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WED: Raúl Torrez wins Democratic primary for AG, Laura Montoya wins nomination for treasurer, + More

Raul Torrez AG Nominee
Susan Montoya Bryan/AP
FILE - Bernalillo County District Attorney Raul Torrez speaks to a panel of New Mexico lawmakers during a meeting in Albuquerque, N.M., Sept. 27, 2017. Torrez is running against State Auditor Brian Colón for the Democratic endorsement to succeed termed-out Democratic Attorney General Hector Balderas. Absentee and early in-person vote were underway Thursday, June 2, 2022, in advance of Election Day next Tuesday. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan, File)

Raúl Torrez wins Democratic primary for attorney general - Associated Press

Raúl Torrez has won the Democratic primary for attorney general in New Mexico to challenge Republican attorney and U.S. Marine veteran Jeremy Michael Gay of Gallup.

The Albuquerque-based district attorney defeated State Auditor Brian Colón to vie for the state's top law enforcement post as Attorney General Hector Balderas terms out of office.

Torrez has portrayed himself as a seasoned courtroom attorney and prosecutor of crime and corruption.

He has pledged to expand the state's capacity and expertise to handle consumer-rights litigation and prevail in a prolonged legal battle with Texas over management of Rio Grande waters amid a decadeslong drought.

Torrez's recent tenure as district attorney coincides with a crime crisis in Albuquerque, including a record-setting number of homicides in 2021.

He has sought unsuccessfully to roll back bail reforms that allowed judges to deny pre-trial release to dangerous defendants and release low-risk defendants who might remain in jail because they can't afford bail bonds. The reforms were initiated by statewide referendum in 2016.

New Mexico sees uptick in less severe COVID-19 infections - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

Coronavirus cases are on the rise again in New Mexico, but top state health officials said Wednesday that a return to mask mandates or other widespread public health restrictions are unlikely because infections are becoming more mild.

Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase said during his first briefing on the pandemic in months that the situation is very different now than it was over the winter. He noted that more tools and treatments are available and that infections are resulting in far fewer hospitalizations and deaths.

"This isn't about infections. It's about serious disease, it's about hospitalizations, it's about deaths. That's what we need to pay attention to," he said of the focus. "... Our deaths are only a fraction, our hospitalizations are only a fraction and that's really the sticking point for this state."

The pandemic took a toll on New Mexico early on because of the state's historical lack of resources, including nurses and its low ranking among states when it comes to hospital bed capacity.

Health care officials and some elected officials promoted the mandates in hopes of limiting infections and preventing the overtaxing of a system already running at full capacity.

Hospitalizations due to COVID-19 infection are currently low and only a small percentage of patients require ventilators, which state officials said means an evolution toward a milder illness from coronavirus infections.

State epidemiologist Dr. Christine Ross, who will step down from her post in the coming weeks, said it has been a long and difficult public health period but that she was pleased to report what she called a welcomed difference from the severity of prior infections.

"What we're seeing with this wave is very different than what we've seen in the past," she said, pointing to multiple factors that range from the properties of the latest variant to what she referred to as a wall of protection created by vaccination and immunity resulting from infections and in some cases re-infections.

Health officials did acknowledged the difficulty in analyzing data now because many positive infection tests conducted at home go unreported.

While state data showed vaccinated and boosted people made up nearly two-thirds of COVID-19 cases reported over the last four weeks, Scrase said the numbers should not be considered a study of how effective vaccination might be "because there are too many variables."

With treatments now seen as a game-changer, Scrase said his next hope is that deaths caused by the virus can be prevented.

New Mexico's coronavirus death toll is approaching 7,900 people, according to state data.

GOP taps seasoned broadcaster for New Mexico governor race - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

Republicans picked a seasoned TV broadcaster to take on New Mexico's incumbent Democratic governor, nominating former network meteorologist Mark Ronchetti on his pledges to rein in state spending, shore up policing and unleash already record-setting oil production.

Ronchetti won by a wide margin in a field of five candidates that included state Rep. Rebecca Dow, a prominent voice among Republicans in the Legislature.

The GOP nominee, a family man joined on the victory stage by his wife and school-aged daughters, pledged to back police officers by restoring immunity from prosecution and blasted Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham for a lengthy suspension of in-person teaching and student proficiency testing during the pandemic.

"Now our children are even further behind, and she has no plan to catch them up," Ronchetti said. "Every at-risk child deserves to know that they have a chance with a great education."

