wrongdoing by other public officials.

King responds that if Chandler is accusing him of ignoring wrongdoing, “He’s just making it up. Because he doesn’t know.”

King has routinely refused to disclose whether his office is investigating alleged misconduct and he has avoided publicity when he has indicted current or former public officials.

King, however, is prosecuting several Democrats for alleged misuse of taxpayer money.

He obtained indictments in separate cases against former Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron; former Region III Housing Authority Director Vincent “Smiley” Gallegos; and Public Regulation Commissioner Jerome Block Jr. He also recently confirmed that he is investigating the office of Secretary of State Mary Herrera because of a former employee’s allegations of misconduct.

Lonna Atkeson, a professor of political science at the University of New Mexico, said it may be difficult for Chandler to get traction against King on the corruption issue. Although voters are responsive to scandal — and will vote against an incumbent who’s involved in one — it’s another thing to try to persuade them to get rid of someone because of what the challenger says he hasn’t done, she said.

“You’re asking voters to think really hard about what could be, as opposed to what is … to vote on a hypothetical,” she said.