Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

Bernalillo County Commission

Who is the heir apparent for the Senate seat that State Senator Jacob Candelaria just quit? And who will be his replacement on the Bernalillo County Commission? Those questions are still up in the air.

It’s a rare occurrence and a big deal when a Senate seat is vacated with two years left on its term and the Bernalillo Commissioners have to appoint a replacement. If you want to apply for that seat, you still can. You can thank Commission Chairwoman Adriann Barboa and District 1 County Commissioner Debbie O’Malley that this article’s title doesn’t read “Rep. Antonio ‘Moe’ Maestas Replaces Senator Candelaria on Halloween.”

O’Malley Demands More Time for Constituents to Apply for Senate Seat

At its regular meeting last week, the issue of naming Candelaria’s replacement sent tempers flaring. When three commissioners tried to override Barboa’s decision to set the date for voting on the Senate seat replacement on Nov. 18 (they wanted to have the vote on Oct. 31), O’Malley was ready to butt heads with them. She demanded the commission give her constituents more than four days to decide if they wanted to submit an application for the seat.

It seemed Maestas, who has been campaigning for the seat for the last two months, had the votes to clinch the deal to become the district’s new senator by simply applying. Candelaria has also thrown his weight behind Maestas as his replacement.

There is no explicit timeline for a county to fill a vacated legislative seat, and the New Mexico Legislature does not begin voting until the 2023 Legislative Session which begins on Jan. 17.  Unless it is an emergency, it is the Chair of the Commission who sets the date to appoint a replacement. Barboa said the Nov.18 date would allow the public enough time to apply for the Senate seat.

District 5 Bernalillo County Commissioner Charlene Pyskoty, with support from commissioners Steven Michael Quezada and Walt Benson, wanted to expedite the process and have a replacement appointed on October 31. Debbie O’Malley, who wanted a say in when to make the appointment, has most of New Mexico Senate District 26 in her district, protested such an early date saying it was too quick a turnaround.

“I’m really disappointed in Commissioner Pyskoty doing something like this which I think is extremely disrespectful and rude,” O’Malley said. During a heated exchange after the meeting, O’Malley called Pyskoty a “bitch” and had words with Pyskoty’s assistant Joe Noriega. Steven Michael Quezada is calling for O’Malley to resign immediately and Pyskoty is seeking legal counsel. Pyskoty’s and O’Malley’s terms as commissioners end on Dec. 31. O’Malley cannot run again due to term limits and Pyskoty lost her seat in the primary.

A post by O’Malley on Facebook said she regretted confronting Commissioner Pyskoty when angry. However, she posted, she owns what she said about the appointment though she should have been more tactful and toned it down a bit. O’Malley posted she does not regret standing up for her constituents “against attempts to railroad a two-year political appointment, to appease a Senator, a Representative, and a corporate Lobbyist who have been plotting this for a year.” O’Malley’s post said the Senate vacancy just became known and no formal process for applying has been publicized. She also stated that the “rushed vote date stinks of an insider’s game and backroom deals.”

The Paper. spoke to O’Malley, who said Representative Maestas has been campaigning for the seat for months now.“I was a little taken aback because this is my district. There is no rush, we should take some time. I feel that it was important to do that as very few people know about the Senate seat and should have an opportunity to apply, she explained.

“I believed setting the date like that violated the Open Meetings Act. If you’re going to have three people agree on something like this, it has to be published in the agenda as an action item. So that way the public has an opportunity to weigh in. This is big. This is a Senate seat for two years. Those do not come up very often. This was not qualified as an emergency meeting,” O’Malley said.

O’Malley asked for a legal opinion during the commissioners’ meeting on who should set the date and the legal opinion was that the chair has the right to do that. “He (legal counsel) came out and talked about the violation of the Open Meetings Act. The date for the Senate appointment should be put on the agenda as an action item.” She said Quezada asked for a second opinion and the second opinion from another attorney was the same thing.

O’Malley told The Paper she regrets confronting Pyskoty when she was angry but has received nothing but positive emails supporting her continued presence on the council. “I did not say anything behind her back. Whatever I said was to her face. There’s no question I said it because I was really angry. Of those who saw Quezada on TV asking me to step down, I have not received one message to say step down. I have just received letters of support, that’s all. No one has said anything critical like ‘you should not have done it.’ Nothing.”

Following the Money and Voting Records

Maestas’s wife, Vanessa Alarid, is a well-known lobbyist and lobbied for Western Albuquerque Land Holdings (WAHL), the original developers of Santolina, a proposed west-side housing development the size of Santa Fe that community members have fought against for the past nine years. Groups that have fought the development are against Maestas’s appointment to the seat, alleging a conflict of interest.

In an email to The Paper., Maestas said “Santolina is the boogie man Debbie O’Malley and Neri Holguin are using to try to do a Mitch McConnell-steal of the Senate District 26 seat…. Apparently, democracy doesn’t work for the Ultra-Left.”

“For what it’s worth, land use, water usage & zoning are local issues,” Maestas’ email said. “The state legislature does not vote on land use, water usage or zoning stuff.”

Maestas may want to inform the Legislators galore and a slew of environmental groups that were angry at the tabling of the Joint Resolution HJR 2 Green Amendment during the 2021 Legislative session or the Rio Grande Water Security Act and the Water Data Act, to name a few bills that directly affect local water usage. The legislative branch makes all laws, declares war, regulates interstate and foreign commerce and controls taxing and spending policies. Legislative bills affect state residents at a state and local level.

In the past, as a State Representative, Maestas has voted on bills that Alarid is paid to promote, such as a New Mexico Lottery bill that was designed to reduce the amount of money guaranteed for college scholarships funded by lottery proceeds. Alarid lobbied for a lottery vendor backing the bill.

Alarid also helped fund Pyskoty’s reelection bid. According to campaign finance reports, Alarid’s consulting firm made the single largest contribution to Pyskoty’s unsuccessful bid during the 2022 Democratic primary. Alarid Consulting gave Pyskoty $5,000 worth of in-kind mailers. Alarid’s campaign finance report for the 2022 election cycle says she made $242,000 in political contributions on behalf of her company or various clients. Several state legislators were recipients.

As it stands now, submissions for the Senate seat will be accepted until Thursday, Nov. 10 at noon. Applicants should submit a letter of interest and résumé to the Bernalillo County Manager’s Office, Attention: Julie Morgas Baca, County Manager, 415 Silver Ave, SW, 8th Floor, Albuquerque, NM, 87102 or via email to: manager@bernco.gov.

Interested persons must be at least 25 years old and live within the boundaries of Senate District 26.  The New Mexico Senate District 26 is primarily located in the western quadrants of Bernalillo County.  A map of District 26 is located here. 

The Board of County Commissioners will choose the District 26 replacement for the Senate seat at their regularly scheduled administrative meeting on Nov. 15 at 5 p.m.