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Congressional Quarterly

Gloria Tristani, Domenici's N.M. Challenger Has Tough Climb

By Dmitry Abramov

May 3, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Congressional Quarterly, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

New Mexico Democrat Gloria Tristani has a resume she can tout in her Senate bid this year.

She has government experience in Santa Fe as a former member of the state Corporation Commission and in Washington as a former member of the Federal Communications Commission.

She has strong New Mexico political bloodlines: Her grandfather, the late Dennis Chavez, was a highly popular Democratic senator from 1935 to his death in 1962.

But she also faces a towering obstacle in the Republican incumbent, longtime Budget Committee power Pete V. Domenici, who enters the race as an overwhelming favorite to win a sixth Senate term.

Domenici last won re-election, in 1996, by a 35 percentage-point margin - 65 percent to 30 percent - over Democratic former Santa Fe Mayor Art Trujillo. He last was seriously challenged in 1978, his first re-election campaign: Democrat Toney Anaya, who later served as governor (1983-87), held him to 53 percent and a 7 percentage-point victory margin.

Gilbert St. Clair, a professor of political science at the University of New Mexico, said that he expects Domenici to be re-elected because of his incumbency and popularity in the state. Domenci also has garnered bipartisan respect in Congress and is recognized as a budget expert.

Tristani, however, believes that Domenici can be overcome, and cites a laundry list of issues to back up that contention.

"The incumbent is vulnerable on minimum wage, helping increase the standard of living for the working families in New Mexico, the environment, Social Security, health care, education funding and on women's issues," she said.

Tristani adds that Domenici's vote on the tax cut legislation backed and signed last year by President Bush "was not for mainstream New Mexicans." She believes the tax cut was too heavily geared toward the wealthy and favors deferring about $600 billion in reductions to provide money to states for health care and education.

Tristani said that Domenici has not been effective on behalf of his poorest constituents. "New Mexico has the same proportion of children in poverty today as they did when the incumbent took office 30 years ago," she said.

If elected, Tristani said she would work to increase the minimum wage, to increase pay for teachers and to promote the use of renewable energy resources.

Tristani is one of many Clinton administration appointees seeking higher office this year. President Bill Clinton appointed her to the FCC in 1997, a post she left in September to run for the Senate.

During her FCC tenure, Tristani worked to bridge the so-called digital divide in Internet access between wealthy urban areas and poor, rural ones, and championed efforts to reduce the media's exposure of children to violence.

Previously, Tristani was the first woman elected to the New Mexico Corporation Commission, which regulates public utilities, telecommunications companies and insurance companies. She served in that office from 1994 to 1997.

Despite Domenici's long incumbency and a strong strain of Western conservatism among some of its voters, New Mexico is a highly competitive partisan "swing" state.

Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore defeated Republican nominee George W. Bush in 2000, but by just 366 votes of nearly 600,000 cast (47.9 percent to 47.8 percent). Domenici's New Mexico Senate colleague is popular Democrat Jeff Bingaman.

Gary E. Johnson, who this year has reached his legal limit of two four-year terms as governor, is a Republican. But Democrat Bill Richardson - a former House member (1983-97) who served as U.N. ambassador and Energy secretary under Clinton - is the early favorite to succeed Johnson.

Richardson is the most prominent Hispanic politician in a state where Hispanics make up 42 percent of the population, the largest percentage in any state. Solid support and heavy turnout among this strongly Democratic-leaning constituency are crucial to the hopes of any Democratic candidate - including Tristani, who was born in Puerto Rico.

Domenici has shown he is aware of this and is making efforts to court Hispanic voters. He has praised Mexico and favors increased ties between that nation and the United States. He favored appointment of Hispanics to key roles in the Bush administration and presided over the recent development of the Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque.

St. Clair said Tristani's association with Chavez would still resonate with some of the state's older voters.

Her efforts also include airing televising ads in Spanish. This move attracted controversy because some stations initially resisted airing the ads, claiming the majority of their viewers do not speak the language.

Tristani questioned the legality of that decision, citing televised debates in Spanish in past campaigns and New Mexico's official designation as a bilingual state.

After Tristani's complaints, stations in El Paso, Texas - which reach the New Mexico city of Las Cruces - agreed to run the ads, in which she speaks of the path left by Chavez. "I share with my grandfather the belief that democracy should provide opportunities for all Americans," she says in Spanish in the ads.

Domenici also is planning to run Spanish-language television commercials, though campaign manager James Fuller said that Domenici "doesn't compartmentalize any New Mexicans."

According to Fuller, Dominici will continue to work on job creation, economic development, education and improving health care.

Fuller pointed to Domenici's record of employment initiatives, including Rural Payday, which he said created 3,600 telecommunications-based jobs in the state. Domenici also is pushing for job creation through high-tech initiatives to make New Mexico "the `Silicon Mesa' for the country," Fuller said.

Fuller noted that Domenici will continue to be involved in the education efforts led by President Bush, including increased teacher education, accountability and the ethics-oriented program Character Counts.

According to Fuller, Domenici has worked to lower interest rates for students who borrow from the federal government to finance their education. Fuller said this would make "higher education more available to students who wouldn't normally have that opportunity."

Bush, in an April 29 visit to Albuquerque, gave Domenici a boost by backing the senator's longstanding goal of requiring health insurance policies to provide coverage for mental health insurance at parity with coverage for physical ailments. Domenici, who has a daughter who suffers from schizophrenia, is the lead sponsor of a bill (S 543) to provide mental health parity.

Recent fundraising numbers underscore Tristani's underdog status. In the first quarter of 2002, Domenici raised $562,000 to Tristani's $237,000. His advantage in cash on hand is much more looming: At the end of March, Domenici had $1,706,000 in his campaign account, while Tristani had $191,000.

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