Thomas J. Cole: For the secretary of state, another course change

Reposted from the Albuquerque Journal. Monday, August 18, 2014

By Thomas Cole, Albuquerque Journal.

You could say that Secretary of State Dianna Duran was for it before she was against it before she was for it.

The chain of events:

• In December, Duran proposed a rule to allow candidates to accept campaign contributions above the general election limits if they had debt from the primary.

• Last month, Duran said Democratic gubernatorial nominee Gary King, who had a debt of more than $300,000 from the June primary, couldn’t lawfully accept donations above the limits for the November general election. King disagreed.

The rule proposed by Duran’s office to permit the practice had never taken effect; the office said it changed its mind.

• Facing a court challenge from King and a hearing later this month, Duran reversed course Thursday and said King could accept contributions above the general election limits to retire debt from the primary election. The secretary of state wrote in a letter to King:

“You are both the Attorney General of New Mexico and you are a candidate for statewide office. … We do not believe you, as a candidate, would urge the secretary of state to adopt a legal position that you as attorney general did not also believe to be correct.”

King’s campaign had filed an emergency petition with the state Supreme Court challenging Duran’s previous position.

At the root of the Duran-King disagreement is a state law, which took effect in 2010, that limits the size of campaign contributions to candidates for state and county offices.

Under the law, which Duran is responsible for implementing, an individual can donate up to $5,200 during the primary election and up to $5,200 during the general election to a candidate for statewide office.

Duran has long held that a candidate could accept the maximum $10,400 from a donor during the primary, as long as the candidate designated half the money for the general.

What King has done – and what Duran initially objected to – is accept the maximum $10,400 from some donors during the general election cycle, with half the money designated to pay off his primary debt.

In the Supreme Court petition, King’s campaign had noted that Duran had previously proposed a rule to permit the practice and that candidates for federal office with primary election debt are allowed to accept contributions above the limits for the general.

Duran said in the letter to King that her office would now apply the rules for federal candidates.

King’s duties as attorney general include giving opinions on questions of law when asked to do so by other state officials, and Duran said she accepted the arguments in the Supreme Court petition as his opinion as attorney general.

Duran, who in 2010 became the first Republican elected secretary of state in 80 years, is seeking re-election in November in a race against Democrat Maggie Toulouse Oliver, the Bernalillo County clerk.

Duran’s dust-up with King had become distracting – if not damaging – to the campaign. She needs swing voters – some of King’s fellow Democrats and independents – to win re-election.

The secretary of state and her advisers could also have come to the conclusion that they were unlikely to prevail before the Supreme Court. Arguing against something you proposed to permit is awkward, at best.

There was also the possibility that the justices would reject both the arguments of King and Duran, ruling that contributions to candidates above the limits set by law aren’t permitted at any time.

Such a ruling could have forced candidates – both Democrats and Republicans – to return or forfeit contributions above the limits that they received during the primary.

Among the candidates who received donations above the limits: Duran and GOP Gov. Susana Martinez.