Byline: MARK HUMMELS
This year's match-up between Rep. Max Coll, D-Santa Fe, and his Republican challenger Gregg Bemis is a distant echo of the heated campaign that hit Santa Fe when the two rivals fought for votes four years ago.
That 1996 campaign was marked by a controversial radio advertising campaign funded by a political-action committee of Pojoaque Pueblo, which charged Coll with being a racist, a hypocrite and an ``evil spirit.''
Coll, a soft-spoken liberal who has championed women's rights and environmental causes -- and fought gambling -- had brought a lawsuit resulting in a state-court ruling that the tribal casinos were operating illegally.
Pojoaque Pueblo, through a Republican political-action committee, also gave Bemis $10,000 that year for his own radio ad campaign.
Given the pueblo's strong support of Bemis in 1996, it might be surprising to learn that Bemis does not favor Indians' special franchise for casino gambling in New Mexico.
Either everyone should be allowed to offer gambling on equal terms, he said, or nobody should. ``I think a better option, in the long run, is nobody.''
This year, Bemis is waging a rather half-hearted election campaign. He has already conceded his likely defeat and says he plans to do little more campaigning than sending out a single mailing to voters.
``I don't see any reason to believe that the people in this district are going to all of a sudden wake up,'' Bemis said of the long-standing support for Coll, who is finishing his 14th term in office.
Instead, Bemis -- who twice ran for Congress against Bill Richardson -- has his eye on the long-term political horizon.
``I think in this district, as a Republican, you can't get elected if people don't know you,'' he said. ``I need the name recognition and maybe my chance will come.''
Democrats outnumber Republicans in House District 47 by a margin of nearly 3 to 1. The district stretches from the South Capitol area to southeast Santa Fe and areas south and east of the city. Pojoaque is not a part of the district.
Bemis has filed a report with the state Elections Bureau stating that he does not anticipate raising or spending more than $1,000 in this race. Coll's re-election bank account held a balance early this month of nearly $17,000.
Bemis said the main difference between the two candidates stems from their views of government and the private sector.
``Max basically believes in government solutions, and I believe in private solutions and individual solutions,'' Bemis said. ``I believe people should take responsibility for their lives. He believes government should be responsible for their lives. Now, he wouldn't say it that way.''
That's right. Coll says it this way:
``I think we really need to work on overcoming poverty and ignorance and poor health care,'' Coll said. ``He (Bemis) would support a trickle-down theory and try to do other things.
``I think we should target those things, and I think government has a big role in those things.''
Bemis said he has no quarrel with Coll's stated objectives.
``Who in the hell can disagree with that? But how do you do that? He does it with government. I say ... the way you eliminate poverty is by providing good jobs.''
Bemis said a business environment stifled by high taxes and too much regulation has held back New Mexico's economy.
``The Legislature, over and over again here, basically clobbers business, makes it more difficult to do business here,'' Bemis said.
Coll dismisses the contention as ``rhetoric.''
``If you really look at the record, we do quite well in promoting a business climate,'' he said. ``He may consider my environmental stance to be antibusiness. Well I don't. I consider it proenvironment.''
Bemis, 72, is a venture capitalist and a leader in the local business community. He is the Santa Fe vice president for the Tri-Area Association for Economic Development and a past board president of St. Vincent Hospital.
Bemis gained international attention for his role in a dive this August to investigate the remains of the Estonia ferry that sank in the Baltic Sea in 1994, killing 852 people.
A Swedish prosecutor this month issued an arrest warrant for Bemis for allegedly disturbing the sunken wreck.
Bemis claims the sinking was not an accident. He says the Swedish government covered up the cause of the ferry's sinking. And he said the arrest warrant is a groundless attempt to intimidate him concerning returning to Sweden.
``They do not want me or my partner in Stockholm,'' he said. ``They do not want us talking to the press, because they know we'll whip their ass.''
Bemis focuses his legislative priorities in two areas: educational reform and economic development.
``What you need, I think, in the Legislature here is more people that believe in the concept of empowerment,'' he said. ``The philosophy in the past has been, `What can we do as a legislature to control the direction of money?' instead of `What can we do to empower people and turn them loose?'''
Building business opportunity depends on improvements to education. ``The reason we're at the bottom of all economic indices is because of our shortfalls in the education field,'' Bemis said.
That's why he favors more competition in education, with students given opportunities to choose between schools. ``If they're private, so be it,'' Bemis said. ``If they're church-sponsored, so what?''
He said he's ``not opposed to vouchers'' to give public money to subsidize private-school tuition, but he does not support a ``wholesale voucher program'' such as the one advocated by Gov. Gary Johnson.
Bemis also strongly supports more testing of students, schools and teachers and creation of a system to raise the salaries of good teachers.
``The objective isn't so much to get rid of the bad ones as to reward the good ones,'' he said, ``and I think in the end that will have the same effect.''
Bemis also advocates changes to allow nurses and others to practice basic diagnostic medicine to overcome the shortage of doctors in the state.
``New Mexico needs to find better ways of delivering basic medical care in the rural areas,'' he said. ``Prevention is far and away the most economical way of providing medical help.''
Coll, 68, is a former lawyer who buys and sells oil and gas leases and mineral interests. He's a member of the Sierra Club and the League of Women Voters.
As chairman of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, Coll's legislative role is mainly devoted to creating the state's $3.4 billion annual budget for general operations.
Because of his importance in the budget process, Coll has tended to avoid carrying other major legislation that could be held hostage to other lawmakers' demands from the budget.
Still, his legislative interests are varied.
His campaign literature points to his support of the state Equal Rights Amendment, better pay for teachers and state employees, protection of whistle-blowers from retaliatory firings, high standards for landfills and help for victims of domestic violence.
Coll says he is most concerned about New Mexico's poor performance in indicators of poverty, school ratings and access to health care.
``It's real difficult to try to grab ourselves by the bootstraps and jerk them up and try to get any elevation,'' he said.
Coll said he once co-sponsored a bill to enact a single-payer health-care system in the state, but ``the insurance industry really came out of the woodwork and stomped on it like a June bug.''
Coll said he's been giving a lot of thought to a pair of proposals -- from the Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce and Think New Mexico -- to overhaul the way public schools are governed and give more autonomy to individual schools.
He said he supports promoting school choice through more charter schools -- a form of public school with increased autonomy -- but he won't support a voucher plan that diverts dollars from public education.
``I'm not a voucher fan for that fundamental reason. It takes money out of an already underfunded system,'' Coll said.
He said he supports raises for teachers, and he likes the idea of incentive pay linked to improvements in student performance. And he's willing to consider a new governing structure for the state school system to promote stronger accountability.
Coll said the state should look into ways of pooling its residents' buying power -- possibly in conjunction with other states -- to act as a wholesaler of prescription drugs to bring the cost of medicines down.
Pharmaceutical companies say higher prices are necessary to pay for research and development of new medicines, Coll said, yet they charge less for the same drugs in other countries such as Canada and Mexico.
``Let them pay part of the damn research costs,'' Coll said. ``Don't stick it all on us.''