Newsmakers: Who will be in the headlines in 2022? Here's a start

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Jan. 1—No one can accurately predict the newsmakers of 2022, in part because news rarely follows form, let alone a formula.

Sure, elected officials make headlines, regardless of whether that was their intent. And elections — the ballot will be packed in ’22, headlined by a gubernatorial race — tend to jostle the levers of power in ways no one could have foreseen.

But often it is a collision of fate and circumstance, bringing people to the center of the public arena where only months before they’d have been in the margins, or not seen at all. Put another way: A year ago, could anyone have predicted an otherwise-innocuous movie set near Santa Fe, the backdrop for a film called Rust, would’ve riveted the world’s attention on the city?

So, with the understanding this could be wrong, here’s a look into the unknown of ’22 — a preview of the obvious and not-so-obvious characters who will spur the headlines of the following 364 days.

Politics

Rebecca Dow, Mark Ronchetti

New Mexico’s gubernatorial race will be front and center leading up to the November general election. So will the Republican who ends up squaring off against Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Of the seven hopefuls who so far have announced their intentions to seek the GOP nomination for governor, two stand out: Mark Ronchetti and Rebecca Dow.

Ronchetti, a former longtime TV weatherman, is considered the front-runner and the Republican Party’s best hope of winning back the Governor’s Office. After spending years in New Mexicans’ living rooms delivering weather reports, he has more name recognition than any other GOP contender. He is, at least by New Mexico standards, a household name.

Though new to politics, Ronchetti has already proved he can raise money and generate voter support in a statewide race.

In his first bid for public office, Ronchetti raised nearly $4 million in 2020’s U.S. Senate race against Ben Ray Luján. He also performed much better than expected, garnering nearly 46 percent of the vote against a seasoned politician in a reliably blue state.

Sabato’s Crystal Ball, an online political newsletter and election handicapper, changed the rating of New Mexico’s gubernatorial contest from “likely Democratic” to “lean Democratic” after Ronchetti formally announced his intention to seek the Republican nomination.

“Republicans do appear to have a solid challenger to Lujan Grisham” with Ronchetti in the race, according to the newsletter, which notes that Ronchetti is the “most notable” among the seven Republican contenders.

Dow hopes to elevate her profile in the upcoming months, and some Republicans see her as having the potential to win a statewide election.

A member of the state House of Representatives since 2017, the legislator from Truth or Consequences is a fresh face in a party looking for electable new stars who can appeal to voters, particularly women.

Dow, who works as a consultant to early childhood providers, is a self-described compassionate conservative. Her campaign has branded Dow the front-runner in the race.

— Daniel Chacón

COVID-19

Laura Parajón

She has told us COVID is here to stay, and we’d best find a way to get used to it.

She revealed her father contracted the coronavirus; it became a personal battle as she urged New Mexicans to get vaccinated in 2021.

A former in-the-field health care worker who has worked in a variety of community health initiatives, Dr. Laura Parajón could become even more central in the fight against the virus as COVID-19 moves into its third year. The deputy secretary for the New Mexico Department of Health, Parajón increasingly is becoming the voice of the state’s health apparatus, though acting Secretary Dr. David Scrase remains perhaps the central figure in New Mexico’s efforts.

Who is Laura Parajón?

She earned her medical degree and did her residency at the University of New Mexico. She has worked as medical director in the city of Albuquerque’s COVID-19 response for its homeless population. She also served as executive director for community health programs at UNM and spent years serving as a medical missionary in Nicaragua. The World Organization of Family Doctors named her one of its “Rural Heroes” for that work in 2015.

Though weekly COVID-19 briefings long were the province of Scrase, who also serves as the state’s Human Services Department secretary, Parajón likely will be part of the Health Department’s public information efforts. It’s no easy task: In ’21, virus news in New Mexico went from very bad to very good to bad once again.

Speaking with NBC Nightly News last year, Parajón acknowledged that while New Mexico doesn’t have a lot of resources, “we have a lot of heart.”

It’ll be tested once again in ’22.

