The Silver City Daily Press and Independent hosted a virtual forum between the Democratic candidates for the District 28 State Senate seat on May 14, 2020. Publisher Nick Seibel acted as moderator.
Senator Gabriel Ramos was first to give opening statements. "I am the candidate with the experience," he said. "I was born and raised in Hurley and I went to the Cobre Public Schools. I was elected to my first position as County Clerk when I was 25." Ramos has also served on the school board for Cobre, the Hurley Town Council, as a Grant County Commissioner and is currently the State Senator in District 28.
Siah Correa Hemphill is challenging Ramos for that seat. "I've know Senator Ramos for thirty-seven years, since junior high school. I have no doubt he wants what's best for the community, just like I do," she said. Hemphill is running as a mother and an educator and says she will fight to make sure the community has access to health care. She also wants to end the cycle of poverty and trauma through reinforcing safety, connection, and problem solving.
"What makes you the best candidate to represent the Democratic party and the platform?" Seibel asked.
Hemphill said she knows what services need to be in place to help families. "I have deep roots in New Mexico, going back over fourteen generations. New Mexico is in my blood. I want to make sure we succeed as we recover from this economic and health crisis."
"I personally and truly believe I am the best candidate because of my experience," Ramos said. He has initiated and completed projects over the years and believes he has the best experience. "You can't learn on the job, it's a tough job as it is."
Seibel asked for some follow-up information from both candidates. "There's a component that we didn't really get into," he said. "What does it mean to you to be a Democrat?"
Ramos said he's the only candidate on the ballot that has voted in both the primaries and the general elections as a Democrat his entire life. "I don't agree with the platform 100%," he said. "I've been a Democrat my whole life and I think that's what makes me a better person to represent our party. It's not about representing the whole platform as a whole, it's about representing our people."
Hemphill reflected on the time in her life that impacted her the most, when her child was diagnosed with bone cancer. "It shifted the way I thought about issues. The Democratic platform is about ensuring that people have their basic needs met in a caring and compassionate way. I fully believe health care is a fundamental human right." She also believes the community has the right to a quality education.
"Both candidates have done a good job of getting their supporters involved in the election, but whoever wins will have to represent everyone in the district, including those who have very different beliefs," Seibel said. The audience member wanted to know how the candidate who wins the primary will make sure all constituents feel they are represented fairly within the district.
"This is one of the most important questions for everyone in our country right now. How can we have those tough conversations with people who have different viewpoints, in respectful ways," Hemphill said. She cites her experience in psychology and practice in conflict resolution as ways to help communicate with everyone in the district. "It's important to be able to see a situation and an issue from another person's point of view. I think that's one of the greatest skills that a legislator can have."
"Dealing with people all the time is definitely something that I do not only in business but in the political avenues that I have taken," Ramos said. "Whenever you're in office you have to listen to people."
"While we're talking about platforms," Seibel said, "so far the most popular question has been, 'Do you consider yourself to be anti-choice/pro-life with regard to a woman's right to choose?'"
Ramos said he has lots of women in his family, and he cares about women. "I am pro-life and what I am against when it comes to abortion is abortion up to the last day of pregnancy. Really? To the last day of pregnancy? Not only that, but I'm against if a baby is born during an abortion and it's put to sleep afterwards. That's inhumane. Those are things I don't like about abortion." Ramos said we ought to use common sense and vote from the heart.
"Abortion is a deeply personal decision made by a woman and her healthcare provider without interference from politicians," Hemphill said. "I stand with our governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, and thousands of women and voters across our district who believe that abortion should be safe and legal. I also think it's dangerous to spread inaccurate information about abortion. It's dangerous for women and it's dangerous for healthcare providers."
"Let's turn now to Geoffrey Plant who will ask a question on behalf of the Silver City Daily Press and Independent," Seibel said.
"I'm going to stay with the theme of women's reproductive rights and ask each of you how you would treat the proposition that came up the previous year in legislature, when the question came whether New Mexico should repeal its prohibition on non-medically justified abortion. Would you support the repeal of that law and also I'd like to hear you talk about women's privacy and the right for women to make their own medical decisions, which is really what the abortion debate is about," Plant asked.
