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Debate About the New Mexico Congressional Election to Replace Bill Richardson

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President Clinton has appointed Bill Richardson as ambassador to the U.N., which leaves a New Mexico congressional seat open. Ralph Nader advocates for Carol Miller of the Green Party, who he claims is a public health advocate who keeps her word. He claims that Democratic nominee Eric Serna has proven himself to be an ineffective leader. Bill Redmond is the Republican candidate. Amy is joined by Eric Serna and Carol Miller to debate the issues of the election.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Ralph Nader, I wanted to change the subject in this last few minutes, before we move on to the debate that we’re going to have in just a minute between the Democratic and Green Party candidates in the special election that is taking place next week in New Mexico for Bill Richardson’s seat. I know you were just out in New Mexico, and we all assume we know where you stand on this issue of Carol Miller versus Eric Serna. That’s the Democrat versus the Green Party candidate, Carol Miller showing a strong standing, you know, considering she is a third-party candidate. What is your take on this election? We assume you’re supporting her.

RALPH NADER: Yes, Carol Miller is a proven public health advocate. She has worked as an emergency medical technician in northern New Mexico. She’s been on Hillary Clinton’s task force on health insurance, where she wanted a single payer. I mean, she has lived what she is advocating.

Eric Serna was a state regulator who didn’t regulate — now he’s taking money from the companies that he didn’t regulate — and a very, very unexciting Democrat. I think this is the race where the Green Party is going to come very close, if not win, but come close. This is not a 4 or 5% election race. And there’s a lot of volunteers. Of course, she is being outspent. She spent about $20,000; he is going to spend $600,000 to $700,000.

But the potential in the race comes from the low turnout, Amy. This is a May 13th by-election, in effect, because Bill Richardson had to resign because he was appointed by Clinton to be ambassador to the United Nations. And it’s going to be a very low turnout. So, whoever gets out the vote in that 3rd Congressional District in New Mexico is going to have a significant advantage.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Ralph Nader, I want to thank you very much for joining us. Ralph Nader, a longtime consumer activist and former Green Party presidential candidate, as we move on to look at this race in New Mexico. On May 13th, voters in New Mexico’s 3rd Congressional District will go to the polls to elect a replacement for Representative Bill Richardson, who gave up his seat to become ambassador to the United Nations. Three-fifths of the voters in the district are Hispanic or Indian. And the district itself is divided between the Hispanic counties of northern New Mexico and the energy-rich Indian lands along the Arizona border. Santa Fe, the third-largest city in the state, is the centerpiece of the region. The district is one of sharp contrasts. Unemployment is extremely high in some areas, hitting as high as 30% in the most rural areas of the north. Yet there’s also the Anglo community of Los Alamos, where the atomic bomb was developed, one of the wealthiest counties in the country. That area is largely Republican, but with a clear independent streak. Third-party presidential candidate, for example, John Anderson, won 15% of the vote in 1980. Indians, most of them Navajo, usually vote Democrat, but they tend to turn out in small numbers. The largest county in the region is San Juan, where a conservative Anglo population settled to tap the vast supply of oil, gas and coal in the Four Corners area.

Now, next Tuesday’s race pits Democratic candidate Eric Serna, a Hispanic state official and New Mexico native, against conservative Republican Bill Redmond. But the race has also seen the emergence of a strong third-party candidate, Carol Miller of the Green Party, a development that has many pundits in Washington glancing down to New Mexico with more than a passing interest.

We invited the Republican, the Democrat and the Green Party candidate on the show to join us for a debate. Unfortunately, we did not get a response back from Republican Bill Redmond. But when we come back, we’re going to turn to the Democrat and Green Party candidates, Carol Miller and Eric Serna. There are other candidates in the race, a Libertarian, a Reform Party candidate and three write-in candidates. But, for today, it’s Eric Serna versus Carol Miller. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, the Exception to the Rulers. I’m Amy Goodman.

As I said, we are going to the 3rd Congressional District race in New Mexico, that special election to replace Bill Richardson, who’s become the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. We’re pleased today to be joined by two candidates from the New Mexico race.

Eric Serna is with us, a New Mexico state corporation commissioner, an elected post he’s held for the past 15 years. The Corporation Commission regulates and licenses businesses in New Mexico, including the telecommunications industry, the phone industry. He was national co-chair of the first Clinton-Gore Adelante con Clinton election campaign, aimed at America’s Hispanic voters. In '96, he was New Mexico co-chair of the Clinton-Gore reelection campaign, and he's also past chairman of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, known as MALDEF.

