Candidates for governor of New Mexico responded to concerns about a limited opportunity for African Americans in state government and the private sector, at a Friday-night forum organized by the NAACP and an associated sorority.
Republican Congressman Steve Pearce and Democratic Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham are competing to become the state’s next governor in November elections, amid campaigning that has focused on solutions to poverty and improving the state’s public education and criminal justice systems.
Hundreds of spectators packed into a hotel ballroom to hear the candidates field questions about pay disparity for African-American women, equal access to jobs among racial and ethnic communities, and the dearth of African Americans in Cabinet-level positions and on the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.
Pearce highlighted the need to “make sure women of color — that everyone — has access to the best education possible.”
Lujan Grisham said new legislation may be needed to ensure pay parity.
“It’s doesn’t have to do with the educational status, it has to do with the fact that we allow discrimination in the workplace,” said Lujan Grisham, followed by sustained applause from the audience.
Pressed for solutions to New Mexico’s low rankings on student achievement, Lujan Grisham reiterated her support for increasing teacher pay, tapping the state’s sovereign wealth fund and following the guidance of a state district court ruling in July that found insufficient state spending to provide an adequate education for students from low-income and non-English speaking families.
Pearce acknowledged the importance of the judge’s decision, which has been appealed by the administration of GOP Gov. Susana Martinez, but said pay is not the only issue.
“I will do everything in my power to enforce the judge’s decision,” he said. “Let us make no mistake, pouring money into the classroom is not going to cure a lot of the ills that face us.”
Questions at the forum came from a panel of NAACP members and alumnae of the African-American sorority Delta Sigma Theta. They raised concerns about African-American children being disciplined at higher rates in school and of the African-American community being lost in the dominant tri-cultural narrative about Hispanics, Native Americans and non-Hispanic whites in New Mexico.
Fewer than 3 percent New Mexico residents identify themselves as black or African American.
Lujan Grisham seized on the forum as an opportunity to condemn the Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant children and parents when families illegally cross the U.S.-Mexico border. The policy has been stopped.
Pearce said he disagreed with Trump’s handling of the situation, but that President Barack Obama “made some mistakes that were just about as bad,” referring to the past treatment of unaccompanied minors from Central America detained at the U.S. border.
The forum came amid a flurry of negative political advertising that paints both candidates as corrupt or beholden to special interests. But Pearce and Lujan Grisham were both cordial and exchanged compliments when asked to name a positive aspect of the other’s political platform.
Pearce complimented Lujan Grisham on her tenacity, while Lujan Grisham praised Pearce’s work in Congress on affordable housing initiatives.
Republican Gov. Susana Martinez cannot run for a consecutive third term.