"So in regard to what was the House Bill 51, I absolutely would vote to repeal that and get it off the books," Hemphill said. "We should not be criminalizing women, and we should not be criminalizing doctors. That's very oppressive." Hemphill seeks to shift the focus to making sure women have adequate access to reproductive health care. Her stance is to make sure politicians are not interfering in health care decisions.
Ramos said he did not like the bill, for reasons he already mentioned. "No one wants to criminalize women for having an abortion," he said, "We all want to make sure there are programs in place to help a woman while they are pregnant. We also want to make sure we hold males responsible for doing their part in the process." He agrees with Hemphill when it comes to quality health care, specifically after the child is born. "Just because I'm pro-life doesn't make me a bad person, but when it comes to the act of abortion I am against the late-term abortions, especially because of these babies being able to live on their own."
Seibel said this is clearly a hot button issue, and asked the candidates to follow up by considering where they would draw the line when it comes to how far into the pregnancy the abortion could be sought.
"First of all, I don't think we need to draft that bill because Roe vs. Wade has not been turned over. Second, I really would have to start looking at the science," Ramos said. He voiced concerns about the health of the woman receiving the procedure as well.
Hemphill started her answer by first quoting Ruth Bader Ginsberg, "The emphasis must not be on the right to abortion but the right to privacy and reproductive control." Hemphill shared a short story about a woman would was faced with the choice to abort her child after learning of a fatal fetal condition. "It was a heart wrenching decision but one that she made with her doctor," Hemphill said.
"So you don't think there should be restrictions in the law in this state?" Seibel asked.
"There are so many variables," Hemphill said. "I have faith that women and doctors are able to make those heart wrenching decisions without the interference of politicians."
The next question was if the candidates supported the compassionate choices initiative.
"From what I understand that allows terminally ill adults to have access to medical aid in digit by self-administering lethal drugs," Hemphill said. She added that there are very specific criteria that must be met, including competency. "I just think about myself in that position. If I was suffering at the end of my life I would certainly want there to be options to end suffering."
"I have to look at my faith when it comes to this," Ramos said. "Just like the abortion issue, I have a lot of faith in God, and I am a believer that these things are tough decisions for people but I don't think they are good." Overall Ramos said he'd have to look at the bill before saying he is for or against it.
Seibel asked another question from the audience. "What is your stance on the second amendment, and where do you think New Mexico falls in terms of its gun laws?"
Ramos said he owns guns, enjoys hunting and fishing, and has participated in gun competitions. "I really think that people in our district love to go out and hunt and enjoy their guns in a responsible manner. I think the issue here isn't the gun, it's actually going out and teaching people to be responsible," he said.
Hemphill said she respects the 2nd amendment and shared a story about home invasion. "We bought a gun for self protection. I absolutely respect the desire for people to protect themselves and to hunt," she said. "I'm deeply appreciative that the home intruder was not able to go and purchase a gun. We need to take precautions to keep guns out of the hands of the people that are dangers to themselves or others." Hemphill also thinks precautions should be taken to keep guns out of the hands of children, including locking up firearms in the home.
"Can you talk about endorsements you've received and what they mean to you as far as community and professional support. There have been a lot of mailings going out to area residents," Plant said. "I'd like to hear your thoughts on the endorsements you've received and what they mean to you."
"I'm incredibly honored to have received endorsements from Governor Lujan Grisham," Hemphill said. she agrees with the way Grisham is leading the state through the pandemic. Hemphill also has endorsements from Senator Martin Heinrich and Representative Deb Haaland. Organizations that have given their endorsement include the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters, and Planned Parenthood. "I'm grateful to have the Planned Parenthood endorsement. At one time we had one in Silver City and before I had health insurance I went there for care. I had my first pregnancy test there."
"I'm honored to be endorsed by over 60 elected officials within my district," Ramos said. "I've worked with each and every one of them. Over 60 endorsements from elected officials, elected by people that trust them."
Seibel pointed out that both candidates were endorsed by unions. "Have either of you been a member or a union, and for how long? How would you protect the rights of workers as a state senator?" he asked.
Ramos was part of the AFSCME local and received an endorsement from them. "I'm the first senator on the floor that has actually helped start a local ASCME union. I helped Manny Maldonado start the union for the Corre Caminos," he said. He was also in the union when he worked at Phelps Dodge.
