Theresa Becenti-Aguilar, who campaigned on a shoestring, said Wednesday her primary election win for a seat on the state Public Regulation Commission was the result of voter backlash against big money in politics.
Becenti-Aguilar narrowly defeated incumbent Lynda Lovejoy and indigenous rights advocate Janene Yazzie in the Democratic primary Tuesday for the seat representing part of Albuquerque and much of northwestern New Mexico.
The parent company of Public Service Company of New Mexico had pumped $440,000 into a political action committee supporting the re-election of Lovejoy and PRC Chairman Sandy Jones, who also lost in the primary. Yazzie had the backing of two other big-spending PACs financed in large part by environmentalists and clean-energy advocates, including former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and a California group.
Then there was Becenti-Aguilar, whose last campaign report showed her election committee had spent less than $1,700.
Becenti-Aguilar said she told voters that Yazzie was supported by environmentalists and that Lovejoy had received substantial donations from an Albuquerque solar company after voting to approve a PNM deal with the firm.
“The voters responded,” she said. “They are tired of these big donations from big companies and out-of-state money.”
Unofficial results from the Secretary of State’s Office showed Becenti-Aguilar with 35 percent of the vote, Lovejoy with 34 percent and Yazzie with 32 percent.
No Republican ran for the PRC seat, meaning Becenti-Aguilar essentially is assured of winning the November general election.
Her win represented a measure of revenge, as well as austerity. Becenti-Aguilar was appointed to the PRC in 2010 by then-Gov. Bill Richardson. She won election later that year but was ousted by Lovejoy in the primary election in 2014.
Lovejoy, a former member of the state Senate and House of Representatives, has served nearly 12 years on the PRC since 1999. She said she was inaccurately portrayed in this year’s campaign as being in the pocket of PNM.
To make her comeback bid, Becenti-Aguilar said she resigned as executive director of the Navajo Nation Telecommunications Regulatory Commission. She worked as an aide to Democrat Tom Udall when he was state attorney general, then when he went to the U.S. House of Representatives. Udall is now a senator.
Jones, seeking his third term on the PRC since 2007, was soundly defeated by former state Sen. Steve Fischmann for the commission seat representing Las Cruces and much of southwestern New Mexico.
Big money was in play for both candidates.
Fischmann’s campaign committee spent more than $69,000, and Jones’ pumped more than $53,000 into the race. And while the PAC financed by PNM Resources supported Jones, Fischmann was backed by the same two well-heeled PACs of environmentalists and clean-energy advocates that campaigned for Yazzie.
“PNM’s attempt to manipulate the outcome of the election to buy their own regulators backfired against them,” said Mariel Nanasi, executive director of New Energy Economy, a Santa Fe clean energy group. Nanasi had personally donated to one of the PACs supporting Fischmann and Yazzie.
PNM Resources said in a written statement that it will continue to exercise its right to participate in the political process so the public has the facts regarding energy and economic issues that affect customers and the state as a whole.
“We’ll keep working with the [Public Regulation] Commission and all stakeholders to create a strong, clean energy future for New Mexico as we fulfill our responsibility to deliver safe, reliable, and affordable electricity to our customers,” the statement said.
Fischmann’s supporters portrayed Jones as a tool of PNM. They said Fischmann has the vision and expertise to help New Mexico transition to a clean energy future.
Unofficial results showed Fischmann with 52 percent of the vote, in large part because of a wide margin he built over Jones in Las Cruces and the remainder of Doña Ana County.
Fischmann said Wednesday he was concerned about the race because of the late push by PNM Resources for Jones’ re-election and the negative advertising against him that followed.
“I was happy to see people shoved it to the side,” he said.
Fischmann served in the Senate from 2009-12, then decided against seeking re-election. In recent years, he has worked as co-chairman of the New Mexico Fair Lending Coalition to reduce interest rates charged by payday lending companies.
In the fall election, Fischmann will face either Ben Hall, a former PRC commissioner who lost to Jones in 2014, or businessman Chris Mathys.
Unofficial results showed Hall defeating Mathys for the Republican nomination for the PRC seat by just 30 votes of more than 15,000 cast, setting the stage for a possible automatic recount of the balloting.
Retired contractor Joseph Bizzell ran a distant third.
In the race for the Republican nomination for a third PRC seat, representing much of Eastern New Mexico, rancher Jefferson Byrd defeated Jerry Partin, a former electric co-op manager.
Byrd will face attorney Kevin Sanders, who was unopposed for the Democratic nomination.
The PRC seat is being vacating by Pat Lyons, who is the Republican candidate for his previous job as state land commissioner.