— Robert Nott

Public education

Samantha Waidler Jaramillo

Unless you’re a student at Dixon Elementary School in far Northern New Mexico, you probably don’t know Samantha Waidler Jaramillo.

But she — and many like her — could hold the key to the tenuous fortunes of New Mexico’s flagging public education system.

Waidler Jaramillo, in her second year teaching kids in Dixon and 10th overall, has weathered remote learning with shoddy Wi-Fi, stagnant wages and the constant threat of contracting COVID-19 from kids too young to be vaccinated through most of 2021.

That’s alongside a workload that seems ever-expanding as the state stacks on new education initiatives to get kids up to speed through the pandemic.

Waidler Jaramillo, 34, says she’s passionate about teaching but isn’t sure she’ll want to do it again next fall. Scanning job listings online, she says, has become a reprieve from the pressures of her current job. And, maybe, an outlet.

Her outspokenness in predicting an “education crisis” before the Legislative Education Study Committee in November signaled a potential sea change in the state’s teaching ranks as educators campaign for better pay and more respect.

In her remarks to legislators, Waidler Jaramillo’s message was clear: if New Mexico lawmakers don’t act soon to improve working conditions, the state’s teachers will keep leaving in droves. That may already be happening: most districts report an inability to fill classrooms with qualified teachers. That reality may have spurred the Public Education Department to request

$280.5 million from state lawmakers to boost educator pay by up to 7 percent and increase teacher salary minimums to compete with neighboring states.

Waidler Jaramillo, uncertain about her future, called the funding ask a step in the right direction but said underlying respect for teachers remains lacking.

New Mexico State University researchers identified 1,727 vacancies statewide in the fall throughout K-12 education, including more than 1,000 who were classroom teachers. That’s double what NMSU’s 2020 study revealed. What happens in ’22 may determine the future of public education for years to come.

— Jessica Pollard

City government

John Blair

It’s common for the mayor of a city to grab headlines in any given year. But heading into 2022, the No. 2 executive in Santa Fe might be its biggest newsmaker.

Enter John Blair, the likely successor to departing City Manager Jarel LaPan Hill.

Blair’s appointment, which still must be approved by the City Council, is yet another turn of the page in the Alan Webber administration. He will be Webber’s fourth city manager since the mayor was elected in 2018.

Blair, most recently the deputy superintendent at the state Regulation and Licensing Department, already has come under scrutiny from some who question whether his background lends itself to the city manager position. He has never worked in a city administrative role.

But supporters of the move say Blair’s experience in other parts of government — director of intergovernmental and external affairs at the Department of the Interior from 2015-16; chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich.; legislative director and communications director for then-U.S. Rep. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M. — will put him in good stead.

Though Webber says Blair is a “well-respected and well-regarded” public servant whom he’d hoped to recruit to the city for some time, Blair will have to hit the ground running. The day-to-day operation of the city, not to mention lingering issues facing city departments and an ongoing COVID-19 crisis, make the job a tough one. It may be one reason there have been three city managers in the past three-plus years.

A vote on Blair’s confirmation is scheduled Jan. 12 at the council’s first meeting of the year.

— Sean P. Thomas

Criminal justice

Mary Carmack-Altwies

You can’t say Mary Carmack-Altwies ducks for cover.

The onetime public defender turned First Judicial District attorney has found herself at the center of multiple controversies since taking office in January 2021.

More likely will be on the way in ’22.

If nothing else, her office will make a decision on possible prosecutions stemming from the fatal shooting on the set of Rust, the bewitched independent movie that in October became worldwide news when cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was killed by a bullet fired from a gun in the possession of actor/producer Alec Baldwin. The Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office continues to investigate the case.

But there’s plenty more on Carmack-Altwies’ plate.

In May, she defended her decision to divert nearly all the defendants charged in the 2020 destruction of the Plaza obelisk into a pre-prosecution probation program, calling the crime “a political problem that got forced upon the criminal justice system.”

The move created controversy, but Carmack-Altwies wasn’t fazed. The same held true late in ’20, when she faced criticism from law enforcement and at least one local judge for dismissing hundreds of DWI cases, saying she did so as a way to increase her conviction rate and a refusal to be “bullied” into doing things the way they’ve always been done.