He added a jab at new social studies standards that increase instruction related to racial and social identity in a heavily Latino and Native American state.

"We'll focus on teaching them reading, writing, history, science and math. One thing we won't teach them is how to hate each other," Ronchetti said.

New Mexico is home to 23 federally recognized Native American tribes and nations, while nearly half the population claims Hispanic ethnicity.

Separately, the Democratic nomination for attorney general went to Raúl Torrez, a second-term district attorney for Albuquerque and its outskirts.

He defeated State Auditor Brian Colón to vie in an open race against Republican attorney and U.S. Marine veteran Jeremy Michael Gay of Gallup.

New Mexico has alternated between Democratic and Republican governors since the early 1980s. An incumbent governor last lost reelection in 1994.

The November election for New Mexico governor will be a test of Democratic resolve in an oil-producing region with enduring currents of Catholicism and a strong culture of gun ownership.

The GOP in 2020 flipped a congressional district along the U.S. border with Mexico with the election of Republican U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell, a firm defender of former President Donald Trump.

Ronchetti has pledged to deploy 150 state law enforcement personnel to the remote international border with Mexico to combat illegal migration and drug and human trafficking. The proposal echoes National Guard deployments by Republican governors in Arizona and Texas.

In a nod to his days as a TV personality, Ronchetti cracked some jokes on the victory stage. He ridiculed the governor for lavish public spending at the governor's mansion on premium beef and liquor, contrasting that with his own offer of chips, salsa and a cash bar for supporters on election night.

Lujan Grisham spent much of Election Day surveying recent destruction from the largest wildfire in recorded New Mexico history. President Joe Biden is scheduled to discuss relief efforts during a planned visit Saturday to Santa Fe.

An incumbent governor hasn't lost election since 1994. And Republicans have faltered in a string of statewide elections, ceding control of every statewide elected office to Democrats, including the five-seat state Supreme Court.

Since taking office in 2019, Lujan Grisham and the Democratic-led Legislature have enacted reforms to ensure access to abortion, expand government oversight of guns and expand police accountability by lifting immunity from prosecution for misconduct.

The incumbent governor has walked a fine line on the environment with climate change initiatives that rein in methane pollution from oilfield infrastructure, phase out coal-fired power plants and mandate new renewable energy investments without restricting oil production. New Mexico last year surpassed North Dakota in 2021 to become the nation's No. 2 oil producer behind Texas.

Lujan Grisham has harnessed a surge in state government income to underwrite teacher raises, offer free college education to in-state students, expand preschool and bolster Medicaid coverage across a state with high rates of poverty.

In response to inflation, the state is sending out staggered payments of up to $1,500 per household between June and August.

New Mexico's most recent Republican governor was Susana Martinez, an El Paso native with family ties in Mexico who served as a district attorney before winning an open race to succeed termed-out Gov. Bill Richardson.

First-term congresswomen were seeking reelection to New Mexico's three congressional districts, without primary challengers.

In the 2nd District of southern New Mexico, Las Cruces City Councilor Gabe Vasquez won the Democratic nomination to challenge Herrell. He defeated rural physician Darshan Patel.

In the 1st District that includes most of Albuquerque and rural communities to the south, the GOP nomination to challenge Democratic U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury was won by former police Detective Michelle Garcia Holmes.

Holmes ran for the same congressional seat in 2020 and was defeated by Democrat Deb Haaland, now serving as U.S. Interior secretary.

In other statewide races, former Sandoval County Treasurer Laura Montoya won the Democratic nomination for state treasurer, defeating former Magistrate Judge and Treasury official Heather Benavidez. Montoya will compete against former Santa Fe County Commissioner Harry Montoya in an open race to replace termed out State Treasurer Tim Eichenberg.

The Democratic nomination for state auditor went to utilities regulator Joseph Maestas, an elected member of the Public Regulation Commission. He'll confront Libertarian write-in candidate Robert Vaillancourt in a general election without a Republican contender.

In state legislative races, state Rep. Roger Montoya of Velarde was ousted in the Democratic primary by Joseph Sanchez of Alcalde, who gave up the seat in 2020 to run unsuccessfully for Congress.

Sizzling temperatures in store across southwestern US - By Felicia Fonseca Associated Press

Scorching temperatures are in store for the southwestern U.S. over the next several days, with cities like Phoenix, Las Vegas and Palm Springs in California expected to top 110 degrees.

Parts of New Mexico and Texas also will see triple-digits.

