Roosevelt County farmer wins Republican seat for land commissioner

Roosevelt County farmer and cattle rancher Matthew Rush on Tuesday won the nomination in the Republican primary for land commissioner — a position among the most powerful in New Mexico state government.

Rush defeated former Bernalillo County GOP executive director Bob Cornelius. Unofficial returns showed Rush with nearly 66 percent of the votes with 65 percent of precincts reporting. Cornelius had 34 percent.

A strong hometown showing garnered Rush 80.6 percent of the votes in Roosevelt County, with neighboring Curry County giving him 84.9 percent and 87.8 percent in De Baca County.

Rush got a hug from his 2 1/2-year-old nephew Tuesday night shortly after learning he had been called the winner in the primary by The Associated Press. He said he was going to celebrate with his family, but it would be back to the campaign trail the next day.

“I think it is time for us to get some new blood into politics in New Mexico and I think it is time for us, in my generation, to start standing up and taking responsibility for our state,” Rush, 36, said in a telephone interview with the AP.

In the Democratic primary, former Land Commissioner Ray Powell of Albuquerque wants another chance at the job and is running against Public Regulation Commission member Sandy Jones of Sierra County and Santa Fe County Commissioner Harry Montoya.

Returns showed Powell with nearly 42 percent of the vote with two-thirds of precincts reporting. Montoya had 33 percent and Jones nearly 25 percent.

Incumbent Land Commissioner Patrick Lyons, a Republican, cannot run again because of term limits.

Many argue the person at the helm of the State Land Office is one of the most powerful people in state government, wielding control over more than 13 million acres of mineral estate with the potential to bring in hundreds of millions of dollars to New Mexico’s coffers each year.

Kent Salazar, a state game commissioner and regional director with the National Wildlife Federation, said sportsmen’s groups paid attention to the race to ensure they will continue to have access to public lands for hunting, fishing and recreation.

They want to make sure those lands are managed so wildlife habitat is protected.

Farmers and ranchers also paid attention, along with renewable energy developers and representatives of the oil and natural gas industry, which contributes about 95 percent of the land office’s revenues through leases, rents and royalties.

In the last quarter, the office reported earnings of $114 million, including $107 million from oil and gas.

Most revenue generated by the land office goes to trust beneficiaries, including public schools, seven universities, New Mexico Military Institute, New Mexico School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, New Mexico School for the Deaf, three hospitals, correctional facilities, water projects and public building repair and construction.

With New Mexico’s continuing budget problems, a slumping economy and volatile commodity prices, the next land commissioner can look to renewable energy and other development besides leveraging the state’s oil and gas resources.