"I want to follow up, I'm curious to know how you would protect the rights of workers next session," Seibel said.
"By helping support bills that come through the Senate," Ramos said.
Hemphill has spent less time in a union, but has family ties to local 890. Her relative Alfred Correa became a passionate union supporter after losing his father when he was young. "I think it's important to make sure workers have safe conditions and fair pay," she said. Hemphill's focus is getting adequate pay and resources to the teachers in the district.
Seibel asked for more information about how to get support for public workers whose wages may not be enough to live on. "It's going to be a difficult time to be in the legislature. How will you balance those things?"
"There's no doubt that New Mexico is overly dependent on oil and gas reserves," Hemphill said. "If we get creative with the resources we have. We will need to adjust the budget for sure, but if we want to thrive as a state we need to find additional revenues." Hemphill cited wind and solar as alternatives to dependency on oil and gas.
"I'm looking for specifics about things you would aggressively push for as a senator. You provided examples but what does that look like," Seibel asked.
"It's important to look at the tax system because there were some tax breaks given to the wealthiest; looking at that and seeing if we have a tax system where everyone is paying their fair share. That's where we'll get additional revenue while we're diversifying the economy," Hemphill said.
"There is no quick fix," Ramos said. "We know oil and gas won't be around forever," he said. Ramos mentioned tourism, medical cannabis, and the copper industry as alternate industries. "We're not sure of the exact shortfall until June when we go into special session. I will be there no matter what, and I will do everything I can do to keep the money in education."
"I pushed back a little on Siah's response; I don't want to talk about revenue," Seibel said. "Would you roll back the tax cuts from ten years ago? What would your plan be?"
"It's something we're going to have to do for sure. I already voted to use some of the permanent land grant fund. I was one of the very few that had the opportunity to vote on that bill when it came to the Senate," Ramos said. "We are so far behind in education. We need to take money from somewhere to get us better in education. That's why I voted for the bill to take the money out."
"Would you support a state bank which uses our trust fund to lend to New Mexico based businesses?" Seibel asked.
"It's something we'd definitely have to look at. We're at a point when we have to look at everything," Ramos said. "We need someone that knows about deficit. I served on the Cobre board when it was $600,000 in the hole. I was on Hurley's town council when we were in the red."
"I've done a little research on state banks and how they were utilized in North Dakota," Hemphill said. "It provided support for their state, support for local businesses, and even loans for students attending the universities." Hemphill said the bank would be not-for-profit. "We need to save our small businesses and provide them with the resources they need to keep ends met. I'm definitely interested in pursuing that option."
A follow-up question came in from the audience. "One of the challenging things about state government is that they get in situations where in Washington they just make more money. State governments do not have that option, they have to have a balanced budget. Looking at these communities in District 28 that are hard hit economically, businesses close. Even in good times, in Grant County, mining is huge. What about schools. That's a lot of state money driving the economy. When we look at state budget cuts, how do you balance that?"
"During this pandemic we're going to have to really rely on the federal government to provide us those relief packages," Hemphill said. "This is a great opportunity for New Mexico to rebuild an economy that works better for everyone."
"At the same time that the federal government is writing more money, we're getting further in debt," Ramos said. "We're going to have to be creative. We need to use the experiences our Senate has had in the past and utilize their experiences as senators and in life. That's why it's so important to keep our experienced leadership and senators working for us."
"Recently the governor mentioned, almost in passing, that she wished the legislature had passed a recreational cannabis bill because of the tax dollars it would give the state. Would you support a recreational cannabis bill?" Plant asked.
Ramos said we need to look at what the neighboring states have done. "It's a matter of time; not if but when. We have to make sure we do it right." He was prepared to vote for the cannabis bill last session. "We've got to look at the bill and make sure it's right for everyone."
"If properly regulated and taxed, legalization of marijuana would fund important programs without raising taxes so I'm definitely supportive of that," Hemphill said. "I've heard estimates as high as 11,000 jobs would be created and it would really help boost our local community economy." She also mentioned the legalization of marijuana would bring money from the black market into the local economies. "As long as it is taxed and regulated, I think it's a great way for us to diversify our economy."