Heat is part of the normal routine of summertime in the desert, but weather forecasters say that doesn't mean people should feel at ease. Excessive heat causes more deaths in the U.S. than other weather-related disasters, including hurricanes, floods and tornadoes combined.

"Though weather conditions are going to be nice, you have to limit your outdoor activities significantly," said Gabriel Lojero of the National Weather Service in Phoenix.

The temperatures forecast from Wednesday through Monday are the highest yet this year. Scientists say more frequent and intense heat waves are likely in the future because of climate change and a deepening drought.

The effects of spiking temperatures are felt most acutely among vulnerable populations, including people without homes and workers who labor outside. Homeless people are about 200 times more likely to die from heat-associated causes, said David Hondula, a climate scientist who leads the city of Phoenix's Office of Heat Response and Mitigation.

At least 130 homeless individuals were among the 339 people who died from heat-associated causes last year in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, and has the highest population of any county in Arizona.

Phoenix already is considered the hottest big city in the United States. A heat wave last summer pushed temperatures up to 118 degrees (48 Celsius).

Most everyone in central and southern Arizona, southern Nevada and southeast California will be at risk for heat-related illness if they don't take proper precautions, Lojero said. Those include wearing light-colored clothing, staying hydrated and seeking shade if they need to go outside.

Temperatures are expected to tie or break records, even at night when it's cooler, before dropping overall early next week.

Phoenix and Yuma are forecast to be just shy of 115 degrees on Saturday when the heat peaks across the region. Blythe and El Centro in California will be at or above that temperature. Las Vegas will top out at 111 degrees during the heat wave, the National Weather Service said.

Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Grand Canyon also will see triple-digit temperatures — a reminder that the weather changes drastically from the canyon's rim to its inner depths.

Some places in New Mexico also are expected to see temperatures that could break records over the weekend. Thunderstorms over the next couple of days could cause flash flooding in areas that have been scorched by wildfire, forecasters said.

While temperatures had cooled this week in Texas, the heat is building through the weekend.

The sizzling numbers come ahead of the annual rainy season in the Southwest, known simply as the monsoon, that starts in mid-June and runs through September. Weather experts say the phenomenon has equal chances of being above, below and normal this year in Arizona.

Laura Montoya wins democratic nomination for state treasurer - Bryce Dix, KUNM News

Former Sandoval County treasurer Laura Montoya has won the democratic nomination for New Mexico’s next state treasurer and will be on the ballot this November. She’ll be going head-to-head with Republican Harry B Montoya––who ran unopposed yesterday.

They are looking to replace current state treasurer Tim Eichenberg, who is responsible for managing state debt, cash flow, and investments.

Recently, Eichenberg weighed in on the race by filing an ethics complaint against Montoya accusing her of violating New Mexico campaign finance and financial disclosure laws.

Montoya pushed back on this claim, and said it was inappropriate for Eichenberg to get involved.

In another race, Democrat Joseph Maestas won against Zachary Quintero for the state’s next auditor.

Maestas is the current Public Regulation Commissioner for District 3 and has had stints as the Mayor of Española and a Santa Fe City Councilor.

Damage estimates climb from massive New Mexico wildfire - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

The destruction caused by the largest wildfire burning in the U.S. has been devastating for thousands of residents and their lives have been forever disrupted and altered, New Mexico's governor said Tuesday after touring the damage in one county.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham met with homeowners and local officials while surveying homes in two of the many small northern New Mexico villages that were overcome by flames during the past several weeks after two planned government operations meant to clear out overgrown areas of the forest went awry.

The first-term Democrat is preparing for a visit Saturday with President Joe Biden, who is scheduled to make a quick stop in New Mexico to be briefed on the wildfires and the recovery efforts.

The largest blaze has charred close to 500 square miles in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, which sits at the southern edge of the Rocky Mountains. Much criticism has been levied by residents throughout the rural area because of the federal government's role in causing the fire.

The governor's office confirmed Tuesday that several hundred homes are estimated to have been destroyed by the fire. That number will likely increase as inspections and documentation is ongoing.

"I saw firsthand the irrevocable harm that has been caused, with historic homes and livelihoods lost to the flames," the governor said in a statement following her tour. "But I was also reminded of New Mexicans' resiliency — I saw neighbors helping neighbors with that same compassion that New Mexicans always show toward one another in tough times."

The governor also heard about where recovery aid has been helpful and where gaps remain.

Lujan Grisham and other top elected officials have called for the federal government to cover 100% of recovery costs. Some also have asked for an independent investigation of the U.S. Forest Service's prescribed fire protocols even though the agency has put a hold on such operations pending its own inquiry.

