Corrected: This story gave an incorrect title for Richard M. Romero, a candidate for Congress from New Mexico’s 1st District. He is the president pro tem of the New Mexico Senate.
The flames keeping hundreds of vibrantly colored hot-air balloons aloft for the fall balloon fiesta here were doused by the time the two candidates for the local congressional seat debated in a hotel ballroom earlier this month. But the sparks—and maybe even a little of the hot air—were still in plentiful supply.
“I look forward to talking with you about jobs, about our schools, and about how we’re going to win this war on terrorism,” said U.S. Rep. Heather A. Wilson, the Republican incumbent in New Mexico’s 1st District. But in her opening remarks, she also had another goal: taking aim at her Democratic challenger, Richard M. Romero, the state Senate president and a former longtime educator.
“Mr. Romero took American politics to a new low last week with propaganda linking me to a man who murdered 3,000 people,” she said at the Oct. 11 event.
The Romero campaign has run a TV spot that flashes the image of Osama bin Laden and claims Ms. Wilson did a “favor to terrorists” in voting against one airline-security measure.
“We all know that you don’t leave common sense at the door when you go to Washington, D.C.,” Mr. Romero shot back. “It makes all the sense in the world to screen cargo on all of our airlines.”
Not to be outdone, a recent spot by a national GOP group said Mr. Romero “is so liberal on crime he’s dangerous.”
Like many tight races leading up to the elections next week, the contest here for the U.S. House of Representatives has gotten pretty rough, and talk of schools has had to vie with still-stark post-9/11 worries about security and other high-profile issues.
The Albuquerque-area contest offers a good window, though, on where education ranks in the minds of voters, and on how the No Child Left Behind Act, a sweeping, bipartisan rewrite of federal K-12 policy, and other school issues are faring in campaigns for Congress.
Education seemed pretty important to the Rotary Club of Albuquerque, which hosted the Oct. 11 debate at the Old Town Sheraton hotel, nestled near a touristy section of the city.
The second of only six debate questions was on the No Child Left Behind law, the centerpiece of President Bush’s agenda for schools.
Ms. Wilson strongly supports the law; Mr. Romero says it needs major changes.
“I’d rank [education] as number-one in my viewpoint,” said Sam Fenner, an undecided independent, standing in the elaborately decorated hotel lobby, shortly before the debate started.
Mr. Fenner, who has four children, including one still attending a local public school, added: “We rank so low nationally in terms of educational funding, how our kids rank on a national scale, and I think we need to give more attention to that.”
This desert state falls behind most states by several measures. New Mexico is one of the lowest-performing states on key national tests for 4th and 8th graders. Teacher salaries are near the bottom nationally. Recent data on average spending per student placed it 36th out of the 50 states. And it has wide spending disparities between school systems.
Despite their differences, both Rep. Wilson and Mr. Romero agree that Congress is a vital player in helping the state’s schools, especially its disadvantaged children.
A Battleground State
The race for New Mexico’s 1st District is one of only about 30 competitive House races this year. The chamber is expected to stay in Republican control, while the Democrats have somewhat better prospects in the Senate.
As with the presidential election, the biggest issues in congressional races have been the war in Iraq, terrorism, the economy, and health care. Those emphases come as little surprise, based on recent polls. For instance, education came in sixth place in a mid-October poll by the Winston Group, a Republican firm in Alexandria, Va., when respondents were asked to name the “most important” issue in voting for Congress.
But candidates are still discussing education. Both Ms. Wilson and Mr. Romero have run TV ads touting their records and experience on the issue.
This is Mr. Romero’s second stab at the 1st District seat, which represents a swath of central New Mexico anchored by Albuquerque, a city on the upper Rio Grande River in the shadow of the towering Sandia Mountains. The metropolitan area, with a population of about 750,000, is mostly a blend of Hispanics and whites, with a smaller number of American Indians. The district leans Democratic, though Republicans have held the House seat here for more than three decades.
Mr. Romero, 60, was a teacher, principal, and assistant superintendent for 27 years in the 90,000-student Albuquerque public schools. He lost to Ms. Wilson two years ago, 55 percent to 45 percent. He’s been a member of the New Mexico Senate for 12 years and its president since 1991.
In the Senate, he played an influential role in passing a plan to raise teacher salaries based on experience, using a new, three-tiered system. He also championed a bill that gave collective bargaining rights to teachers and other public employees, and he helped enact an increase in the portion of a state permanent fund that goes to schools.
Ms. Wilson, 43, who first won her seat in Congress in a 1998 special election, has a background heavy on military and foreign affairs. She served in the U.S. Air Force for about a decade and was on the National Security Council staff under President George H.W. Bush.
But she gained experience with children’s issues as the secretary of New Mexico’s children, youth, and families agency from 1995 to 1998. While never an educator, she was a finalist for superintendent of the Albuquerque public schools in the early 1990s.
In Congress, Ms. Wilson doesn’t serve on the education committee, but she has been fairly active on school matters. During the 108th Congress, she has introduced bills to improve math and science instruction, support arts in the schools, and provide tax credits for teachers and principals in low-income schools, though none of those measures passed.
A poll of 369 likely voters conducted in early October for the Albuquerque Journal found that voters were almost evenly divided between the two candidates, with Ms. Wilson at 45 percent and Mr. Romero at 44 percent. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus five percentage points.
National Democratic and Republican groups have provided substantial money and other support for the campaigns.
Since New Mexico is a presidential battleground, it’s gotten a lot of attention from President Bush and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. The same day as the Oct. 11 Romero-Wilson debate, both presidential candidates visited the Land of Enchantment.
