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Candidates in one of primary’s most prominent races square off at forum

Veteran politicos Bill O’Neill and Debbie O’Malley are vying to represent a much-changed state senate district.

May 14, 2024

Primary elections for state legislative seats are usually rather routine affairs. Often enough, incumbents are left unchallenged and so keep their powder dry for the general election – when the other party’s candidate comes into play. On the off chance there is some fresh intraparty competition, they usually still hold the sort of commanding advantage that comes from knowing the district like the back of their hands. Even for open seats, it may be that only one candidate per party throws their hat into the ring anyway.

This year’s primary race to represent the thirteenth district in the state senate, however, throws out that usual script.

There is a well-tenured incumbent in the form of Bill O’Neill, who has been in the state legislature since 2009. But following the latest round of redistricting, the patch he aims to represent now has a lot of new terrain, including Wells Park, Martineztown, Barelas, San José, and much in between (map).

The contest has drawn a veteran challenger who knows the Valley in general, and that new terrain in particular, very well. Debbie O’Malley has represented various swaths of the area going back to 2003, first on the City Council and then on the County Commission. Her family ties to the newly created district go back even longer: Her mother is from Barelas and her father worked at the sawmill for which the neighborhood is named.

And to raise the stakes even further, no Republican has filed to run for the seat. Barring some last-minute dark-horse write-in campaign, the Democratic primary concluding on June 4 will be the last word on the matter.

The two candidates have thus been traipsing around the district, knocking on doors, pressing the flesh, and attending various events and forums. Last week they converged on the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center for a forum sponsored by the Near North Valley Neighborhood Association and moderated by the DAN editor. Here’s a breakdown of the questions asked and links to audio of their answers:

(1.) There are large homeless encampments throughout District 13, many of which are in public spaces like underpasses, sidewalks, and parks. This issue is also in flux thanks to a pending case before the US Supreme Court about what authority cities actually have to remove such encampments. We will get to the issue of housing in our next question. For now, however, what can state government do to address the encampment problem in particular, and what would you do as a senator to help? — O’MALLEY / O’NEILL

(2.) While addiction and mental illness are certainly serious factors in homelessness, the cost of housing is perhaps bigger still. There is a not-unrelated shortage of units, particularly affordable ones, and the situation has only worsened in recent years. What can you as a state senator do to make housing more affordable and accessible in the near term while ensuring an adequate supply in the long term? — O’MALLEY / O’NEILL

(3.) There will soon be a special session of the legislature about crime and public safety. What specific policies would you advocate for on this front? — O’MALLEY / O’NEILL

(4.) With respect to the somewhat dramatic redistricting of Senate District 13, what challenges and opportunities do you see? — O’MALLEY / O’NEILL

(5.) We’d like to hear about your philosophy when it comes to the state infrastructure grants that are formally known as capital outlay. What factors will you consider when prioritizing projects from your district versus other parts of the city or state? And is there any hope of funding projects more fully and more quickly, or is the fundraising process doomed to drag on for years as it often does now? — O’MALLEY / O’NEILL

(6.) A 2015 Bernalillo County parks, recreation, and open space plan identified a need for centrally-located, all-ages community centers in the North Valley. Many local residents would certainly concur on the need. Will you commit to helping make such a multi-generational center (or centers) a reality? And if so, what will you do to help? — O’MALLEY / O’NEILL

(7.) In 2001 the City Council adopted the Los Candelarias Metropolitan Redevelopment Plan to address blight in the 12th and Candelaria area, and substantial public resources were subsequently invested in various ways. Since then, street landscaping and public art have not been maintained to the satisfaction of many, and in the meantime, properties remain vacant and continue to deteriorate. The adopted MRA plan encourages continued partnership among city and state officials. Given that, what can you do as a state senator to make sure this area lives up to its potential? — O’MALLEY / O’NEILL

(8.) Across the nation, states have increasingly been getting involved in local zoning issues. Here in the valley, there are two categories of significant public interest where this could come into play. First, cannabis businesses and car washes are moving to the area in substantial numbers. Second, there are ongoing efforts at the City Council to change underlying zoning to promote more dense housing arrangements. Do you support state government getting involved in local zoning, and if so, what changes would you support related to cannabis retail, car washes, and housing? — O’MALLEY / O’NEILL

(9.) Should the job of a state legislator be a full-time, salaried position? And should legislators have full-time staffers to help wrap their minds around policy matters? Why or why not? — O’MALLEY / O’NEILL

(10.) Water availability in New Mexico is expected to decline significantly over the next few decades. What choices – presumably difficult ones – will need to be made to adapt to this less plentiful future, and how can you help the state navigate that challenge? — O’MALLEY / O’NEILL

(11.) What ails our public schools and what can you do to help? — O’MALLEY / O’NEILL

(12.) What are your hopes, dreams, and top agenda items for Medicaid? — O’MALLEY / O’NEILL

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