Monday, July 18, 2022

Getting Smothered: High Profile ABQ Pastor Rocks Ronchetti From Bully Pulpit; Says Candidate Told Him He Wants All Abortions Banned; Dems Make Hay; Complete Coverage And Analysis Of Key Campaign Moment  

Rev. Smotherman
ABQ's pugnacious and politically potent evangelical pastor has injected himself into the '22 gubernatorial contest, possibly changing the course of the campaign that will determine the state's next chief executive. 

Legacy Church Reverend Steve Smotherman knocked the wind out of GOP nominee Mark Ronchetti last week, taking to his bully pulpit and declaring that Ronchetti wasn't telling the whole story about his stand on the hot button issue of abortion--that the candidate not only favors restricting abortion to the first 15 weeks of pregnancy but personally told him that if elected he will support banning the procedure entirely.

(Full video here with comments on Ronchetti starting at 27:10.)

The charismatic Smotherman dug the hole deeper as he explained his private meeting with the candidate:

I know Mark Ronchetti came out--and some people are very upset--because he said I think (abortion) is  reasonable up to 15 weeks. . . I know a lot of us got mad. I did too. I had a long talk with him for hours. I said, dude right out of the gate you blew it and he said here's what I was trying to do. I know what you were trying to do but you didn't do it and here's what he said. He said, 'listen, I just want to start with getting rid of partial birth abortion in the whole state'--which we should be happy with--and he said 'but I can't just go in and do it 100 percent because we won't ever get elected.'  He said I just want to start but his goal would be to end abortion in New Mexico. Just so you know. 

How do I know that? Because I talked to him for hours and I said I won't support anybody that believes in killing a baby ever. I don't care how much you are right on other issues. That one issue is enough for me because if you don't believe in life, something's wrong. 

That jaw dropper brought guffaws throughout La Politica and left Ronchetti speechless. His spokesman surfaced to try some damage control:

(Ronchetti) wants to end late-term abortion in New Mexico by limiting abortion to the first 15 weeks. His position has been clear and consistent. The pastor is free to express his position on these issues. 

Smotherman, 61, indicated he was doing Ronchetti a favor by reassuring his conservative flock that Ronchetti's 15 week proposed abortion ban that disappointed them was not the end game. But it was a backfire of major proportions as it burst into the media and, according to our analyst Greg Payne, a former legislator and ABQ city councilor, it further poisoned the well for Ronchetti in Blue Bernalillo County:

It isn't only the ultra-conservative abortion position Smotherman claimed Ronchetti adopted in a private meeting, it's the redefining of Ronchetti's character that is also devastating. He has run as an outsider, an anti-politician and fighter of the "political elites" but here he is, according to Smotherman, making a backroom deal and doing what the politicians do that he often attacks--saying one thing and doing another. That makes the ice underneath him in Bernalillo County even thinner and has the race firmly leaning toward the incumbent.

Smotherman's revelation was even more painful for the GOP, coming as it did while Ronchetti airs a rebuttal to a TV ad from a Dem PAC that says he wants to "criminalize abortion." 

Observers of various stripes say the best Ronchetti can do now is to pivot to the economy and inflation. But the state Dems will try to keep him pinned down. They are now calling his position on abortion "a lie" and the Smotherman video provides easy pickings for a forceful TV ad to back their assertion. 


The Ronchetti campaign rushed to get Smotherman to clarify what he had said but to little effect. In a newspaper interview the pastor elaborated on his private meeting with Ronchetti:

Mark was clear with me that he is personally pro-life and what he intends to do as governor, which is identical to what he says in his campaign commercial. My comments were not intended to convey his strategy as governor. I believe Mark is committed to ending the terrible practice of late-term abortion in our state, a practice that the current governor sadly embraces.

Not intended to convey his strategy? In other words the duplicitous Ronchetti strategy Smotherman conveyed to his congregation was indeed the candidate's strategy. 

To that the Ronchetti camp can say, "Thanks for nothing," Steve. 


Then-Mayor Berry praying
This isn't the first time Smotherman has been in a high-profile abortion dispute with a Republican candidate desperate to pedal to the middle but not alienate the powerful conservative block represented by Smotherman. 

In fact, prior to delving into his conversation with Ronchetti, Smotherman recalled to his audience his battle with former ABQ GOP Mayor RJ Berry over placing an anti-abortion initiative on the 2013 city election ballot when Berry was up for for re-election. Here's what he said (starting at 25:00 on church video):

This church helped get petitions. We worked with groups to stop partial birth abortion in Albuquerque and we lost the vote. . .We lost for two reasons. Number one--RJ Berry. You don't ever hear his name anymore. Because I told him long after people forgot who you are, we will still be here loving our city. Becuse he was arrogant and he'll be known for two things--the (ART transit) debacle on Central because no one rides it. They ruined businesses. And then he'll be known for this. We had all the signatures, we were going to get on the ballot when he was running for mayor and he made sure it did not get on the ballot. It gave the opposition eight more weeks to spend millions of dollars and we lose. 

Berry and his consultant, Jay McCleskey, who today is Ronchetti's consultant as he was for Gov. Susana Martinez, were fearful that an anti-abortion vote at the same time as the mayoral election would hurt Berry in the Dem city. The anti-abortion election was held a month after the October balloting and failed on a 55 to 45 vote. 


And this is not the first time that abortion has sidetracked the controversial McCleskey. He was seen as the "shadow Governor" to Martinez, pulling the strings on major issues and appointments. Anti-abortion activists targeted him because of his reticence over abortion restrictions and picketed his ABQ NE Heights home in 2014. He came out and called them "pieces of shit."


It's against this lengthy background that Smotherman's action with Ronchetti needs to be weighed. After being patronized by previous Republicans, was Smotherman sending a message that he and his followers are tired of it so he went public to hold Ronchetti's feet to the fire--not just to placate those who felt Ronchetti's abortion position was not strong enough?

It's legitimate speculation as evangelical and other conservative religious groups have taken hold of the Republican Party here and nationally in a way never seen before. They have shown the ability to call the shots and seeing yet another Republican candidate attempting to adhere to the "meek middle" on one of their most cherished causes may have been the final straw. 

Whatever the motivation, Smotherman's intervention served as a reminder to Ronchetti, McCleskey and the GOP at large of the powerful hand he holds. And if it costs the GOP the gubernatorial election, so be it. 

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