Clint Harden feels a primary challenge for his New Mexico Senate seat was engineered by Gov. Susana Martinez, who denies the charge.
"It was my decision," Harden said this week, speaking in depth about his decision to leave the Senate for the first time since his announcement on Feb. 18.
"Had I decided to run, I'd have been successful," he said. "It just wasn't worth it anymore to me. I loved the constituent service. I enjoy helping the people, but I did not enjoy the political aspects. I don't like hyper-partisanship. I never have."
Harden said District Attorney Matt Chandler called him two days before the legislative session ended. Harden said Chandler told him he was planning to endorse Republican Angie Spears, a clinical director for TeamBuilders Counseling in Clovis, in the 2012 race for Harden's Senate seat.
Harden said Chandler also told him a conference call had taken place involving Chandler, Gov. Martinez, Spears, Public Regulation Commission Chair Pat Lyons and former state Rep. Brian Moore, and all had agreed to endorse Spears.
Chandler and the others alleged to have been on the conference call all on Tuesday denied such a call ever took place.
Other than Chandler noting family ties in the race, Harden said, he was not given a reason why he was being primaried (challenged).
Chandler confirmed he told Harden that he would endorse Spears, but Chandler had a different account of his phone call to Harden. He said the call was placed in response to text messages from Harden, who saw a Twitter feed about Spears running.
Chandler said he has endorsed Spears, his wife's cousin.
"I've known Angie nearly my entire life, and I stand by her as a candidate," Chandler said. "Speaking as a Republican, I believe she's an extremely conservative candidate that has what it takes to shake up the status quo in Santa Fe and move the state forward, which is what I told Sen. Harden in our discussion.
"I believe Sen. Harden served this area extremely well. He did all that he could for the constituents of this area."
Lyons, a former state senator and land commissioner, also said he's had no meetings with Martinez about the matter.
"I'm still waiting for phone calls (from the governor) from the first session she ran in 2011."
Lyons said Spears, his niece, had sought his advice on whether to run, but said no plan was in place to primary Harden.
"I told her," Lyons said, "any time after redistricting is a good time to run."
Moore said he was never part of any such call, and that he only endorsed Spears after Harden had announced his retirement. Martinez spokesperson Jay McCleskey said that no such meetings took place in person, or over the phone.
"Governor Martinez respects and appreciates Sen. Harden's service to the state, but has always acknowledged that they have had honest disagreements on issues," McCleskey said. "For example, Sen. Harden was one of two Republican senators who voted for the 2003 law that gave driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, Harden aggressively supported a $128 million tax increase that Gov. Martinez strongly opposed and vetoed, and Harden was the only Republican senator who sided with labor unions and against the governor on education reform."
Harden said he ultimately decided he didn't want to get into a primary battle. A year earlier, he and his wife Kathy discussed whether he'd seek a fourth term. The decision was that Harden would run in a contested general election, but not in a contested primary.
"When the leadership of the party decides they want someone else," Harden said, "you start to wonder if it's time to get the gold watch, maybe."
Spears is running against Curry County rancher Pat Woods in the June 5 primary. The winner faces no challenger in the general election. Harden said he is endorsing Woods, but that he did not recruit anyone to run against Spears.
Likewise, Martinez denies recruiting Spears.
"Gov. Martinez did not recruit Angie Spears," McCleskey said, "but when Sen. Harden announced he was not running for re-election, Gov. Martinez endorsed Spears, because she is confident Spears will fight for the reforms New Mexicans deserve."
Harden had previously declined to answer questions about the matter, but said Tuesday he can't escape the issue.
"It continues to come up," Harden said. "People ask me about it, what happened. So there, that's what happened. This environment has divided the Republican Party in Curry County and it has divided our community."
Curry County Republican Party Chairman Rube Render said he was out of state and first heard of the primary challenge through Harden. He said he was no part of any meetings about the seat.
"Was there a line of people outside of my office saying, 'We need to get rid of Clint Harden'? No," Render said.
He did agree with Harden's take that the race is having an effect on the local party.
"Anytime you have somebody who decides to primary a sitting senator," Render said, "who is endorsed by the governor and funded by the governor, that's going to create some interesting dynamics in the county."