Election changes face of New Mexico Legislature; dates remain uncertain
LAS CRUCES - The New Mexico Senate of the next four years will be much younger and less experienced as a result of the 2020 elections.
Departing senators John Arthur Smith, D-Deming (32 years); William Payne, R-Albuquerque (24 years); Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces (20 years) and Richard Martinez, D-Espanola (20 years) have a combined 96 years serving in the Senate.
They also hold some of the Senate’s top leadership positions. Papen is president pro tem. Smith is chairman of the Finance Committee. They were both defeated in the Democratic primary election.
Martinez had been chairman of the Judiciary Committee but was stripped of that position following a conviction for drunken driving. Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, was named chairman prior to last year’s session. Martinez lost in the primary election.
Papen and Smith were both targeted for primary challenges by progressive groups, as was Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants. Those groups were frustrated by the Senate’s rejection of several bills passed by the House in the last two years, including those tapping into the permanent fund for early childhood education and rescinding an existing law outlawing abortion.
The strategy backfired in two races when the more progressive Democratic challengers were beaten in the general election. Republican Joshua Sanchez claimed the seat that had been held by Clemente Sanchez. And in District 35, Crystal Diamond won a seat that had been held by Democrats from Deming for more than six decades.
Smith has represented the district since his first win in 1988. Before that, Ike Smalley had held the seat for 32 years.
Neomi Martinez Parra, a former vice-chairman of the state Democratic Party, beat Smith in the primary but lost to Diamond in the general election.
Papen’s seat remained in Democrats’ hands. Carrie Hamblen defeated Republican Charles Wendler in the general election after ousting Papen in the primary.
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Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, said experience isn’t always a positive. The new members have different life experiences and bring a sense of idealism to the Senate, he said.
“People who have been there a long time tend to get attached to doing things the way they’ve always been done,” Steinborn said.
Electing a new president pro tem will be one of the first items on the agenda when the Senate meets in January. The session is scheduled to begin Jan. 19, however it remains unclear whether it might be delayed. Republican Party leaders are advocating for a delay, while Democratic Party leaders are hoping the session begins as scheduled.
According to Santa Fe journalist Joe Monahan, Sens. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas; Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque; Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque; Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque; and Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, are all in the running.
Committee chairmanships, including the new head of the Finance Committee, will be picked within the Democratic caucus.
Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, said he is concerned that with the new makeup of the Senate, Republican members may lose their ability to be an effective opposition.
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“When one side has all the power, I’m worried that more people will put out bad legislation with good intentions,” Soules said. “That’s going to make me more hypervigilant.”
Other Senate veterans losing or vacating seats this year include John Sapien, D-Corrales, and Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, who have both served for 12 years.
Five flips in Senate
Five seats were flipped in the Senate, two going for Republicans and three for Democrats.
Both Republican gains came after successful Primary challenges to oust Smith and Clemente Sanchez.
Eric Griego of the New Mexico Working People’s Party was one of the leaders in the effort to unseat the veteran lawmakers. In an interview shortly after the primary, he blamed Smith and Papen for the budget problems legislators will face this session, pointing to a corporate tax cut passed under Gov. Susana Martinez.
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“Our leaders, led by Sen. Smith, gave a $500 million tax cut and blew a $500 million hole in our budget,” Griego said. “And that really made us more reliant on oil and gas.”
He added that Smith has led the opposition to efforts by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and others to tap into the Land Grant Permanent Fund to bolster early childhood programs.
Martinez Parra defeated Smith in the primary but lost to Diamond by more than 3,000 votes in the general election.
Democrats made up for those losses by flipping seats in districts 10, 20 and 23.
In District 10, incumbent Candace Gould, R-Albuquerque, was defeated by Democrat Katy Duhigg. District 20 is the seat Payne has held since his first win in 1996. His decision to step down opened the door for Democrat Martin Hickey to win the seat. In District 23, Rue lost the seat he has held for three terms to Democrat Harold James Pope Jr.
Other new members of the Senate are Brenda Grace McKenna, D, in District 9; Gregg Schmedes, R, in District 19 and Siah Correa Hemphill, D, in District 28.
Fewer changes in House
Things are much more stable in the House of Representatives, with all leaders winning re-election and the vast majority of incumbents returning.
Only one seat was flipped from blue to red this year in the House. Luis Terrazas, a Republican business owner from Silver City, defeated incumbent Rudy Martinez in House District 39, which stretches from Silver City to Doña Ana County. The seat has gone back and forth in recent years. Republican John Zimmerman of Las Cruces was elected in 2014, the year when Republicans gained control of the House. Martinez held the seat 2007-14 and since 2017.
Republicans almost gained the seat in Doña Ana County’s District 53. Numbers posted on election night showed Republican Ricky Little ahead by seven votes. But late ballots put Democrat Willie Madrid over the top by 33 votes. The outcome won’t be certain until after a recount.
The House will have its second Independent in recent years, following the victory of Brittany Barreras in Albuquerque’s District 12. Democratic incumbent Art De La Cruz ran as a write-in candidate, but recorded no votes, according to the Secretary of State’s website. Barreras said she plans to work with members from both parties.
She will be the first Independent since 2011, when Rep. Andy Nuñez of Hatch changed his party affiliation from Democratic to Independent following a dispute with former Speaker Ben Lujan. Nuñez would later change to Republican.
In southeast New Mexico, Rep. David Garcia, R-Eunice, gave up his District 61 House seat to challenge Gregg Fulfer, R-Jal, in the Republican Primary for the Senate seat in District 41. Fulfer had been appointed by former Gov. Susana Martinez to replace former Sen. Carroll Leavell, who was first elected to the Senate in 1996.
Garcia beat Fulfer in the primary to win the Senate seat. Republican Randall Pettigrew was uncontested for the District 61 House seat.
Other new members include Democrats Meredith Dixon, District 20; Roger Evan Montoya, District 40; Kristina Ortiz, District 42 and Ambrose Castellano, District 70. Republican new members are T. Ryan Lane, District 3; Stefani Lord, District 22 and Joshua Hernandez, District 60.
Dixon replaced Abbas Akhil, who was the state’s first Muslim member of the Legislature. He stepped down to have more time to spend with his grandchildren.
Plans for how to conduct a legislative session during a raging pandemic are still in flux, but it won’t be business as usual, said Rep. Ray Lara, D-Chamberino. He said that on a typical day during a normal session, about 4,000 people will pass through the building.
Everybody will have to be there on opening day to be sworn in, but after that, it’s still undecided, he said. One option would be to simply pass the budget and then adjourn and come back in the spring or summer. Another option is to have a hybrid model, with some legislators participating in person, and others virtually.
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Soules said they are considering using the Santa Fe Convention Center for committee meetings. It’s about a 15-minute walk and would make for a real challenge in the final days when lawmakers typically hustle from floor sessions to committee meetings, he said.
Republicans have objected to that plan, saying the session should be put off until the spring.
“Democrat leaders and the governor have insisted we close churches, schools and every other facet of our lives during this pandemic,” Minority Floor Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, said in a press release. “For legislators to then convene in January is disrespectful to the public, who will certainly be excluded from attending committee hearings or lobbying their elected officials in person.”
Discussions are continuing.
Walter Rubel can be reached at email@example.com.