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Election: Candidates with very different backgrounds seek County Commission District 4 seat

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times

AZTEC — A nurse who serves on the San Juan Regional Medical Center’s board of directors and a pilot who is a former police officer and former magistrate judge are vying for a seat on the San Juan County Commission during the June 2 primary elections.

Terri Fortner, 59, and Erich Cole, 46, bring very different sets of experience to the table as the party’s nomination.

There is no incumbent in the race for County Commission District 4, however Fortner's husband currently serves in that position. Nor is there a Democratic or Libertarian Party candidate seeking the seat. That means the winner of the Republican primary will likely be the next county commissioner.

When asked what they viewed as the biggest difference between them, both Cole and Fortner highlighted experience.

Fortner brings the experience of overseeing a multi-million budget that is much larger than the county’s annual budget, meanwhile Cole brings a variety of experiences in multiple sectors in this county including energy extraction and public safety.

"I have a lot of experience in a lot of different parts of our community," Cole said, highlighting his experience in aviation, real estate, police work, the oil field and as a judge. At the same time, he said he has experience managing budgets, highlighting his service on the board for Sexual Assault Services of Northwest New Mexico, where he said he served as president and treasurer.

Erich Cole

Fortner has worked as a nurse in the local hospital, at the schools and as a nurse practitioner at the San Juan County Adult Detention Center. 

Fortner served eight years on the New Mexico Board of Nursing — a position that two different governors appointed her to serve. For four of the years, she served as the chairwoman. That gave her experience with the legislative process and lobbying.

She is currently on the executive board at San Juan Regional Medical Center. She has taught as an adjunct faculty member at San Juan College and she served as a volunteer consultant when San Juan County was drafting its behavioral health gap analysis report. She also has volunteered her services as a psychiatric nurse practitioner to help people during the coronavirus pandemic.

Terri Fortner

"With everything that has happened with our county and across our state and nation, seeing how it impacts the hospital and the care of our patients and healthcare providers, I think it's very important to have someone in there who has experienced leadership," she said.

After more than six years as a pilot, Cole said he decided he wasn't around his family enough and he started work in the oil field. After a while, he decided to change careers again. This time he moved into the real estate market. But the housing market crashed around the same time. Cole enrolled in the police academy when he was 38 years old. He worked for Farmington Police Department for approximately six years.

"I enjoyed being a police officer," he said. "I enjoyed helping people in that way."

During that time, he got a Master's degree in criminal justice. When he heard about an opportunity to become a magistrate judge, he put in an application and then Gov. Susana Martinez appointed him to serve on the bench. Cole ran an unsuccessful campaign to continue serving in that position in 2018.

While they have different backgrounds, both candidates identified economic development as one of their key priorities.

"I'm really optimistic about the things that we have available to us in San Juan County and the people that are here," Cole said. "I think about how can we translate that into making the county better. I think economic development is a huge part for us."

The candidates both voiced support for projects like Enchant Energy's proposal to retrofit the San Juan Generating station with carbon capture technology and a memorandum of understanding with Navajo Nation to work toward building a railroad spur connecting the Farmington area with the Gallup area.

Both Cole and Fortner are graduates of Leadership San Juan and Fortner has also graduated from Leadership New Mexico.

Fortner said her other priorities include addressing the budget shortfall created by the coronavirus pandemic and declines in the energy industries and continuing work to bridge gaps in mental and behavioral healthcare in the county. She referred voters to her website, terrifortner4NM.com.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.

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