ALBUQUERQUE -- Third in a series of occasional articles.
Patricia Madrid was in her rural ranch house one day last fall, chasing a mouse with a broom, when her telephone rang. It was Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, calling unexpectedly but not entirely out of the blue.
For years, Democrats had been courting Madrid, New Mexico’s attorney general, trying to get her to run against Republican Rep. Heather A. Wilson, a perennial target.
Madrid caught the mouse. But it took months and countless conversations -- including three face-to-face meetings with House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and the call from Clinton -- before Democrats bagged their quarry and Madrid agreed to run.
“It’s not like you’re dying to leave your beautiful state to go to Washington,” said Madrid, who is term-limited as attorney general and had sneaked off with her husband that weekend (she thought) to contemplate her future. “The point they were making to me is this is more than one congressional seat; it’s ... part of an effort to change the leadership of the House.”
The ability of Democrats to entice their first-choice candidate into one of the nation’s premier congressional contests reflects a widely held view that the party stands its best chance in a decade to take over the House, after five unsuccessful tries.
Democrats must capture 15 seats to turn the GOP out on Nov. 7; a prime target is the district centered here in Albuquerque, where Democrats outnumber Republicans and more than one in three voters is Latino, like Madrid.
Despite their long-standing numerical advantage, Democrats have never held the seat, which was created nearly 40 years ago. “We are finally going to make that right,” Madrid told a dozen supporters crowded recently into the art-filled living room of a campaign volunteer.
For all the Democratic enthusiasm, however, Madrid faces an uphill fight against the oft-tested and popular Wilson. To win, the Democrat acknowledges, she must turn the contest into a referendum on President Bush, the war in Iraq and the high gas prices that are especially burdensome in this spread-out state.
“Most every race I’ve ever run was a lot about me -- what I’ve done, what I would do, how I compare,” Madrid said during an hourlong interview in her campaign’s scruffy headquarters, just a thrown hubcap from busy Interstate 25. “But this race is a little bit different.”
Republicans disagree. They say the election is about local issues and the records of the two candidates, even as Wilson has been working hard to forge an image of independence from Bush.
The tension between local and national issues reflects the dynamic surrounding this year’s midterm elections, when control of the House and Senate are at stake.
Democrats have made an alleged “culture of corruption” in Washington a major theme of their campaign nationally. But in a turnabout, it is Republicans who are trying to make ethics an issue in New Mexico, seizing on the corruption trial of a former state treasurer, the FBI probe of an ex-insurance superintendent and other criminal allegations swirling about a powerful former lawmaker.
“All of the current scandals that are just busting out all over New Mexico have happened under her watch,” said Marta Kramer, executive director of the state GOP. The idea that Madrid was unaware of malfeasance is “absurd,” Kramer said, an argument echoed in a recent Wilson TV spot.
But Madrid defends her performance as the state’s top law officer and attacks Wilson for taking campaign money from lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former GOP Reps. Tom DeLay of Texas and Randy “Duke” Cunningham of Rancho Santa Fe -- all at the center of Washington scandals. “That’s being ethical?” Madrid taunts in her latest TV spot, citing DeLay’s donations.
“There’s no doubt,” said Brian Sanderoff, an independent Albuquerque pollster, “before the campaign is over, it’s going to be nasty and mean-spirited.”
The 59-year-old Madrid has been something of a pioneer in New Mexico politics. She became the first woman elected to the district court bench, at age 32, and the state’s first woman attorney general.
The oldest daughter in a family of seven children, Madrid grew up under modest circumstances in Las Cruces. Her father tended the dairy at the federal prison outside town. Madrid attended the University of New Mexico and its law school on full scholarships. After majoring in English and philosophy, she chose law as a career on the advice of her graduate school counselor, an attorney.
After working a few years as a labor lawyer, she ran for judge in part to make a point. “With women, it was always something: Either they were too academic or not enough,” Madrid said, looking back.
She beat an incumbent and spent six years on the bench before returning to private law practice with her husband, an interlude that ended with her 1998 election as attorney general.
She has been an activist -- critics say overly active -- attorney general during her two terms. In addition to beefing up the office’s violent crime unit and enforcing the death penalty, she has aggressively pursued consumer fraud cases and predatory lenders. She opposed the federal Patriot Act and joined a lawsuit against the Bush administration over global warming, which the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to consider.
Historically, the job of attorney general has been a political springboard in New Mexico. One of Madrid’s predecessors serves in the House and another in the U.S. Senate.
But Republicans hope this year’s spate of local scandals not only tarnishes her crime-fighting credentials, but also thwarts any attempt to use the Washington corruption theme against Wilson.
The most prominent scandal involves former state Treasurer Robert Vigil, a Democrat, who is charged with accepting kickbacks. During his trial, a former state watchdog testified that a letter was prepared that urged Madrid to look at one of the outside investment advisors implicated in the case. But Madrid’s office said it never got the letter, and it was unclear whether it had been sent.
Vigil’s federal trial ended in a hung jury. A retrial is set for Sept. 5. Meanwhile, Madrid has filed state criminal charges against four of those implicated in the Vigil case, saying she believed they were getting off too easily in a deal with federal prosecutors.
The Albuquerque Journal, in a stinging editorial, accused Madrid of jeopardizing the federal case in an effort to boost her congressional bid. “My office is run in a nonpartisan way and always has been,” she responded, waving off the accusation.
Democrats who recruited Madrid are unfazed by the controversy. “She’s the best possible candidate for that seat, absolutely,” said Bill Burton, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, whose boss, Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, called Madrid as many as a dozen times and sent along a cheesecake to sweeten the courtship.
Madrid is a personable campaigner, striding into a room with brio, although at 5 feet, she is almost always the shortest person there. She also is tough, with an ability to take an accusation, twist it, then volley it back.
Madrid will need all her dexterity when she shares a stage with Wilson. The congresswoman is a Rhodes scholar and skilled debater, who has survived several tough campaigns.
“How the candidates look and project themselves” could well decide the race, said Christine Sierra, a University of New Mexico political scientist.
Madrid hopes for several debates; Wilson, so far, is uncommitted.