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Breaking Bad

New developments in the New Mexico Senate race.

6:05 PM, Feb 29, 2012 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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At that time, New Mexico, like most other states, was in the middle of a pitched debate about the size of state government and politicians from both parties were looking at budgets to cut. Among the targets: funding for early childhood development programs, administered by New Mexico but which often combine state and federal money. By late September, Richardson was poised to cut funding for childcare by some 10 percent – too much for Sowards and his wife, Karen.

On September 30, they wrote to parents with children who attend their five schools in around Las Cruces. “Your child care has not been terminated. Instead Gov. Richardson has given it back and cut the funding for childcare centers by 9%. This is still a serious problem that affects everyone.” The letter explained the likely consequences: “The Governor has shifted this budget shortfall from families to Child Care Providers! The problem STILL REMAINS! This 9% cut to our child care center will mean that we get paid less for the quality services we provide for your children.”

The Sowards’s urged parents to formally protest the cuts. They closed Kids’ Kountry schools on October 7 so that parents could join a protest sponsored by the Southern New Mexico Early Childhood Alliance at Apodaca Park. The letter told parents “to talk to your employer so he or she can understand the importance in this day” – that is, why they would be absent from work that day. The letter also instructed parents to contact Richardson. “We need everyone to call the Governor’s Office and tell him to use all available stimulus money to fund childcare assistance 505-476-2200.”

One month later, on November 2, the secretary of Children, Youth and Families Department, Bill Dunbar, wrote to the Sowards demanding that they reimburse the state of New Mexico for the payments the state made for childcare provided on October 7 – the day the Sowards closed Kids’ Kountry to allow teachers and parents to join the rally for more funding. “The state has paid you for services on October 7, 2010, when in fact, you rendered no services and were unavailable to render services on that day.”

Karen Sowards wrote back with two different explanations. First, she argued, Kids’ Kountry remained open on Columbus Day – a federal holiday – and thus a day on which the centers were scheduled to have been closed. So there was no “lost” day. Then she tried something of a long-shot argument: participating in the rally was consistent with the mission of Kids’ Kountry. “Teachers and parents attended the Early Childhood Awareness Day to advocate on behalf of children,” she explained, noting that “professionalism” is emphasized in training courses teachers are required to take. “This is a great example of professionalism, and because of that Kids’ Kountry teachers were paid for this day of their work on behalf of children and families across the state of NM.”

Sowards acknowledges that there is some tension between his arguments as a candidate and his business practices. “Absolutely. I think the subsidy should be limited. When you subsidize things you get more of it; when you tax it, you get less.” But he says the state’s increasing involvement in childcare left him little choice. “When you’re in an industry subsidized by the government, if you’re not involved you put yourself at a great disadvantage.”

As a practical matter, he’s right. But it’s hard to run as an eager budget cutter if you’ve made a living on government funding and pushed for money from the stimulus. But Sowards says he wasn’t involved in the request for stimulus funding and that his wife was just using a letter that had been drafted by the Southwest Childcare Association. Still, if Sowards had hopes of becoming the Ron Johnson of this cycle, or even the Sharron Angle, it’s hard to believe conservatives won’t be concerned by these inconsistencies.

Still, given the unlikely upsets of recent cycles – most especially the Christine O’Donnell primary victory in Delaware in 2010 – Wilson’s campaign is looking at what’s directly in front of them. “Heather has been campaigning for 11 months, across every single county in New Mexico,” says Chris Sanchez, Wilson’s communications director. “We feel good about where we are today, but are taking absolutely nothing for granted. We are going to campaign hard for every vote in this primary, and won’t stop until we’ve won.”

If Wilson prevails she will likely face Representative Martin Heinrich, a left-leaning Democrat who won an election to replace her as the representative from New Mexico’s First Congressional District when she ran for the Senate. Heinrich must first dispatch with Hector Balderas in a Democratic primary. Heinrich is heavily favored.

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