BELEN — More than 150 people came out to hear from four of the five Republican gubernatorial candidates hoping to challenge Democrat incumbent Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in November.

At a candidate forum at Calvary Chapel Rio Grande Valley in Belen, sponsored by the Rio Grande Federated Republican Women, candidates Jay Block, Rebecca Dow, Ethel Maharg and Gregory Zanetti responded to 10 questions ranging from education to crime to health care.

Block is serving his second term on the Sandoval County Commission, and Dow has held the New Mexico House of Representatives District 38 seat since 2017. Maharg is the executive director for Right to Life Committee of New Mexico and Zanetti is a retired U.S. Army brigadier general.

Mark Ronchetti, a former meteorologist at KRQE, did not attend the forum on Feb. 22.

When asked what one thing is contributing to New Mexico’s low ranking in health care, Block said it was “90 years of one party dominating. Bad policies up and down the ballot. A lot of us have been sleeping for a long time, myself included. Now we’re awake.”

There’s a triad of issues that need to be solved, Block said — education, crime and the economy. Law enforcement needs qualified immunity restored and the national guard needs to be trained on various mission requirements in order to be embedded with border patrol, he said, in addition to bail reform.

“Education money needs to follow students. We need the flexibility in high school for students to have hands-on experiences with cyber and the trades,” he said.

Saying research and Deuteronomy 6 both indicate the best government is limited government, Dow said the state needs a course correction to let families take as much control as they can to raise their children.

“It’s out of balance and it starts with (the Children, Youth and Families Department),” Dow said. “CYFD is broken. They are  not allowing communities to fix themselves. We need real school choice; the dollars must follow the children.”

Maharg said the biggest issue facing the state was abortion.

“Everyone who comes here can feel it,” Maharg said. “Until we fix abortion and get to things close to the heart of God, we are killing ourselves. People may say I’m a one-issue candidate but I’m here from conception to natural death.

“We are under the delusion we can create another program, get rid of a program, change all the laws and regulations and we’ll be OK. We’re not. We are at the point in time where we need to get it together. Until we fix life, we don’t have anything.”

The common denominator in his challengers responses was government, Zanetti said.

“Government is crowding things out. Government crowds out God, government has become god. Government also crowds out family,” Zanetti said. “It crowded children out of schools. The system needs to be pushed back down to local authority. I trust you more than this beast that’s been created in the state.”

Julia M. Dendinger | News-Bulletin photo
Rick Carbajal, left, moderated the Republican Governor Candidate Forum held at Rio Grande Valley Chapel in Belen on Feb. 22. The forum, sponsored by the Rio Grande Federated Republican Women, featured Republican gubernatorial candidates Jay Block, standing, and Rebecca Dow, seated, as well as Ethel Maharg and Gregory Zanetti, not pictured. A fifth candidate, Mark Ronchetti, did not attend the forum.

Candidates were asked what they would do specifically to improve New Mexico’s education ranking in the nation.

Maharg advocated for practical, real-life experience lessons, such as balancing a checkbook, as well as learning the “real history” of the country and learning the fundamentals of the Constitution.

“We need to have trades in education. I don’t think every child should go to college. Most shouldn’t,” she said. “They end up in debt and indoctrinated. We need to let teachers teach and keep Planned Parenthood out.”

Schools of all kinds — home, private, charter, religious and public — should compete with each other, Block said.

“We have so much talent in this state. We are ready to explode into prosperity and we’re not taking advantage,” he said. “Unions don’t care about students like parents do. We have Democratic governors keeping students in failing schools. We need to let parents follow what is best for their kids.”

Zanetti said there are three easy steps to improving education in New Mexico  — declaw the Public Education Department, push authority back to the local level and follow the money.

“(PED) is a Bill Richardson invention and that should have been our first hint. Has public education improved at all?” Zanetti asked, adding that local authority works better. “The money, it starts with politicians, then bureaucrats, then unions, then administration, then teachers, parents and the child. Flip it. The money follows the child; parents and teachers are natural allies.”

Dow said on day one, she would ban critical race theory.

“It’s racism and I will ban it,” she said.

Dow continued, saying she would tell PED to let the local (education) authority to work with parents to identify a framework they want to implement based on their local needs.

Candidates were asked how they would reduce crime in the state and take it off the top of many lists, claiming it is the “most dangerous state in the nation.”

Zanetti said the state has been emptying prisons, loosened bail and ignores minor crimes.

“People are emboldened by all this,” he said. “Eighty percent of crime is from repeat offenders. Progressives say it costs too much. What is the cost of a murdered son? A sexually-assaulted daughter? We need to arrest people and keep them in jail. There are the consequences of crime.”

The number of law enforcement officers need to be increased, Maharg said, and there needs to be more community policing.

“We need to elect really good judges. Right now, judges are siding with progressives,” she said. “We need to make punishment mean something. There are consequences to every action.”

Dow advised voters to not retain judges.

“If you want to hold them accountable make them work for it,” she said. “The governor vetoes bills (law enforcement officers) ask us to put on her desk and signs the ones they beg her not to.”

Space Force was considering coming to New Mexico, Block said, but the state didn’t score well when it came to crime, education and jobs.

“They are all related. We have to focus on solving the drug issue, job training. We have to look at retired officers who want to come back and serve places that are understaffed,” he said.

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.