'A monumental shift': State Sens. Mary Kay Papen and John Arthur Smith ousted in primary

Algernon D'Ammassa
Las Cruces Sun-News
From left, New Mexico Senators Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, and John Arthur Smith, D-Deming.

LAS CRUCES - In New Mexico's primary elections Tuesday, two of the state Senate's most senior and powerful Democrats, Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces and John Arthur Smith of Deming, lost their re-election bids to primary challengers. 

Papen, who has represented New Mexico's 38th senate district for 19 years, six of them as the Senate Pro Tempore, was seeking her sixth term.

Smith, the long-serving chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, was first elected to the senate in 1988

Their tenures in the legislature seemed as secure as ever when they both ran in 2016: Smith ran unopposed, and Papen defeated Republican Charles Wendler with 67 percent of the vote in her heavily Democratic district. 

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But 2020 was different. For the first time since Papen was elected, she faced not one but two primary challengers — younger Democrats and first-time candidates aligned with the party's more progressive wing. Carrie Hamblen, a former public radio host and current head of the Las Cruces Green Chamber of Commerce, and Tracy Lynn Perry, CEO of Direct Therapy Services. 

And Smith was challenged in the state's 35th senate district by Neomi Martinez-Parra, the New Mexico Democratic Party's former vice chair. 

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Their current terms end on Dec. 31, and neither will advance to the Nov. 3 general election after being defeated in the primaries. 

Smith was known as 'Dr. No'

According to unofficial results reported Wednesday afternoon, Papen trailed Hamblen by 193 votes and Smith was behind Martinez-Parra by 500. 

New Mexico Sen. John Arthur Smith visits Bataan Elementary School in Deming in this 2018 file photo.

On Wednesday, Smith attributed his loss to his conservative approach to the state budget. Former Gov. Bill Richardson famously branded Smith "Dr. No." 

"I've had to say no, not because I was against the policy, but just because I didn't know how to pay for things," Smith said. 

Later this month, Smith will chair the finance committee once more in a special session to reassess the $7.6 billion operating budget lawmakers approved this winter, before the COVID-19 public health emergency led to business closures, a spike in unemployment and plunging state revenue.

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After that, Smith said he planned to step down before his term ends on Dec. 31 in order to allow the senate leadership to move forward with a new team in place.

Smith also pointed to the role of independent political groups that spent large amounts on Senate primaries this year, both for and against incumbents in contests pitting progressive candidates against more conservative Democrats.

Upon his departure, Smith said he was concerned how Luna County would fare when electoral districts are redrawn in 2021. Currently, all of Luna County is represented by House District 32 and Senate District 35. Smith's district also includes Hidalgo, Sierra and part of Doña Ana County.

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Smith will be succeeded either by Martinez-Parra, a Lordsburg resident, or Republican candidate Crystal Diamond of Elephant Butte. Diamond, a Sierra County Republican Party officer, ran unopposed in her primary.

Sen. Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, on the Senate floor Tuesday. She has introduced bills to reduce the use of solitary confinement, including for juveniles.

Smith said he would have fought to keep Luna County from being split among different districts, but now "there's a good chance you're going to see Deming split and their bloc vote diluted significantly."  

How abortion factored into primaries

In May, Martinez-Parra told NM Political Report that an impetus for her decision to run was when Smith, along with Papen and some other conservative Democrats, joined Republicans in voting down a repeal of a statewide abortion ban, unenforceable since the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in the landmark Roe v. Wade case in 1973.

Papen was not available for comment Wednesday.

Hamblen said the outcome demonstrated that voters in a district including Las Cruces and part of Doña Ana County were ready for change. 

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She praised Papen, however, as a consistent champion for behavioral health services and in particular during the 2013 crisis under the administration of former Gov. Susana Martinez which saw the closure of many New Mexico service providers over allegations of fraud, and their replacement by out-of-state providers on no-bid emergency contracts.

Carrie Hamblen

Like Martinez-Parra, Hamblen cited the vote on the statewide abortion ban as an issue prominent in her mind and that of voters. "We need to remove the 1969 law that criminalizes women who choose to get abortions," Hamblen said.

Asked about the tradeoffs when newer candidates replace experienced incumbents, Hamblen said, "There's an underestimation about our capabilities of navigating relationships and creating change in our own communities and bringing that to the state." She would be an advocate, she said, for mentorship between generations of leaders. 

Hamblen will face a GOP challenge in the general election. Wendler is running for the seat again.

'A monumental shift'

On Wednesday, Gabriel Vasquez, a Democrat serving on the Las Cruces City Council, called the upsets "a monumental shift … for some of those large initiatives and policies that other progressive and Democrat legislators have been pushing for years." 

Vasquez told the Sun-News he hoped, if the newer Democrats are elected and the party holds its majorities in both houses of the state Legislature, that lawmakers could move bills to the governor's desk on initiatives such as tapping the state's land grant permanent fund to fund early childhood education and legalizing cannabis for recreational use, which he said would buoy the state's economy. 

Besides funding and policy, Vasquez said the primary presented an opening for fresh relationships between constituents and new representatives. 

"People want their elected leaders to be accessible, to be open and transparent," he said and then noted that, despite being an elected official himself, he had not been able to get a meeting with either Papen or Smith. 

Neomi Martinez Parra

"They haven't shown up to community events, they haven't been part of important community conversations that overlap with the priorities of the city," he added. "If I can't even have access to them, how can an everyday constituent have access? And I think that's going to change."

Meanwhile, the progressive shift in Democratic politics has also been a selling point for Republican candidates.

"We are seeing an unprecedented attempt by progressive interest groups to radically move the political landscape away from our traditional New Mexican values," said Diamond, the Republican candidate who will face Martinez-Parra in November. "I am running to protect our shared value of fiscal responsibility, for hard-working families and small businesses, and to safeguard the freedoms we all enjoy.”

Algernon D'Ammassa can be reached at 575-541-5451, adammassa@lcsun-news.com or @AlgernonWrites on Twitter.