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Election 2020: 3rd Congressional District candidates address climate change, pandemic

Teresa Leger Fernandez faces Alexis Johnson on Nov. 3

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times
Teresa Leger Fernandez and Alexis Martinez Johnson
  • Leger Fernandez, a lawyer who has lobbied for environmental and education reforms, is the Democratic Party nominee.
  • Johnson, an environmental engineer who works in the oil and gas industry, is the Republican nominee.

AZTEC — There’s one thing certain in the race for New Mexico's 3rd Congressional District seat: the winner will be the first woman to hold that office.

Teresa Leger Fernandez, a lawyer who has lobbied for environmental and education reforms, is the Democratic Party nominee, while Alexis Martinez Johnson, an environmental engineer who works in the oil and gas industry, is the Republican nominee. The winner will take Rep. Ben Ray Lujan’s seat in Congress as Lujan makes a bid for the U.S. Senate.

The pandemic will be one of the first topics the winner of the race will face after taking office. And both Johnson and Leger Fernandez are working to convince voters that they are the right woman for the job.

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic

Johnson generally considers herself a fiscal conservative, but when she looks at the COVID-19 pandemic, the Republican congressional candidate said the federal government needs to do something to help small businesses and people who have lost some or all of their income.

"Right now, we are in a silent war situation," she said. "We are still not out in the clear."

The first bill she would introduce if elected would be to assist small business owners. She said this could be in the form of low-interest loans or grants to help businesses create a COVID-safe environment for customers, such as contactless payment options.

"These are new methods of doing business," she said.

Congressional District 3 candidate Alexis Johnson removes her mask to speak, Saturday, July 11, 2020, at the end of the Freedom March in Farmington.

She supports stimulus funds to prevent layoffs and business foreclosures. Johnson also stressed that it is important to reopen New Mexico.

Meanwhile, Leger Fernandez supports more funding for testing and personal protective equipment to address the pandemic.

"What we have lacked in the United States is a national strategy to addressing COVID," she said. "New Mexico has had a great strategy, which has done well. But it can't achieve the reductions and the management we need of COVID unless there's a national strategy."

She said the country must also address the economic devastation caused by the virus, and the country must build back better than the way it was. That includes investment in infrastructure and clean energy.

"We are going to have a very large stimulus package that will bring us out of the recession," Leger Fernandez said. "As we do that stimulus package to bring us out of the recession, I want to make sure that we address the big needs and kind of the structural revamping of the economy that we need."

She said the stimulus package could include money for infrastructure projects like water and broadband, but could also include things to help communities like Farmington reduce dependence on fossil fuels, such as a railroad connecting the Farmington area with Gallup.

Leger Fernandez said the country needs to spend money to put people back to work and should look at ways to spend that money that "leaves us in a better place then we were before."

"Our system is kind of broken right now," she said. "We don't want to just put it back together. We want to make it more resilient, more vibrant."

Johnson also supports building out infrastructure, like broadband, which she said could assist the Navajo Nation with access to telemedicine as well as distance learning opportunities.

Addressing the climate crisis

Both Johnson and Leger Fernandez say climate change is an area that should be addressed, but Leger Fernandez supports stringent regulations and a transition away from fossil fuels while Johnson advocates for continued fossil fuel extraction using new technologies to reduce emissions.

"I think sustainability has a place, but I do not think that it should overtake all of New Mexico when we have natural gas that is inexpensive, and we have engineers and scientists that work everyday, like myself, to make sure that their negative impacts are prevented," Johnson said. "So I got into this race with an environmental engineering background, and what that means is that I'm very respectful about our natural resources."

Leger Fernandez disagreed with Johnson's position and emphasized the dire consequence New Mexico will face if the climate continues to warm.

Teresa Leger Fernandez stands outside a house, Friday, July 19, 2019, prior to a fundraiser in Farmington.

"We must move away, transition away from fossil fuels because our New Mexico is so fragile that if we don't, we will see an economic calamity that COVID pales in comparison," she said.

This would mean longer droughts and water shortages that could make it harder for people to survive, she said.

Leger Fernandez said it is important that communities like Farmington are not left behind as the country transitions away from fossil fuels. She said the Energy Transition Act, which created funding sources for economic development and displaced worker assistance in San Juan County, was a step in the right direction but was not enough.

She said renewable energy development and electric vehicles could generate 30,000 jobs in New Mexico, and current proposals for solar arrays in San Juan County could lead to additional jobs.

"We understand that the temperatures are rising," Johnson said. "I don't think I need to argue against science that temperatures are rising. ... We need to come together for common sense solutions, not ideas, hopes and wishes."

She said there need to be jobs in place for the workers who will lose their jobs when power plants like the Escalante Generating Station or San Juan Generating Station close. Additionally, she questioned why companies are closing coal-fired power plants instead of retrofitting them with carbon capture technology, like Enchant Energy has proposed to keep the San Juan Generating Station open after 2022.

"What I propose is utilizing innovative technologies and also new technologies," she said.

Johnson also expressed support for a railroad spur connecting Farmington and Gallup, which she brought up as a way to diversify the Farmington economy and provide manufacturing jobs.

Leger Fernandez would also follow in Lujan's footsteps in pushing for a buffer zone around Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

"The approach that I bring to issues around resource development is that you must not sacrifice our future for very short-term gain," she said.

One area in wihch Leger Fernandez differs from some environmental groups is her stance on nuclear energy. While some groups support nuclear energy as a way to produce electricity without emissions, Leger Fernandez opposes it, and highlighted the health impacts some Navajo Nation and Laguna Pueblo citizens have faced due to legacy uranium mining.

"They are trying to make New Mexico the sacrifice zone for nuclear waste, and I don't want that to happen," she said.

Differing views on abortion and gun control

One of the most stark differences between Leger Fernandez and Johnson is their views on abortion.

Leger Fernandez has been endorsed by EMILY's List, which supports pro-choice women candidates. She is been endorsed by the Planned Parenthood Action Fund as a health care champion. She said Planned Parenthood provides vital health-care services to women who might otherwise not be able to afford it. 

Johnson is strongly opposed to abortion while Leger Fernandez said it is a choice a woman should make in consultation with her faith and doctor rather than something that should be dictated by the government.

Johnson describes herself as the candidate "fighting for basic American values," including the right to life for the unborn and the right to bear arms.

And while Johnson is firmly in favor of gun rights, Leger Fernandez supports measures like bans on assault-style weapons and background checks for every firearms sale.

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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