"Both of you have a tremendous amount of money in your campaign coffers. In this time of economic uncertainty for our communities, how much of that campaign money is being spent here at small businesses in New Mexico, or in District 28? For instance, there's a lot of mailers, where is that mail printed?" Seibel asked.
"My campaign manager is Neri Holguin who is an amazing rockstar. She's in Albuquerque and she's the one who designs and does the arrangements for the flyers," Hemphill said. "It's absolutely in New Mexico and we always try to spend our money locally. We purchased our signs from Morningstar and whenever we've been able to do anything locally we've absolutely done that."
"I'm a small business man so I depend on people doing business in our state," Ramos said. "So yes, all of my brochures that you get through the mail are not only from New Mexico but the person that prints them for me is an actual female veteran business owner. I think that is so awesome, that she is doing so well and able to print in masses." Ramos said his signage was from J and J signs.
"We've talked about all that campaign money. Certainly this is a race that has a lot of money in it. There's a story in the Daily Press a few weeks ago covering the finance reports that both of you submitted to the state. Let's talk about that money, the source of your campaign contributions, and how you feel about that. Is there anyone out there giving contributions that you would say, 'I would never take money from them?' and why is that?" Seibel asked.
"I started my reporting period almost a quarter before my opponents and all the reports that the press has been putting together didn't take that into account," Ramos said. He said that he had close to 300 individual donations from people and then was unable to receive monies while during the legislative session. "As soon as I came back there was a pandemic." He said he stopped asking for donations because he knows people are going through hardships.
"I'm so grateful for the broad support that we've received from hundreds of individuals in our district that make a vast majority of our donors," Hemphill said. "Early on I did pledge that I wouldn't take funds from corporate donors because I wanted to send a message that I was running a race backed by everyday people from our community. I wish I could say there's no PACs involved in the election." Hemphill remains proud of the campaign they are running. "I can say that none of the PACs supporting me have any ties to any Republican groups unlike the PACs supporting Senator Ramos." She also mentioned that the one PAC supporting Ramos has a direct financial stake in who serves in the legislature.
Seibel asked what the candidates feel the main issues are in Socorro County and how they would address them in the Senate, given both of them live in Silver City.
Hemphill said she has spent time talking to leaders in the community and one of the biggest challenges they are experiencing is related to the recession of 2008. She wants to provide teachers and parents with the resources and support they need to reverse the cycle of poverty and trauma. "We can start to reverse those cycles by making sure those people's basic needs are met," Hemphill said.
"I was visiting with elected officials and all kinds of people in Socorro and the biggest problem at the time was drugs," Ramos said. He then tried to get funding for the sheriff's office. He also hopes to secured funds and support for dealing with the Superfund site in the Eagle Picher area.
"While we're talking about concerns in the district, what are the biggest concerns of the municipalities in District 28 and how will you work with elected officials and how will you make sure the needs are addressed?" Seibel asked.
"When it comes to the municipalities, not everyone has the same problems but they're very related," Ramos said. He believes most of the issues will be with developing and maintaining water programs.
Hemphill said it's an important responsibility of our legislators to meet with officials in the communities. "I think the key is meeting with your officials regularly, and mayors, making sure you understand what the needs are of the community and prioritizing them," she said.
"Today I spoke with the director of the Interstate Stream Commission and at the commission's regular meeting this week they spent a lot of time talking about how they were going to manage and conserve water resources with a much reduced budget. In fact, general fund money has been frozen so they don't have any project money right now. Last year the legislature decided not to allocate $750,000 to come up with a 50-year water plan for the state. If that were to come up again, a funding opportunity for a 50-year water plan, would you support that?" Plant asked.
"Well it is important to prioritize the projects that are going to deliver the best value and the most water to the most New Mexicans, which means using data-driven water projects to improve out water infrastructure. The Grant County Regional Water Supply project is one that is going to provide a loop of water to our communities," Hemphill said. She also mentioned conservation efforts as ways to keep water available.
"I kind of want to mention, a while ago my opponent said Hanover had water problems but Hanover isn't a municipality so it probably shouldn't be included," Ramos said. "I'm glad my opponent brought up the loop system because that is one of the systems that I was working really hard on when I was County Commissioner."
