In the midst of a long and at times rough-and-tumble campaign for governor, Republican candidate Steve Pearce knows better than to focus on the finish line. The longtime congressman knows from campaigns past the importance of staying immersed in the issues, day by day.
He also realizes the size of the task at hand, as he seeks to lead a state facing challenges in a number of areas: jobs, education, crime — and the poverty that afflicts thousands across New Mexico.
Pearce, who faces Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham in the November General Election, was in Roswell Thursday campaigning and meeting with supporters. His focus here, as it has been in meetings with voters around the state, remained on those big-picture issues that underpin the challenges New Mexico’s next governor will face.
“You have to do all four (issues) together,” Pearce said of jobs, education, poverty and crime during an interview with the Roswell Daily Record on Thursday. “You can’t separate them out. That’s the reason that we’re talking about them — because as a manager, if you get the economy up but you don’t improve the education, then your kids are not going to fill those roles.
“If you don’t solve the crime, then your businesses don’t want to grow — in fact we’re bleeding businesses because of the crime and the education right now.
“If you don’t fix education, you’re not going to get into the poverty thing.”
New Mexico’s economy, heavily dependent on the sometimes up-and-down oil and gas industry, must be diversified, Pearce said. “I don’t want to diminish oil and gas — I want to grow the rest of the economy around it, where it’s not such a large percent,” he said. “Right now oil and gas, if it drops or falls … you can’t budget schools on such a volatile state budget. It’s 35 percent of our state’s budget.”
In addition to the high tech jobs often pointed to as desirable additions to any economy, it’s important for the state to add manufacturing and other blue collar opportunities. Unlike the retail sector, where much of New Mexico’s workforce is currently found, those fields offer workers room for advancement, or “percolation up the system,” Pearce said.
Developing those jobs could also play into strengthening one of the state’s current weaknesses.
While New Mexico produces many things, often we’re the first stop in an assembly line that ends someplace else — and that’s where the good “upstream” jobs associated with getting those products ready for market can be found. Those are the pieces of the puzzle that create real prosperity, Pearce said.
“New Mexico is pretty hostile to businesses,” Pearce said. “We want to protect our water, we want to protect our soil. We want a clean environment and we want to protect our workers — but we’ve got to have jobs, and that balance point is what I look at myself — finding that balance point.”
In discussing economic issues, Pearce also pointed to a well-known source of local potential, the Roswell International Air Center. “You’ve got something here that nobody else has got, plus you’ve got a community that wants aviation here,” he said in connection with the Air Center, which was formerly Walker Air Force Base, the largest strategic air command base ever constructed. Many others have commented on the potential of the Air Center’s unique assets — including a 13,000-foot runway — and the promise they hold for future development.
“I think that Roswell can be the air center for the entire western U.S.,” Pearce said.
Problems in the state’s classrooms must be tackled as well, the candidate said — and there, too often teachers are being asked to do things that distract from their most important mission, educating New Mexico’s youth.
“We ask our teachers to do a lot of things besides teaching,” Pearce told the Daily Record. “We push problems into the classroom for teachers to solve — and they didn’t sign on to be behavior counselors, they didn’t sign on to be the truancy officers. They didn’t sign on to be police, paramedics …
“When we put those problems in the classroom, then the performance is not as good as it should be.”
Having other positions take responsibility for issues requiring counseling would help, Pearce said.
He’d also like to see school superintendents freed from some of their business-focused responsibilities so they too can better focus on education.
As immigration has become more and more a part of the national conversation, it’s made its way into New Mexico’s gubernatorial contest. Pearce, who now represents the state’s Second Congressional District in Washington, and Lujan Grisham, who represents the First District, have each been called upon to address various parts of the complex issue.
Pearce said he was pleased to see the president recently issue an order ending the family separations that have been the subject of so much national debate.
“I was one of the first to say, ‘look I know that the law says that, but also at some point we have to understand that it’s rarely a good idea to separate kids from families,’” he said. “There are things that keep you from saying ‘never,’ but it’s rarely good and it wasn’t being very productive.
“He (the president) came in and spoke to all the Republicans and said, ‘OK, I’m hearing you,’ and the next day he reversed it.”
Pearce also expressed disappointment that immigration bills recently considered in Congress couldn’t find traction.
“I’ve been there seven terms and neither party has done anything on immigration,” he said. “We’ve got to fix the problem. … Let’s keep working until we find a solution.”
Pearce, of Hobbs, is a former combat pilot in Vietnam. As he’s campaigned for governor, he’s emphasized a personal story that includes a rise from childhood poverty to success as an entrepreneur before selling his business to focus on work in Congress. His background has helped as he’s won election after election in the state’s second district, and also as he’s expanded his focus in seeking New Mexico’s highest office.
“I circulate very thoroughly in communities that typically other Republicans won’t go into,” he said. “I feel good there — one of my ads talks about growing up just dirt poor. We were. When I go into these communities I’m comfortable because that’s how I grew up.”
Ultimately, he said he connects with New Mexicans because he’s aligned with the state’s values.
“They know that at the end of the day, I’m somebody very similar to them,” Pearce said. “It doesn’t matter what your registration is, what your religion is … they see those values and I think that’s a very big piece of what we’re bringing.”
Second-term Republican Gov. Susana Martinez cannot run for re-election, leaving the race open for Pearce and Lujan Grisham, who interviewed with the Daily Record back in May, prior to the contested Democratic primary.
The general election is Nov. 6.
John Dilmore is editor of the Roswell Daily Record. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.