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Career Issue: California representative had his start at UNM

Democrat Jerry McNerney is a United States Congressman, currently serving California’s 9th District, which includes parts of the East Bay area and Central Valley. He is also an engineer and, perhaps most interestingly, a University of New Mexico alum.

McNerney earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UNM, culminating with a Ph.D. in 1981. Each of his degrees were in mathematics.

His road to becoming a representative was a long and often unpredictable journey.

Spending his early years growing up in Albuquerque, McNerney moved to Kansas to attend St. Joseph’s Military Academy. Upon graduation, he was accepted into the United States Military Academy at West Point.

He left after only two years, due to his disapproval of the Vietnam War. He said he felt great discomfort in being an officer in a war he so fundamentally opposed.

“The Vietnam War made it clear to me that, as an officer, you’d be expected to lead soldiers into any war that the country undertook,” McNerney said. “I couldn’t see myself leading American soldiers into a war that I disagreed with, so it wasn’t for me.”

After returning to New Mexico, McNerney started attending UNM. He initially studied chemical engineering, but soon found his love for mathematics.

“I like looking at things in a logical way,” he said.

UNM is also where McNerney met his wife, Mary, who was studying nursing at the time.

After graduating, he started working at Sandia Labs — a job he said he got thanks, in part, to the connections he made while studying chemical engineering.

Eventually, McNerney started working with wind energy, which is what led him to move to California, where he would one day run for a seat in the United States House of Representatives.

He said he attributes his initial run in 2004 to the constant encouragement of his son. After Sept. 11, his son decided to join the Air Force, and it was this sacrifice that inspired McNerney to also become a public servant.

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“(My son) said, ‘I’m serving the country, and I want you to serve the country by running for Congress,’” McNerney said.

Even though he subsequently lost that election, that did not discourage him from running for the seat again in 2006. This time he faced a difficult primary opponent, Steve Filson, who had received the backing of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Despite this, McNerney easily won the primary, winning 34 percent more votes than Filson. In the general election, he defeated the Republican Incumbent Richard Pombo to win the seat, which McNerney has maintained control of ever since.

McNerney said he recommends that aspiring politicians diversify their interests beyond just the realm of politics.

“You always have to have something to offer people that they find interesting and inspiring,” he said. “In my case, it was mathematics and wind energy.”

McNerney last visited UNM two years ago, and he said that while the campus remained relatively the same, Albuquerque as a whole had changed quite a bit.

“The freeways look different (and) there’s a lot more color in the public works, so I really appreciated that,” he said.

When asked what his favorite spots on campus were, McNerney said Smith Plaza and Frontier Restaurant were some of his favorites, showing that today’s UNM students may not differ greatly from those that attended the University generations ago.

While McNerney has no plans on moving back to Albuquerque any time soon, he did say that there is plenty about the city he does miss.

“Everything is accessible…It’s all there for you,” he said.

Kyle Land is a news editor for the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at or on Twitter @kyleoftheland.

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