An interesting ’22 awaits.

— Phaedra Haywood

Environment

Mike Hamman

Mike Hamman, who has assisted farmers with their irrigation needs amid a persistent drought, will oversee upgrades in the state’s water systems to ensure they can withstand climate change — likely the No. 1 environmental issue in New Mexico in 2022.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham chose Hamman, CEO of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, to be the state’s water adviser, beginning this week. He will determine the best projects on which to spend a portion of the $3.7 billion in federal infrastructure money the state recently received, plus coordinate development of a 50-year water plan in response to research showing climate change’s potential dire effects in the next half-century.

New Mexico’s thin water supply — under assault by a prolonged drought, legal challenges that include a case before the U.S. Supreme Court and tensions between urban and agricultural interests — has never seemed so uncertain. But the infusion of federal money could allow the state to invest in key needs.

Hamman has said he wants to ensure communities benefit from the effort, with no one getting left out.

Hamman is no stranger to the push and pull that comes with managing New Mexico’s water: He spent 17 years with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, doing engineering, operations and maintenance. He became the Albuquerque-area irrigation district’s chief executive and engineer in 2015.

— Scott Wyland

Philanthropy

Morgan Smith

Morgan Smith, Harvard graduate, trial attorney, former Colorado state legislator and Cabinet secretary, knows something about making news.

He turns 83 this month and still draws headlines with his humanitarian missions to Murder City. That’s the nickname writers have saddled on Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.

Smith for 11 years has traveled perhaps a dozen times annually from his home in Santa Fe to Juárez. Warring drug cartels instigate so much violence that Juárez, population 1.5 million, exceeds the homicide total of far-more-populous New York City.

Smith has raised considerable money to build separate women’s quarters in what he calls an asylum in Juárez. Accompanied by his wife, Sherry, he also delivers clothing and food to destitute people in other border towns.

He documents the desperate conditions with writings and photography that often are published by news outlets in the Southwest.

Smith doesn’t fear violence as much as he does failure.

“You have to say to yourself, ‘Is this a drop in the bucket? Am I making any difference?’ ” he said. He answers his own questions a little later, praising others who venture to the border to help crime victims, addicts and mentally ill people.

“It’s an environment where government support is almost nonexistent,” Smith said.

He doubts himself and downplays his efforts. But as another year hits the calendar, he’s going back.

— Milan Simonich

Public health

Dr. Wendy Johnson

Dr. Wendy Johnson hopes the failings of American health care in 2021 spur changes in 2022 and beyond.

Johnson, medical director at La Familia Medical Center in Santa Fe, said the coronavirus pandemic and other health crises — substance abuse, diabetes, obesity — reveal the crevices in American medical care.

She sees potential in proposed state legislation to insure all residents through the Health Security Act, although similar legislation has been offered before.

The pandemic shows the need for better outreach, communitywide care, access to primary care and behavioral health programs, relief for overburdened health workers and disease prevention efforts, Johnson said.

Some of those things aren’t reimbursed by insurance, she said.

Johnson said her goal is to focus on such matters and help make La Familia — a federally supported clinic that provides services to all, regardless of ability to pay — “a beacon of what health care could be.”

Johnson, 55, is a family physician with a medical degree from Ohio State University and a master’s degree in public

health from Johns Hopkins University.

Countries like Costa Rica and Denmark provide better access to health care and social services, she said, adding the U.S. can choose between two paths — one in which every person fends for himself or herself; the other in which they genuinely care for one another.

Johnson said she doesn’t find that a difficult choice.

— Rick Ruggles

Law enforcement

David Webb, Adan Mendoza

One of the juicier down-ballot primary races this year could be the battle for Santa Fe County sheriff, where David Webb, a lieutenant with the Santa Fe Police Department, has announced he’ll challenge incumbent Adan Mendoza.

Mendoza, a Democrat, announced his bid for reelection in September.

By the end of the month, Webb, also a Democrat, announced he also would seek the job.

In addition to patrolling a diverse, far-flung jurisdiction, the sheriff’s office likely will be under intense scrutiny as the investigation into the fatal shooting on the Rust movie set progresses.