While New Mexico has felt the brunt of the fire season so far this year, much of the West has marked notably hot, dry and windy conditions. Predictions for the rest of the season do not bode well, with drought and warmer weather brought on by climate change worsen fire danger in overgrown forests around the region.

The National Interagency Fire Center reported Tuesday that thousands of wildland firefighters were working toward containment of eight large fires that have burned more than 1,130 square miles . Five of those fires are in New Mexico, while Alaska, Arizona and Colorado each have one.

In Alaska, crews were working to protect several structures from a fire burning west of Talkeetna.

Residents impacted by wildfires could get help with food - Associated Press

Thousands of New Mexico residents who have been impacted by wildfires this spring may be eligible for temporary food assistance.

The state Human Services Department said applications are being accepted for a week, starting Tuesday, at four locations around the state. Those are Albuquerque, Las Vegas, Taos and Ruidoso.

The state successfully requested approval for the federal Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for about 27,500 residents in certain zip codes in Colfax, Lincoln, San Miguel, Mora and Valencia counties, KOAT-TV reported.

"We worked with federal partners to ensure that we issued these benefits as quickly as possible," said Angela Medrano, deputy secretary for the Human Services Department.

Residents are eligible for the benefits if they've lost income because of the wildfires, or their home or belongings were destroyed. They also can apply if they have disaster-related expenses that haven't been reimbursed.

Karmela Martinez, director of the Income Support Division, said people who worked in the impacted areas but live elsewhere also could be eligible.

'We Build The Wall' trial ends in mistrial; jury deadlocked - By Larry Neumeister Associated Press

The trial of a Colorado businessman on charges that he ripped off thousands of donors who contributed $25 million to a campaign to build a wall along the southern U.S. border ended Tuesday in a mistrial after jurors could not reach a unanimous verdict in a prosecution that once featured onetime presidential adviser Steve Bannon.

The mistrial in the prosecution of Timothy Shea was granted by U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres after the jury reported for a third time that it could not reach a verdict on any count, saying the deadlock was "abundantly clear." They said extended deliberations had left them "further entrenched in our opposing views."

Turmoil during jury deliberations was revealed last week when 11 jurors sent a note to the judge to say one juror who complained about a "government witch hunt" had exhibited "political bias," labeled the rest of them as liberals and complained that the trial should have occurred in a southern state.

U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said in a statement that the mistrial "in no way lessens our resolve or believe in the powerful and compelling evidence that we strongly believe proves his guilt."

He added: "We look forward to retrying this case as soon as possible." A retrial, though, was unlikely to occur before the fall.

Shea and his lawyer did not comment as they left the courthouse.

After two previous notes last week pointed toward a deadlock, the judge had urged jurors to try again.

Shea was left to stand trial alone after Bannon, a onetime adviser to then-President Donald Trump, was pardoned. And two other defendants pleaded guilty. The case was prosecuted in New York after it was determined that donors to the fund were from everywhere in the country, including New York.

Conspiracy and falsification of records charges against Shea were filed after questions arose over how donations were spent from a "We Build The Wall" campaign that raised about $25 million for a wall. Only a few miles of wall were built.

Prosecutors said Shea and other fund organizers promised investors that all donations would fund a wall, but Shea and the others eventually pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars for themselves.

Shea's lawyers contended that he acted honorably regarding the fundraising campaign and did not commit a crime.

Shea, of Castle Rock, Colorado, owns an energy drink company, Winning Energy, whose cans have featured a cartoon superhero image of Trump and claim to contain "12 oz. of liberal tears."

Dissension among jurors was first revealed Thursday when 11 jurors said in their note to the judge that they were unanimously requesting that one juror be replaced by an alternate juror. They said the juror had expressed anti-government bias.

In response to the note, the judge questioned the juror in her robing room with lawyers on both sides present.

Among her questions, Torres asked him if he had any biases or personal views that prevent him from being a fair and impartial juror.

He said he did not. So she left him on the jury.

After twice requesting a mistrial on Thursday, defense attorney John Meringolo renewed his request in writing on Friday on many of the same grounds as he had the day before.

He said the jury had violated secrecy rules by revealing too much in its note seeking the disqualification of one juror, and he said the judge improperly referenced political views when she read them a so-called Allen charge intended to add new energy to deliberations.

Meringolo said those instructions in light of what had occurred earlier Thursday could only have been understood to be singling out the juror "and pressuring him to come to a verdict."