Carol Miller is the Green Party candidate to replace Bill Richardson. Formerly a Democrat, she lost in the Democratic state Senate primary last year. She runs a community health clinic in New Mexico and was a member of the 1993 Presidential Health Care Reform Task Force led by Hillary Clinton.

Let’s begin with the Democrat, Eric Serna. Can you tell us what the issues are that you’re running on?

ERIC SERNA: Well, the issues I am running on are the issues that impact most directly on the 3rd Congressional District, those being education and educational opportunity for the young people in this area. Retraining of our adult population is a big issue here. Diversity of our economy — there’s too much reliant in this area — too much reliance in this area on the federal dollar. We need to diversify our economy. We need to get the type of employment in here that is sustainable, labor-intensive and long-term. Crime is another big concern in the area. There’s too much crime, too many drugs, too many guns on the streets. People are concerned about that. And then, of course, our environment in New Mexico is a wonderful environment. We want to protect it. It’s irreplaceable, and people are concerned that the protection of this environment has to be stronger. The other issue that is of utmost importance in the area is healthcare and insurance and insurance affordability. Here in New Mexico and in the 3rd Congressional District, we have not done a good job at insuring our children, taking care of our children. We have a very high statistic of uninsured children. Those are the issues of concern, amongst others, but those are the major issues in this 3rd Congressional District.

AMY GOODMAN: Carol Miller of the Green Party, what are you running on?

CAROL MILLER: Well, I have a great platform to run on. And what is so exciting for me is, really what the Green Party is doing is building a movement, a movement for change in this country. And this campaign is about me and what I stand for, because I’m running on the Green Party platform, which is the only party right now that stands for social justice, as well as protecting the environment.

And I want to give an example related to — right now there’s been a “bipartisan” — and I put that in quotes, because it’s starting to feel more and more like one corporate party representing special interests. There was just a “bipartisan” budget deal, that I believe was made on the backs of the poor once again, while we got a capital gains tax and some other tax breaks for the rich. And what having a Green in Congress will do is have someone who could be a voice standing up for what the people want.

And I’ll give an example, because of what Mr. Serna said, that, you know, the Clinton education plan is not good for this district. Maybe it’s good for some parts of the country. But this is, as you stated, one of the lowest-income districts in the whole country, and we don’t really need tax credits to get our kids through college. We have an epidemic of dropouts here, where so many children are in schools that are underfunded. Our teachers are very poorly paid. We need an education plan that really looks at this district and puts the money where the need is early on.

Another thing that the Democrats are talking about is kid care. The first bill I have to co-sponsor is H.R. 1200, Representative McDermott’s American Health Security Act, which he has bravely been putting out there as the universal healthcare that will allow us to take care of everyone. The Corporation Commission regulates insurance. Mr. Serna has had 15 years to work, at least on the small insurers that insure in the state, to provide a health insurance plan which could be affordable by working New Mexicans. So I think it’s time to not just go in and have to support what your party tells you is best, but what is truly best for everyone in your district.

AMY GOODMAN: Eric Serna, your response on the issue of healthcare?

ERIC SERNA: Well, first of all, Carol should know better, having spent so much time in that area, about what our regulatory authority is. And she also knows my strong record of advocacy on the commission. And it is I who has spoken out and been a champion for people throughout the state and in the 3rd Congressional District. We are limited in our regulatory authority. And in those areas where we are able to make a difference, we have made a difference. We recently passed the strongest HMO rule and set of regulations in the country. It’s more patient-friendly, more consumer-oriented and protective of the rights of the patient and the consumer. So, for Carol to say that — when she knows better, is unfortunate, especially since she touts herself a healthcare specialist. There are many initiatives we have started, not only in the healthcare industry but when it comes to automobile insurance, many initiatives that we proposed and got through the Legislature which have assisted.

Now, the whole insurance arena and the rates that people are having to pay are driven by many factors, not the least of which is fraud. There was a lot of fraud throughout this country and in New Mexico that has caused rates to go up, not only in healthcare but also in your automobile insurance and your property and casualty lines. And we have done much to try to break that nasty cycle of fraud, including the creation of a fraud bureau this last legislative session, which will help to track down some of these fraudulent claims and some of these people who are making them.

