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AZTEC — The names on the Democratic Party primary election ballot for House District 65 will look familiar to some New Mexicans as incumbent Derrick Lente, 40, faces his predecessor James Roger Madalena, 71.

There are no Republican or Libertarian candidates, meaning the winner of the Democratic Party primary on June 2 will likely be the representative.

The district represents a portion of southeast San Juan County as well as areas in Sandoval and Rio Arriba counties. It is a geographically large district and represents seven Pueblos, five Navajo Nation chapters, a portion of the Jicarilla Apache reservation and the City of Bernalillo.

Madalena represented the district for more than three decades before retiring in 2016. His son ran for the seat in 2016, but was defeated by Lente in the Democratic Party's 2016 primary election.

The 2020 primary election takes place on June 2.

Derrick Lente

Lente said he is most proud of sponsoring House Bill 250 in the 2019 legislative session, which was the Native American Student Needs Assessment. This bill created new sections of the Indian Education Act requiring schools to conduct a needs assessment to determine what services Native American students need for college and career readiness. He said it reformed how Native American students are educated in New Mexico. 

The bill received unanimous support in both the House of Representatives and the Senate before being signed into law.

But Lente didn't stop there. In the past legislative session, Lente introduced more than half a dozen bills directly related to education. None of those bills passed.

Lente said education is one of his priorities.

Another priority is protection of the environment and cultural sites. As a representative of some of the communities closest to Chaco Culture National Historical Park, Lente has pushed for a moratorium on drilling near the park.

The Bureau of Land Management issued a draft amendment to the Farmington Field Office's resource management plan earlier this year. That amendment addressed future land use near Chaco, including oil and gas development.

Shortly after those documents were released, the coronavirus pandemic shut down much of New Mexico. Lente said tribal communities have been literally fighting for their lives. Meanwhile, the BLM moved forward with a public comment period that was supposed to end May 28. Lente said that was highly offensive to the people who have been working to protect the sacred sites. A week before the public comment period was supposed to end, Department of the Interior Secretary David Bernhardt issued an order extending it.

Lente said the coronavirus pandemic has illuminated deficiencies in rural New Mexico, such as access to basic infrastructure including water, electricity and heat.

"Unfortunately, many tribes, Pueblos and nations in our state have become the poster children for how bad things can be," Lente said.

He said those deficiencies must be addressed as the state moves forward from the pandemic.

"Moreover, access to broadband, I think, should be looked at as a human right," he said, explaining that school children who did not have access to internet struggled to complete their schoolwork after the pandemic forced classes into a virtual setting.

James Roger Madalena

Madalena is a soft-spoken man who is proud to have been the first member of his Pueblo elected to the House of Representatives.

He is also proud of having served as the governor of his Pueblo for one year as well as serving as the lieutenant governor.

He was first elected to serve in the House of Representatives in 1985. Prior to being elected to the legislature, Madalena served as a county commissioner.

After stepping aside from the Legislature for two terms, Madalena said constituents encouraged him to run for the seat once again.

During his time as a representative, he said he was not an aggressive orator and didn't yell to get his point heard. Instead, Madalena said he tried to be neutral and understanding and to listen.

In the weeks leading up to the primary election, Madalena has been working to visit communities within the district and he said if elected he will continue to visit the communities and attend chapter meetings.

The coronavirus pandemic has limited his ability to visit those communities, many of which have restricted visitation. 

He said the state needs to provide assistance to the communities as soon as it can because "the crisis is now."

Madalena is also concerned with how the drilling near Chaco could impact the sacred sites and the environment.

"We should by all means be protective of what is there," he said. 

He said extraction takes something from Mother Earth that is holding her and he is concerned about the impacts that will have. Another impact he mentioned is the unpredictable weather, which he said could be because people have disturbed the balance.

"All these years you maintain Mother Earth you have a slow rainfall, maybe a snowfall here and there, but not all at once," he said. "The weather is changing all over the world."

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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