"While we're talking about water we might as well get to the Gila Diversion Project. What is your position on the Gila Diversion?" Seibel asked.
Ramos said he participated in the CAP entity and believes the county should stay involved on the CAP board. "We want to make sure that if there's a project in Grant County it gets looked at. It would make no sense to have projects going through the CAP entity and not have a voice," he said. He emphasized making sure there was a complete business plan with any proposed projects.
"Well I believe that the Gila River is our greatest treasure," Hemphill said. Her family spends a lot of time hiking and backpacking in the area. "It's near and dear to my heart and I know my ancestors protected the river so that our children can enjoy it and I firmly believe that we need to continue to protect our Gila River for future generations. I am against the river diversion."
Seibel asked the candidates if they had read the proposed Wild and Scenic bill that was introduced last week by Senators Heinrich and Udall, and if they support it.
Hemphill said she read the bill and supports it.
"I've read it and I actually wrote a letter of support to both senators," Ramos said. He said that the bill is not perfect but he still stands by his choice to support it.
"This is a question about newspapers, about sunshine legislation. Where do you stand on sunshine legislation? Also, one of you answered questions by the Albuquerque Journal and the other did not and I wanted you to talk about that as well," Seibel asked.
Ramos made an awkward joke about what sunshine was and Seibel interrupted to clarify that the question was about government openness. He ultimately said he supports sunshine laws.
"What about the Albuquerque Journal questions?" Seibel added.
Ramos said they sent up his answers and he doesn't know what happened.
"I think transparency is key and in any political position that you're in, it increases fairness, accountability, and reduces government corruption. It's important that we communicate openly with newspapers and this forum is the perfect example of how we can increase transparency," Hemphill said.
Seibel asked the candidates if they would support changing New Mexico law to make voting by mail more widespread, or if there was anything they would do to expand the voting laws.
"In order to have a just and functioning society we must ensure that all people have an equal voice," Hemphill said. "Being able to vote is critical to having an equal voice." Hemphill mentioned that there are people with mobility issues, like her son, who would be unable to vote if they didn't have help at the polling place - versus casting a ballot by mail. "I do support mail-in ballots and I think that's key to ensure that all people have an equal voice."
Ramos also supports mail-in ballots. He added that he supports same-day registration.
"Can you speak to what you as legislator will do specifically in terms of improving the community during the COVID-19 pandemic?" Plant asked. He added that with so many areas affected it would be nice to know what the candidates would specifically to help the district.
"Science says this could get worse," Ramos said. "On the immediate front I don't think there's much more that we could have done. I truly feel that the governor did a good job in the way she handled the situation."
Hemphill looks at education as crucial for recovery. "It is so incredibly critical to mitigate any traumatic effects, not just on children but adults as well," she said. "Our brains are programmed to connect. We're not having that connection right now and I know that children are really hurting and suffering right now." Hemphill believes nothing is more important right now than supporting healthcare, including behavioral and mental health services.
Seibel asked the candidates how they feel about the New Mexico health security act.
"It'll be important to see what the fiscal analysis shows, to see if it's an available option," Hemphill said. "I think it would really reduce a lot of suffering that I've seen across the district."
"I think it's something we really need to look at," Ramos said. He voted for the $25 insulin cap and he also voted for New Mexicans to be able to purchase pharmaceuticals from Canada. "I think we're just starting to maneuver our way to a better health care system."
The next question was about the limited number of liquor licenses in New Mexico and how the candidates thought they could give rural communities more fair opportunities regarding those licenses.
"We definitely have a problem with liquor licenses," Ramos said. "The cost is so high, we've got to do something. Not just the price, but how many licenses there are in general and how they should be divided amongst the rural and urban areas." Ramos also pointed out that controlling licenses is something to think about as cannabis is considered for legalization.
Hemphill agrees that liquor licenses are not divided equally and that the system may need restructuring. "It would help diversify the economy if we had more liquor licenses and restaurants were able to serve drinks." Hemphill mentioned the loss of the Buffalo Bar and the Drifter on account of how lucrative is was to sell the license and close the establishment rather than stay in business. "That had a negative impact on our tourism and if we were able to restructure that so we could get more of these establishments up and running again, that would help with the diversification of our economy."
