LAS CRUCES — New Mexico Democrats on Saturday overwhelmingly elected trial lawyer Sam Bregman as their party chairman.
Bregman defeated Roxanne "Rocky" Lara, by nearly a 2-1 margin. He received 245 votes to 124 for Lara, an attorney from the Republican stronghold of Carlsbad.
A third candidate, Cornelia Lange of Albuquerque, dropped out of the race just before balloting began and urged convention delegates to support Lara.
Bregman, 49, also of Albuquerque, quickly made peace with Lara, calling her to stage at the Pam Am Center to join him in a display of party unity.
Then he mentioned his first goal to the conventioneers, saying a re-energize Democrat Party had Republican Gov. Susana Martinez in its sights.
"A storm is coming. Beware," Bregman said in what he described as an early message to Martinez for the 2014 election.
Bregman even mentioned Martinez's political adviser, Jay McCleskey, by name and referred to McCleskey as the shadow governor.
In an interview afterward, Bregman said he thought it appropriate to identify McCleskey and Martinez as dual targets for Democrats.
"He's been part of the Republican strategy all along. He's responsible for the dishonest attacks on Democrats," Bregman said.
Bregman said Martinez had accomplished nothing in more than two years in office. Despite Martinez's high poll numbers, Bregman said, "a lot of people see this governor as vulnerable."
McCleskey, reached by email, said Martinez had recently succeeded in getting a bill through the Legislature that "has been heralded as the most significant tax reform in decades, which levels the playing field and helps businesses hire more workers."
That bill was a combination of numerous initiatives, including corporate tax cuts, more incentives for television producers who shoot series in New Mexico and a reduction in state funding for cities and counties.
A bloc of Democrats, led by House Speaker Ken Martinez, helped Gov. Martinez get the bill through in the final seconds of the legislative session. Speaker Martinez prevented debate on the bill, refusing to call on fellow Democrats who said it was sloppy and rushed. The tax bill did not contain a financial analysis, which is standard in legislation.
McCleskey renewed his criticisms of Bregman in defense of Gov. Martinez and her tax bill.
"Sam Bregman is a criminal defense attorney who had made a name for himself by defending politicians accused of corruption, and New Mexicans will reject his smears against the governor in the same way they rejected his bombastic defenses of corrupt politicos," McCleskey said.
Bregman succeeded Javier Gonzales of Santa Fe, who led state Democrats for the last 3 1/2 years. Gonzales recently said Democrats would need $8 million to $10 million to win back the governor's office, an assessment Bregman disagreed with.
The governor's race will require substantial funding, but not to the level that Gonzales believes, Bregman said.
Democrats already have at least two possible opponents to Martinez.
State Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, told convention delegates that she will be a candidate for governor.
"I'm in, 100 percent," Lopez said.
The other announced candidate among Democrats, Attorney General Gary King, told the convention that Gov. Martinez was not an independent thinker, but a repeater of Republican talking points.
"Karl Rove pulls her strings," King said of the national Republican strategist.
King and Lopez could have other competitors for the Democratic nomination.
State Sens. Timothy Keller of Albuquerque and Howie Morales of Silver City both say they are interested in running for governor. In an interview, King discounted Keller, saying the 35-year-old senator more likely would run for state auditor.
King said any candidate coming from the Legislature would have a large hurdle in trying to attain statewide name recognition.
In southern New Mexico, state Sen. Joseph Cervantes of Las Cruces also is mentioned as a potential candidate for governor.
Cervantes helped open the Democrats' convention with a rousing speech aimed at Gov. Martinez, a former district attorney.
"Her style, her way of prosecuting state government, is not what New Mexico needs," Cervantes said.
Bregman now has the job of helping guide Democrats at all levels in New Mexico. He said his style would be a grass-roots approach to educate people about Democrats and their stands.
Both Bregman and Lara had predicted victory in their race for the chairmanship. Lara, who came into the arena to theme from "Rocky," was an underdog against a candidate from delegate-rich Albuquerque.
Lara's hopes of winning spiked when Lange dropped out at the last minute and endorsed her. But Bregman breezed to victory nonetheless.
One of Bregman's campaign promises was to create a rapid response team to counter "Governor Martinez's lies."
Each time the governor says anything that misstates her record or that of a Democrat, Bregman said, his party will rebut her immediately.
Milan Simonich, Santa Fe bureau chief of Texas-New Mexico Newspapers, can be reached at email@example.com or 505-820-6898. His blog is at nmcapitolreport.com.