So, over the 15 years that I have been in this office, we have seen tougher regulatory authority within our jurisdiction. But we have to keep in mind that in the Congress, where there is a lot going on and that preempts our regulatory authority a lot, that’s where a lot of changes need to be made. In the Congress, with my knowledge, with my background, I’ll be able to help make those changes.

AMY GOODMAN: Commissioner Serna, do you support a single-payer healthcare plan?

ERIC SERNA: Not necessarily. What I do support — I think we need to be careful about touting a national universal healthcare system. Government is big enough. We don’t need that much government interference. What we need are cooperative efforts between the public and the private sector. And these HMOs, whether we like them or not, they are a fact of life right now. So the best we can do, as regulators and as public officials, is to make sure we have strong rules that protect the consumer and that protect the patient.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, speaking of another health issue, let’s talk about environmental health. Carol Miller, your views on nuclear power and nuclear weapons, Los Alamos being a site of nuclear weapons development? Can you tell us what the issue is there and where you stand on it?

CAROL MILLER: OK. Well, I’m a long-standing anti-nuclear activist and environmentalist. And I think it’s significant that Helen Caldicott has called this campaign to cheer us on, because the issue she stands for, ending nuclear power, is very important to me.

I’m concerned that the economic development that is being offered to the central part of this district out of Los Alamos is what is euphemistically known as the stockpile stewardship program. And what that program really is, is creating what’s called the second generation of nuclear weapons. And we’re supposed to be comforted, as citizens, that these weapons are going to be tested, not by underground testing, because, of course, the U.S. supported the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, but they’re going to be tested by computer simulation. And I find that very worrisome.

I don’t think we need another generation of nuclear weapons, I think we need to get rid of the weapons that we have right now. I would like to see the funding received by Los Alamos going to figure out — there is a lot of scientific genius and talent there. I would like them to be working on making the waste that we have right now safer than it is, figuring out something that we can do with it, so that it is not causing so many environmental problems, not only here but around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Eric Serna, you’re known as a supporter of the Los Alamos community.

ERIC SERNA: Yes, and I am a strong supporter of the community, which doesn’t necessarily mean I’m a strong supporter of nuclear power or the creation or continuation of the weaponry. You know, Los Alamos Scientific Laboratories, it’s a treasure trove up there. And Carol and I do agree that there’s a lot of talent up there. I think there’s a lot of talent that could be used to help the surrounding communities. And I’ve talked to scientists up there who want to do that. And as strong as that lab is for the surrounding communities, I think sometimes they lose sight of the contribution that the surrounding communities make to the lab. There are a lot of people from Española, for example, that work up there, that have helped make that lab a strong lab, and they are very supportive of it. To support a community is one thing, but to support the — some of the things that go on up there are another thing. And we don’t know a lot of the things that are going on.

But I think, as I agree with Carol, that we need to — we need to use the talent, the brainpower, that we have up there to help come up with alternative ways of storage of this nuclear waste that is up there. And there are several ways that have been proposed of doing it. But the one thing that is — that we need to make sure is that when we talk about the WIPP site, for example, there’s a lot of debate, and has been debate for several years, as to whether it should open or not. And I think there is agreement between Carol and myself that it should not open until it has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that it is safe. I am not convinced at this point that it is safe.

AMY GOODMAN: And your stance on the second generation of nuclear weapons?

ERIC SERNA: Well, we have to, and they are up — they are doing so in Los Alamos. They are making sure that the parts that they — that the parts must be maintained. There’s not going to be any more new nuclear weaponry produced, but the parts have to be maintained, and in a fashion that is safe. We do need to have a strong defense, and I do support that. And it’s got to be done in a way that is protective of our citizenry up there and throughout the state and the 3rd Congressional District.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to two candidates who are running in the 3rd Congressional District in New Mexico in a special election for the seat of Bill Richardson, who’s now U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Eric Serna is our guest, a longtime commissioner on the state Corporation Commission. And Carol Miller, who runs a community health clinic in New Mexico, was a longtime Democratic activist, is now running for the congressional seat on the Green Party ticket. Carol Miller, you made a name for yourself by saying that you would limit your spending to $100,000 on this campaign, and you challenged other candidates to do the same. Can you explain your philosophy there? And, Eric Serna, if you then could respond, why you chose not to take up this challenge?

