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Héctor Balderas: the attorney general in cowboy boots who battles corruption in New Mexico

Seeking social justice, this lawyer left behind private practice to enter politics. Though some have rumored he may run for governor of this southern state in 2018, his future plans are not yet clear.
6 Oct 2016 – 12:31 PM EDT

When Héctor Balderas was elected as New Mexico's attorney general in 2014, he received more votes out of any candidate running for statewide office that year.

It was a decisive victory for Balderas, a longtime Democrat who had served as state representative and auditor. He even managed to get more total votes than the state’s popular Republican governor, Susana Martínez, whose landslide victory for reelection was against the man Balderas would replace.

Since his election, Balderas has grown a reputation as a determined force against public corruption, raising an impressive public profile that has some wondering whether he could become the next governor of New Mexico. As state attorney general, he has taken on heavyweights like the former New Mexico secretary of state, a former senator from his own Democratic Party and even a billionaire pharmaceutical company.

“I am focused on protecting all New Mexicans, regardless of race, color, creed,” Balderas, 42, says recently as he sits in his Albuquerque office, wearing a suit coat and cowboy boots. “It doesn't matter if they're poor or rich, we want to protect every New Mexican.”

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Latinos in Power: The attorney general in cowboy boots who battles corruption in New Mexico

Like nearly half the population of New Mexico, Balderas identifies as Hispanic. He was born in Denver, Colorado, to a Mexican father and an American mother. When he was a child, his family moved to Wagon Mound, New Mexico.

“I am proud to be Latino,” he says in English, having lost most of the Spanish he learned as a kid over lack of use. “I feel very blessed to have diversity in my life.”

Behind Texas and California, New Mexico has the third largest number of Latinos in elected positions in the United States, according to Univision News analysis of data provided by the National Association of Latino Elected Officials. Most of them work in municipal offices, though some—like Martínez, the first Latina state governor in U.S. history—have made a name for themselves on the national stage.

Balderas grew up in public housing, raised by a single mother who fought to care for her three children in a town that had no medical services. “I’ve become strong in many ways,” he says.

After attending the University of New Mexico School of Law, he served as an assistant district attorney and a special prosecutor for domestic violence cases. Then he made the jump to politics in 2004, winning a seat in the New Mexico House of Representatives as a Democrat.

Balderas insists that he jumped from private law to politics with a single goal: to “fight for justice” in a state ranked fourth in the nation for violent crime, according to data from the FBI.

He says he’s especially committed to prosecuting corruption, crimes against minors or the elderly and abuse of women.

He rarely speaks about his own wife and three children. One of his daughters, Arianna, was born with Down's Syndrome. He takes her to school every day, and to flamenco class on Fridays. “I’m very proud of her,” he says with a smile. “When you see her dancing, you realize that she’s actually keeping up with all the professional flamenco dancers. You’re taught to tell yourself she’s not supposed to do that. She’s not supposed to do that, and she is a phenomenal dancer. She is definitely the most passionate individual in our family.”

Democrat vs. Republican

Since becoming attorney general, Balderas and his office have filed charges in some 47 cases, many involving child abuse, exploitation of minors, human trafficking, money laundering and corruption.

Last year, he led a controversial and high-profile case against one of the highest-ranking Republicans in the state, Dianna Duran. Duran served as secretary of state from 2011 to 2015, and she plead guilty last year to felony counts of embezzlement.

Relations between Balderas and Duran were tense before the charges were filed in August. In February 2015 they formed a joint task force, made up of staff members from the two offices, to study campaign finance reporting and enforcement. But it quickly went sour.

Duran complained in June 2015 that Balderas had failed to file three campaign finance reports. Balderas said he had missed only one, and complained about the “integrity of the data and registries” in Duran’s office.

When Balderas filed 64 charges against Duran in August—including embezzlement, fraud, money laundering and campaign finance violations—Duran's defense attorneys submitted a motion to disqualify the attorney general and his office, arguing the charges were part of a political “vendetta” and describing their relationship as “rancorous” at times.

But Balderas stuck to the charges. “I do my job regardless of party politics,” Balderas told Univision. “My job is to make sure that we bring the evidence to a court of law before a set of jurors.”

During his interview with Univision News, Balderas notes that he’s filed charges against people from his own party: people like former state senator Phil Griego, who was accused of fraud, bribery, perjury and ethical violations.

The case against Duran, he says, was prepared by a team that included himself, four prosecutors and six special agents. They all decided that the secretary of state illegally used campaign funds to gamble in New Mexico casinos and pay off personal debts.

Duran ultimately resigned in October 2015 and served a 30-day jail sentence. She was also ordered to return $13,866 to campaign donors, pay a $14,000 fine, perform 2,000 hours of community service and give 144 speeches on her crimes and their impact on New Mexico residents.

Duran declined requests for comment on this story.

Busting corruption in a school district

The Jemez Mountain school district, located two hours north of Albuquerque, was shocked when the news broke in May 2010 that a school district official was embezzling money from local schools.

Balderas, the state auditor at the time, was tipped off by a friend about “suspicious activities” in the handling of school district funds by business manager Kathy Borrego. “I put my auditor and my accountant on the case,” he recalls. “We were alarmed to find out that this turned into the largest public school theft in the history of New Mexico.”

The fraud had started in 2002 and ended in 2009, and was initially estimated to have cost $150,000. But that number later rose to $300,000; then to $700,000; and finally to $3.3 million. Borrego had taken more than 500 blank checks and used the money to gamble, Balderas says.

In 2010, the school administrator pleaded guilty to six charges, including fraud, tax evasion and using public funds for private ends. Just before her sentencing, she committed suicide.

Balderas describes the case as a tragedy. But he adds, “I am prepared to deal with all kind of difficulties.”

His next big case is likely to be the murder of Victoria Martens, a 10-year-old girl who was drugged, sexually abused, killed and burned in August in Albuquerque. A state senator has asked Balderas for an independent investigation to determine whether the New Mexico Department of Family Services failed to realize the child was at risk.

Balderas' political rise

On a Wednesday morning in August, Balderas walks into the gym at the Atrisco Heritage High School, in the middle of the desert in Albuquerque. Microphone in hand, he looks out to the hundreds of students clapping and waiting to hear him talk.

“I love you, guys,” the attorney general says. “You are brilliant, brilliant.”

As he starts a speech about cyberbullying, Balderas uses his own life experiences—and a little bit of Spanish—to help the kids relate to him. “When I was a mocosito like you,” he says, using Spanish endearment term for a snot-nosed kid, “I wanted a Camaro but could not afford it.”

After the speech, one of his aides snaps a photo of Balderas with some students as the gym empties out.

But despite his recent political successes, Balderas is still largely unknown in the state.

“I know he's somebody, because I remember him in a commercial,” said one Atrisco High School student. “I don't know anything about him, really nothing,” said another.

Only one of the university students said he had seen Balderas' face on a poster.

“Unfortunately, young people and average citizens today know more about their NFL football teams or their TV shows than the institutions that are really deciding important decisions in their lives,” he says. “That’s one of the challenges that I’m trying to be more a positive solution for.”

Balderas will serve as attorney general until 2019, but he may set his sights further. Asked if he'll run for governor, he replied: “I don’t have a good answer for you yet on that."