"Let's step back to the last legislative session. There were certainly some hot-button issues, including Senate Bill 220 and Senate Bill 255, the bills proposed by senators outside of our area that were anti-mining. What was your feeling about those bills?" Seibel asked.
"I'm so proud that my family has worked in the mine for many generations. I understand what the mine means to Grant County," Hemphill said. "The economy is dependent on the mine doing well. When the mine does well, we all benefit." She hopes that as the state pursues wind and solar, the need to copper will increase, which will benefit everyone.
Ramos said he trusts that the mine is complying with the standards to have the cleanest water and air possible. "They all want to do what is best for our community because they have families that live in the area," he said. When the bills came through during the last legislative session, he worked against their passage. "Freeport would have never been able to produce another permit to keep the mine going."
Seibel asked if the candidates were eager to share the ballot with the existing leadership from the senate as well as sharing the ballot with the proposed Democratic Party presidential nominee, Joe Biden.
"Of course, I've got some really great colleagues that are working right now to try to solve the state's problems," Ramos said. "I wold definitely back our senate leadership, as I have fro the past two sessions." As for sharing the ticket with Biden, Ramos said he's glad Biden is the Democratic candidate and he feels he will be able to beat the current president.
Hemphill said she supports Biden as well. "I think it's too premature to say who the leadership will be in the senate because I know both of those senators are being primaried," she said.
"In general, what do you believe are the best qualities for a senator of New Mexico from this district?" Seibel asked.
"I think the best leadership qualities that anybody could have are being able to listen to people and offer empathy and compassion, and seeing situations from a different person's point of view," Hemphill said. "I think that's key because there's so much divisiveness in our country and community."
"The most important thing is leadership. That quality is something that I do bring to the table," Ramos said.
"Does it make a difference if someone is a newcomer to the community? Can you represent their interests just as much as the others?" Seibel asked.
"I know i've made the comment that people come here and they love it, but once they get here they try to change our ways," Ramos said. "I'm so passionate about this place, we have a treasure." He said we need people to come here, and we need to find common ground when it comes to decisions.
"I think that regardless if you've been here fourteen generations of if you're coming to our community new, you have amazing skills and talents to offer our community," Hemphill said. "It's extremely valuable to have people who've come from other places to share ideas and new ways of looking at things. Those are things that progress us as a community."
Seibel asked the "time machine" question wherein the candidates imagine we are at the end of the term, looking back. "What is the one thing you are most proud of?"
"I hope it doesn't take us four years to recover from our health and economic crisis, but it certainly could," Hemphill said. "What I would hope to be able to accomplish in the legislature is to ensure funding for essential services like health care, mental health care, and education. I'd like to improve income equality and reverse the cycle of trauma and poverty across our whole state."
"I don't think this should be just one thing if you've been there for four years. It should definitely be multiple things," Ramos said. "I'm hoping to be able to say that I protected educators' salaries, created better early childhood education, created a better healthcare system for everyone that could be used by all, and I'd like to be able to say that I supported critical industries that created good paying, local, jobs."
Seibel asked the candidates for their closing statements.
"I just want to say that this race is really personal to me because my family has lived in New Mexico for over fourteen generations. They were the first farmers, miners, and ranchers in the area," Hemphill said. "I had many ancestors that worked in state government and overcame hardships including the Spanish flu pandemic. They overcame it by working together because it's what we do in our rural communities. If you believe, like I do, that to recover from this health and economic crisis we must ensure funding for essential services by moving froward toward a fair and just economy that works for everyone, go to siahforsenate.com and join our team."
Ramos thanked his family and supporters. "I will continue to work hard. That's the kind of work ethic you get from me. I will continue to vote and fight for working families. I will continue toward and fight for schools and early childhood education. I will continue to fight for the areas that really affect us. When you vote for Gabriel Ramos for Senator you vote for someone with experience, someone that's been involved in municipal government, school government, county government, and state government. I'm not perfect but I guarantee I'll continue to work hard to make sure our people here in District 28 are taken care of and represented to the fullest. To get involved go to senatorramos.com.
"I'd like to encourage folks to go vote," Seibel said. "Early voting is going on now. I encourage you to consider applying for an absentee ballot. Contact your county clerk to do that. No matter what, make sure you vote in the June 2 primary."