CAROL MILLER: Well, I think it’s very important that citizens feel as if they can run for government, and community activists, who have so much talent in bringing people together into building a movement, which we really need right now. And the money in politics has become more and more offensive. There’s a belief — I saw a survey recently that said that most of the people in the United States think that even good people become corrupt when they go to Washington, because there’s this feeling that they’re forced to immediately start raising more and more money for their reelection. And because I do work in our community organizations and with the Indian tribes here in New Mexico, I think I really know the value of money to our communities.

So, when we talked about setting a cap for this election, I thought $100,000. We looked at that budget. It included mailings. It included television. It included a lot of radio. It included printing. And that was all I could spend, because I do fundraising, and I think of $50,000 is an ambulance. So, for $100,000, two communities that desperately need new ambulances could have them.

It’s been said that Mr. Serna’s campaign is going to run about $700,000. Well, that’s the entire budget for KUNM radio station for a year. That gives us our information and education 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. And that’s the station that’s going to be playing this radio program.

So, I just think there are so many needs out there. We in the communities are always looking for money, trying to keep our programs going. And to use it to try and basically buy an election through a lot of additional name recognition, I think we need to put an end for it. I have pledged that on May 14th, in or out of the Congress. I’m going to start focusing very seriously, immediately, on campaign finance reform.

AMY GOODMAN: Eric Serna, why did you say you would not agree to a cap on spending?

ERIC SERNA: Well, first of all, Carol is going to wait until May 14th to start her campaign for campaign finance reform.

CAROL MILLER: My full-time commitment to it.

ERIC SERNA: I have already started, and will continue to speak out on this issue. Now, I think it is easy for somebody to say that they want it capped at a certain amount, realistically knowing that perhaps they couldn’t raise over that amount with their best efforts. Now, these campaigns are too expensive. We all agree with that. But there are campaign laws, and we all are complying with them. The fact that I am able to raise additional moneys should not be held against me, especially when one looks at where the money is coming from. Sure, there are PAC dollars there. But most of the money that is received, from the hundreds of contributors, are from people throughout the district and throughout the state that know of my long-term — my longtime public service. These are people who want to participate in the process and who should be allowed to. I’m talking about people who have donated $5 and those who have gone up to the maximum of $1,000. And there are hundreds of such contributors. But I would work hard to limit campaign spending. I would also like to curb the influence of PACs. And I want to end this soft money system that, in my opinion, has tarnished our government. But we have to do it in a fashion that is realistic and balanced.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me ask you something.

CAROL MILLER: Well, Amy, can I just say something? Because we have looked at at least the first campaign finance report that was filed by Mr. Serna, and the small contributions are there, of course, but there — it doesn’t come close to some of the special interest and PAC money. And even though it is not illegal, he does accept money from industries that are regulated by the Corporation Commission. And we have a problem with that. It’s legal, but it’s — to us, it does not appear ethical. And it’s like: What do you buy with this money? Right now we get 50 radio spots a day from President Clinton touting his education plan, that isn’t even good for the majority of the people in this district. I mean, it’s: What do you get for that money? And that feeling that because you can raise money, that’s OK, I think you have to look at what you get for that. We get thousands of signs all over, working the name recognition thing. It’s a very windy spring. Half of them have already blown away and been replaced. I think that, you know, we really need to look at what does the money buy, and what could that money buy in these communities.

ERIC SERNA: Well, what’s wrong with working hard in a campaign? What’s wrong with putting up signs? I mean, that is the political process. It’s unfortunate that the cynicism in America that is fostered by the kinds of comments that Carol just made, and also by a radio talk show host that, in my opinion, sometimes have crossed the lines and gone from talk radio to hate radio, that just are so negative and divisive — you know, what’s wrong with working hard in a campaign, following the rules and doing a campaign within those confines?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Eric Serna —

ERIC SERNA: I mean, it always comes up, every election year, not only for people such as myself, but every — every candidate, every public servant. There are always these people who are running against him who bring this up during the election cycle, and it just adds to the cynicism.

AMY GOODMAN: Eric Serna, we have to break, but we will continue this debate between you, the Democratic candidate in the New Mexico 3rd Congressional District race, that is going to be taking place next week to replace Bill Richardson, who’s become the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Carol Miller, the Green Party candidate. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue the debate between two candidates in the 3rd Congressional race in New Mexico that takes place on May 13th. We are talking to Eric Serna. He is a New Mexico state corporation commissioner, an elected post that he’s held for the past 15 years. The Corporation Commission regulates and licenses businesses in New Mexico. And Carol Miller is with us. She is the Green Party candidate to replace Bill Richardson. I should say we invited the Republican candidate, but he has not gotten back to us over the last few days. So we are here with these two candidates. There is also a Libertarian and a Reform Party candidate, as well as three write-in candidates.