The night before, Mr. Romero joined Sen. Kerry for a rally in Albuquerque.
“We’ve got to improve our schools; we’ve got to improve health care,” Mr. Romero told some 500 people gathered in an airplane hanger. “We’ve got to [reduce] the deficit. We’ve got to get our troops out of Iraq.”
The Party Line
President Bush didn’t stop in Albuquerque during his Oct. 11 visit to the state, but two weeks earlier, first lady Laura Bush showed up to raise money for the Wilson campaign.
“Heather has spent her time in Washington working on issues that matter to the families and workers of New Mexico,” Mrs. Bush said on Sept. 29, according to a White House transcript.
Mr. Romero contends that Rep. Wilson is a rubber stamp for President Bush and GOP leaders in the House, though she emphasizes her independence.
The Romero message seems to resonate with some voters.
New Mexico’s 1st
“She is too much the Republican hack,” said Richard Desjardins, a retired builder and self-described liberal having breakfast at the Flying Star, a popular cafe near the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. “She follows the party line.”
That’s not to say he finds Mr. Romero very inspiring.
“He’s not Heather Wilson,” Mr. Desjardins said to sum up his support for the challenger. “This is an ‘anyone but’ year.”
Maggie Peterson, a homemaker from Albuquerque, first cited education to explain her support for Rep. Wilson.
“I think she’s good with education,” said Ms. Peterson, who has two children she switched from public to private schools several years ago. “That’s the reason she went into public service. At least that’s what she said.”
A Republican, Ms. Peterson suggested that Democrats like Mr. Romero are beholden to the teachers unions. He is backed by the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.
“You never hear Democratic candidates speaking out against the unions,” Ms. Peterson said.
Fred C. Martinez, an Albuquerque lawyer and lifelong Democrat, said he’s pleased that Mr. Romero is a former educator.
“He would know that Leave No Child Behind better than anybody else,” he said. “Friends of mine who are in education tell me that it has a nice name, but that it doesn’t have that same effect.”
The No Child Left Behind Act is a clear dividing line for the two candidates.
In the Oct. 11 debate, they were asked whether the law, which aims to hold schools accountable for raising student achievement, was benefitting New Mexico.
“My answer is no,” Mr. Romero said. “And I’m speaking as an educator.”
Mr. Romero argued that Congress hasn’t provided adequate funding for the law, and that it needs changes—criticisms echoed by other Democratic candidates this year. In an earlier interview with Education Week, he said he would alter the law’s assessment and accountability measures.
“Measurement should be an indicator of how we’re doing, but it shouldn’t be used to blast a school and give it a bad label,” he said.
Ms. Wilson disagrees about the law.
“The No Child Left Behind Act increases funding,” she said during the debate. “It also gives unprecedented flexibility to schools and principals and parents to make decisions about how that money is used. The other thing that it does is have accountability to parents and communities.”
In a later interview, the congresswoman said there’s been some confusion about the law. “We’ve worked with both the state and Albuquerque public schools to take advantage of the flexibility that does exist,” she said.
‘My Own Party’ Disagrees
A recent TV commercial by the Wilson campaign stressed the rapid growth in education spending over the past few years, with the narrator noting that Ms. Wilson “even fought her own party leadership to increase funding for disadvantaged schools.”
Ms. Wilson offers that stance to rebut the Romero charge that she always votes the party line.
“I am the only Republican in the House who has voted against the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education [spending] bill for the last two years because it wasn’t adequate for education,” she said in the interview. “People within my own party disagree with me.”
The fiscal 2005 spending bill passed the House last month 388-13, though many Democrats claimed it underfunded education and other programs. All 13 no votes came from Republicans.
Larry J. Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, suggests her vote may not have been as politically courageous as it might seem.
“She’s in a competitive district,” he reasoned. “Of course, they’re going to give free votes to members as needed,” he said, referring to GOP leaders. “They didn’t need her vote.”
On some tight education votes, Rep. Wilson has taken the party line. She backed her leadership earlier this year on a 209-208 vote creating a pilot private school voucher program in the District of Columbia. She also supported a 2003 bill to overhaul the Head Start program that passed the House by a single vote but hasn’t become law.
The Romero campaign, meanwhile, has run a TV ad to promote the Democrat’s education background and proposals.
Mr. Romero has a plan “for real accountability in our schools,” the narrator intones, and to reduce the dropout rate, provide college scholarships, and fight for higher teachers salaries.
“We need to pay teachers like they have the most important job in the world,” Mr. Romero says in the ad. “Because they do.”
Despite such ads, Charles Bowyer, a lobbyist for the NEA’s New Mexico affiliate, said he sees less talk of education this time around in the House race here.
“Regrettably, education has not taken the primary role that it did two and four years ago in the campaign,” he said, citing issues such as national security and the economy. “That’s understandable.”
Whether or not education proves to be a deciding factor, at least some local voters from both major political parties see the federal government as highly relevant to schools.
“I like the No Child Left Behind Act,” said Dave Goodnight, a minister who also works at a local homeless shelter that Rep. Wilson toured the day after the debate.
Mr. Goodnight, who calls himself very conservative, said he has a child who “gets a great education” at a public school in Albuquerque. But, he said, “so many kids are just pushed through [the system]. I think the federal government needs to take a stand.”
Joe Baca, a Democrat leaning toward Mr. Romero, said Washington has an obligation to schools.
“The schools need a lot more help,” said Mr. Baca, a truck driver with two children in public schools while lunching at Barelas Coffee House, near downtown Albuquerque. “Getting after-school programs and stuff like that.”
“Schooling,” he said, “should be the number-one priority for everyone.”