Election: Activist, businessman face off in district impacted by future power plant closures

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times

AZTEC — An environmental activist from Church Rock is challenging the incumbent state senator for the Democratic Party’s nomination for state Senate District 4.

The winner of the race will face Republican Angela Olive in the November general election. Olive is campaigning as a constitutional conservative who plans to reform taxes, restructure impact aid and fund infrastructure projects.

District 4 represents portions of Cibola, McKinley and San Juan counties. The portion of San Juan County within the district is in the Chuska Mountains in the southwest corner of the county.

George K. Munoz

George Muñoz, 53, is a businessman from Gallup who has represented District 4 since 2009. He is facing Noreen Ann Kelly, 68, a Navajo activist who lives in the Church Rock area. 

The primary election is June 2.

George K. Muñoz

Muñoz said he is most proud of his work to help foster children, including free college education and "trying to give them that start in their life when they don't have anybody."

"What keeps me in politics is helping people like the foster kids," he said.

Muñoz is also on the New Mexico Heart Gallery board, which assists foster children.

During his time in the Legislature, Muñoz has worked on a wide variety of bills ranging from getting the squash blossom recognized as the official state necklace to issues like impact aid and economic development.

In the past legislative session, he carried a bill that will allow Vietnam Veterans who were not able to graduate from high school due to the war to receive their high school diplomas. The bill passed both the House of Representatives and the Senate with unanimous support and was signed into law by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

More:New Mexico Vietnam veterans eligible for high school diplomas under new law

"The number one thing I'd like to see is for New Mexico to flourish," he said.

Munoz said he would love to see the economy boom like Phoenix, Arizona, has experienced.

He also emphasized the need to invest in infrastructure to get running water to people in the Navajo Nation who don't have access to it currently.

"What I was taught is stand up for people," he said. "Stand up for the right thing... Stand up for what you think is right. It may not always be exactly right, but if you stand up for something then you show people that you respect their vote."

Noreen Ann Kelly

Kelly remembers the uranium mill spill in 1979 in Church Rock. She recalls having sheep born with deformities the following year. And her father-in-law died of lung cancer following his time as a uranium miner.

Noreen Ann Kelly

Seeing the impacts of uranium mining sparked her interest in activism and now, as the counties represented by Senate District 4 face future closures of coal mines and power plants, Kelly said she is concerned that the companies will not be held accountable for cleaning up the sites.

Kelly said she, like many people in the district, lives in a remote area accessible by a dirt road. Because of that, she said she will be able to recognize the challenges many people in the district — particularly Navajos — face.

"We like to draw the line, 'here's Navajo Nation, here's Zuni Nation and here's the state of New Mexico," she said.

She said the tribes get very little assistance from the state with the exception of capital outlay funding, and she criticized politicians.

"When it comes to election, everybody comes to us for a vote and when people win they walk away," she said.

Kelly said she has been delivering food to people in remote areas of the Navajo Nation who don’t necessarily have running water, or even a vehicle.

Kelly has been active in trying to get healthy food to Navajo communities and lobbied for a 2% tax on junk food. She said she would like to see convenience stores offer more healthy foods. Kelly explained that many Navajo communities do not have grocery stores and often buy food from convenience stores attached to gas stations.

Candidates talk energy, economy

The Escalante Power Plant in Prewitt will close this year, an announcement that came as a bit of a surprise to Muñoz. He said the plant owners had just a year earlier said it would remain open for another decade.

And, just to the north of the district, the San Juan Generating Station faces potential closure if Enchant Energy is not successful in acquiring and retrofitting the plant. Then, in 2031, the Four Corners Power Plant will also close.

Munoz and Kelly both acknowledge that the closure of the power plants means jobs will be lost and families uprooted.

"Those are all jobs that people I grew up with are working in," Munoz said.

At the same time, Kelly said there's nothing that can stop the power plants from closing. She said the companies made the decision to close them based on economics.

Kelly expressed concern about the impacts power plants and fossil fuel energy have on climate change.

"We cannot just stand for today," she said. "We need to plan for tomorrow, next year and hundreds of years from now."

At the same time, Muñoz said, solar can provide clean energy but cannot replace the jobs that the mines and power plants provide.

Muñoz said the northwest region needs economic diversification and he supports a rail spur connecting San Juan and McKinley counties. However, Muñoz said it shouldn't just be a freight rail. Instead, he said the railroad should also offer mass transit. 

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

Support local journalism with a digital subscription: http://bit.ly/2I6TU0e