It’s one more item on an already list of issues that confront Mendoza, whose deputies were involved in four deadly shootings in 2021.

Outside law enforcement circles, Webb is a relative unknown. But his résumé as an officer is long.

He served as a deputy in the sheriff’s office for two years but joined the city’s police department as an officer in 2007. He rose to sergeant and later was elevated to lieutenant. He serves in SFPD’s criminal investigations unit.

Citing goals that include enhanced trainings, more mental health support for deputies and expansion of less-lethal options, Webb says he hopes

his wealth of experience will help him in his run against Mendoza.

The sheriff, in a recent op-ed, also notes law enforcement is at a critical point.

It may make for an interesting race.

— Victoria Traxler

Business

Christine Robertson

A new era started at the Santa Fe Railyard Community Corp. in September when Christine Robertson became the new executive director after Richard Czoski led the organization for 16 years.

The Czoski era involved developing the organization from a vacated industrial area

to a live-work-play hive of activity.

Robertson’s charge is managing and improving a commercial enterprise that includes the Santa Fe Farmers Market, Violet Crown, REI and two dozen other tenants.

Robertson came to the Railyard from the Las Soleras development on the south side, where she was executive director.

She has lived in Santa Fe for four years, also working as general manager at the Fort Marcy Hotel Suites.

A key ingredient is having more people come to the Railyard and keeping the place clean and graffiti-free, Robertson said.

“I think I would like to see more of a community feel,” Robertson said.

“We had a lot more events this year than expected. We’re hoping to have even more events in 2022. [This] year we will do some holiday events. What signature event can we bring in to bring a ton of people to the Railyard?”

— Teya Vitu

Cannabis industry

Linda Trujillo

Linda Trujillo, superintendent of the state Regulation and Licensing Department, spent much of 2021 studying how other states have crafted guidelines on creating and implementing a legalized marijuana industry.

In 2022, she and the rest of the state will see that work come to fruition. It may be one of the most fascinating — and potentially controversial — stories of the year.

Trujillo, twice elected to the state House of Representatives and appointed as the Regulation and Licensing superintendent in 2021, heads an agency that also oversees regulations on alcohol, construction and financial institutions — industries that also affect the New Mexico cannabis startup.

Because cannabis is considered a controlled substance at the federal level and banks remain reluctant to do business with cannabis companies for fear of losing their licenses, the department has had to educate the public on alternative funding mechanisms, including venture capital, crowd funding and revenue-based investing. And that was just the start.

The effort becomes a reality in ’22, regardless of potential pitfalls.

The Cannabis Control Division already began issuing licenses for producers, and retail stores will be eligible for licensure at the start of the year. Adult recreational purchases may begin April 1.

With so many moving pieces, much will fall on Trujillo and her ability to balance the many interests involved in cannabis — jobs, revenue, health, to name just a few.

— Michael Tashji

Sports

Richard Pitino

One school’s trash is another’s treasure … hopefully.

That’s the thinking the University of New Mexico had in March when it hired Richard Pitino to coach its moribund men’s basketball program. The son of his more famous namesake, he went from wunderkind to the unemployment line after eight largely “meh” seasons at Minnesota.

His time with the Gophers produced a fair share of top 25 upsets and even a pair of trips to the Big Dance, but his final ledger had 42 more hashmarks in the Big Ten loss column than the other side. It wasn’t nearly good enough for Minnesota.

Enter UNM, a place with a long history of taking Midwestern basketball minds and riding them to NCAA success; witness previous Lobos bosses Bob King, Norm Ellenberger and Steve Alford.

UNM isn’t hoping for a miracle, but it’s certainly expecting a little of that Pitino magic to end an NCAA Tournament drought that extends to 2014.

Step one in ’21?

Rebuild a roster decimated by defections, transfers and graduation. All but five current players were snared by Pitino the last few months, with more on the way.

He took a pay cut in his move to the Southwest, waiving a seven-figure payout from Minnesota.

Can he revive Lobo basketball? Bring on 2022.

— Will Webber