District 22 Senate hopefuls face broad range of challenges

Benny Shendo Jr. faces off against Susan Aguayo

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • The sprawling district includes a mix of populations and other demographics.
  • Shendo is the incumbent and is seeking his third term.
  • Aguayo runs a nonprofit organization and is a mental health advocate.
Benny Shendo Jr.

FARMINGTON — District 22 in the New Mexico Senate is one of the larger such jurisdictions in the state, covering parts of five counties, including San Juan County, and extending from the Colorado border to south of Interstate 40.

It is an overwhelmingly rural district, but it bumps up against some relatively well-populated areas, including Farmington and Bernalillo, and that means its voters don't always have the same concerns. The district includes parts of the Navajo Nation, but it also includes the Jicarilla Apache Nation, Jemez Pueblo, Zia Pueblo, Santa Ana Pueblo and San Felipe Pueblo, while other parts of the district feature heavy Hispanic or Anglo populations.

That makes it a challenge to represent all those interests, as incumbent Benny Shendo Jr., a Democrat, and his Republican challenger, Susan Aguayo, want to do in a race that will be decided on Tuesday, Nov. 3.

Shendo is hoping to be elected to his third term, but he knows as well as anyone that it isn't easy to manage all those expectations from the district's voters.

"Oh, yeah," he said, chuckling as he described exactly how difficult that can be. "I've been to town halls in Rio Rancho where people are complaining about the speed of their Internet, wondering why they don't have 5G instead of 4G. It's all relative. … I have to remind them sometimes, 'Guys, let's be real.' I have families on the Navajo Nation who live in a hogan and have no running water.

"That's my district," he said. "Every meeting is interesting because the needs are so broad."

Aguayo said she's come to understand that after she decided to run for Shendo's seat and made a point of getting out and visiting various communities across the district.

"I know a large percentage of the residents are Native American, and I know a lot of them don't have the resources to even go vote," she said. "That's why it's important to me to make sure everybody's voice is heard."

Taking it personally

Aguayo was born in Peru but has lived in the United States since the age of 5 and in New Mexico since 2004. Her background is in early childhood education, but she leads a nonprofit organization, Kassey's Kause, that is devoted to bringing attention to the issue of perinatal depression. Aguayo, a Rio Rancho resident, founded the organization in honor of her late daughter, and she has chosen to make mental health advocacy the centerpiece of her campaign. She said New Mexico has not done much to confront its mental health issues in the time she has lived here.

Susan Aguayo

"We don't have facilities, we don't have enough doctors and everything is a waiting list," she said, explaining that she knows of patients who have to wait a month or two to receive help.

That has led to New Mexico having one of the higher suicide rates in America, she noted.

"I think it's because the money is not being sent to the right place," she said. "It's personal for me."

Aguayo said her daughter had no history of depression when she began battling perinatal depression, but the disease overwhelmed her and led to her death. Aguayo said she has since learned that 20% of women who become pregnant are at high risk of developing the condition.

New Mexico doesn't do enough to address any of its mental health issues, Aguayo said.

"It used to be that Seattle was high in suicides because of the weather," she said. "Well, we're a sunny state, but we're still very high in suicides. We're not getting (mental health care providers) enough resources to help."

Aguayo promised to be a tireless advocate for those providers if she is elected, adding her argument is straightforward and easy to understand.

"The (suicide) numbers are going higher, they're not going lower, which means we need more help," she said.

Aguayo describes herself as not a politician, but she said she is of the people. She believes the state's education system has also fallen short in its duties to students, and she said that's because too much money is going to administrators.

She also thinks the tax burden on business owners is too high, and she said the state has over-reached in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"That's been very alarming," she said. "I've seen so many businesses in our community that have had to close their doors."

Aguayo said the state's initial response was good, but "not to the extreme of us being treated like children." She believes business owners themselves are much better equipped to monitor an appropriate level of customer traffic and interaction, not the government.

Infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure

Shendo is a resident of Jemez Pueblo who works in community development and served as New Mexico's cabinet secretary for Indian Affairs under Gov. Bill Richardson. He said the district's primary needs have always been and continue to be basic infrastructure — water lines and broadband Internet.

"I think those are the things we will continue to push," he said. "Not just for tribal communities, but for all over New Mexico, particularly today, when it's so important for our kids to be competitive."

Despite the state's grim financial picture with the collapse of oil prices and the economic shutdown brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, Shendo is optimistic some of those infrastructure needs can be met in the upcoming session. He said the Navajo Nation has displayed a willingness to spend a good portion of its COVID-19 federal relief money on water projects, and he believes the state can partner with the tribe on some of those investments.

Shendo said his most memorable moment as a legislator came early in his first term in 2013 when he helped shepherd the health insurance exchange act through the Senate.

"It was my first term and people thought I was crazy to take on that bill, but it passed, and Gov. (Susana) Martinez signed it," he said. "I'm proud of that. For a junior senator to have that kind of accomplishment in his first 60 days was quite a (success)."

Shendo also cites the work he did as secretary of Indian Affairs in 2005 getting a tribal infrastructure fund created. That fund continues to grow today, he noted, and has benefit for tribes across the state since its creation.

The incumbent is expecting the pandemic to have an enormous effect on how state government operates next year, including how the Legislature conducts its business. He fears a surge in cases could lead lawmakers to have to distance themselves from each other, and he wonders how the Legislature will even meet under those circumstances.

The pandemic already is taking a big toll on education in New Mexico, he said, noting that the state's funding formula is based largely on enrollment figures. With remote learning having become the norm, he said, enrollment figures are way down, and he doesn't know how the state is going to take that into account.

Shendo also would like to see the Legislature tackle the state's tax structure. He likes to quote one of his fellow lawmakers, who compares New Mexico's tax policy to Swiss cheese — full of holes.

"It's got so many exemptions for everybody," Shendo said. "Having a more equitable or fair tax system has been a long time coming. It's an ongoing conversation."

State lawmakers are certain to tackle various issues related to energy development in New Mexico in the upcoming session, something that will resonate with voters in District 22, home to the San Juan Basin. Shendo said it is a delicate balance to make sure the competing interests in the district are treated fairly, especially as drilling near Chaco Culture National Historic Park continues to be a hot button issue, along with air and water quality.

"It's a challenge in how do we do that right," he said.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.