But, Eric Serna, I want to stay with you for a minute. There was an article that came out in Crossroads that was written by two writers, one of them being Roger Morris, who is known for writing the book about the Clintons and Whitewater. And it’s extremely critical of your tenure on the Corporation Commission of New Mexico. And it says that you support the acceptance of contributions from companies that you regulate.

ERIC SERNA: It’s not true. I don’t support that theory. What I do support are the laws as they exist. And that includes the allowance for legal contributions. And they are minimal compared to all of the other contributions which I receive. But Roger Morris, let’s not forget, this was the dirty tricks guy during the Nixon administration. All he has done is moved to New Mexico and continued his MO.

AMY GOODMAN: But how do you justify accepting contributions from the industries that you regulate?

ERIC SERNA: You know, I don’t have to justify it, because it’s a small amount compared to the total contributions which I receive. And most candidates, including myself, treat this at arm’s length. I don’t know 'til the the reports are filed what contributions have been made usually. And let's talk about disclosure. It was me who filed my tax returns publicly. And I’m not talking about just the first and the last sheet. I’m talking about all of the sheets in between. So, I mean, there’s nothing that I fear disclosing to the public. And I would challenge my opponents to disclose as I have.

CAROL MILLER: Well, we have disclosed also. And this is — this is such a straw man kind of argument. I mean, the Crosswinds article doesn’t even have some of the recent things that have come out since the campaign began. But for people who don’t know what it is, it’s a year-by-year documentary. And it’s so disingenuous to that argument, that “I don’t even know where the money comes from.” If you receive money from the ARCO PAC in one election, you could say, “I don’t think I should take that money for this one. That one was close to the edge. We regulate the oil and gas industry.” There have been —

ERIC SERNA: We don’t.

CAROL MILLER: — numerous — there have been numerous opportunities for Mr. Serna to have said what kind of money he won’t take. Many people will not take alcohol and tobacco money, because they think there’s an ethical issue there. I have looked at his campaign report, and I know where the contributions are coming from. And certainly he has had the opportunity to look at that same report, too. And the soft money issue is another whole thing, and the PAC money. This is a classic example.

And the one thing I want to say, this thing of playing by the rules, the rules are made in our state-by-state legislators, which, you know, are controlled — our Legislature has been controlled by the Democratic Party. They wouldn’t consider, they wouldn’t move a campaign finance bill this year. The rules are made by Congress. You want to send someone to Congress who does not say, “Elect me under the old rules. And when I get there, I’ll do something about it.” You want to elect someone to the Congress who is committed to this issue, who says, “I can’t take that kind of money.” I didn’t focus on raising money, because we’re building a movement. We would rather, in the Green Party, get a hundred new volunteers than have $100,000.

ERIC SERNA: We don’t regulate the oil and gas industry, Carol. So you’re misinformed there.

CAROL MILLER: Their corporations.

ERIC SERNA: Let me add that my 20 years of public service is a record which I am proud of. And the small instances that people have brought up over a 20-year period, that in most part are mischaracterized, and in some instances outright false, is unfair to me. However, I think the public, which has returned me to office time and again, understands what I stand for. They understand that I have worked hard and have been the most pro-consumer advocate on the commission over that period of time. It is I who have worked for senior citizens, who have implemented low-income telephone assistance programs, who have been protective of citizen rights. And this is a continual pattern throughout my public service career. And because one goes through — and I do have a record, and that’s good and bad, because when you have a record, every now and then, if there’s a misstep, that comes up every campaign. As 15 years ago something happened, it comes up. And that’s part of the political process, and I accept it. But the public are too smart. They know when these personal attacks come, that they weigh that against my long-term public service, and they understand that that service has been good, it’s been done with integrity, and it’s been protective of the citizenry of New Mexico and of those in the 3rd Congressional District. And I’m very proud of that.

AMY GOODMAN: And on that note, we have to wrap up this debate. We want to thank you very much, Eric Serna, New Mexico state corporation commissioner, as well as Carol Miller, the Green Party candidate, for your participation in this discussion about issues in your district, that certainly, I think, are national and international in scope. The district is the 3rd Congressional District of New Mexico. The special election for Bill Richardson’s seat in Congress will take place on May 13th, and we’ll report to our listeners around the country what happens.

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