Freshman senators from southwest New Mexico reflect on first legislative session

Algernon D'Ammassa
Las Cruces Sun-News
From left: New Mexico State Sens. Siah Correa Hemphill, D-Silver City, and Crystal Diamond, R-Elephant Butte

DEMING – During the winter legislative session in Santa Fe, state lawmakers unanimously approved a new rural equity ombudsman position to serve as a liaison between rural communities and the governor’s office, Legislature, state agencies and local governments and nonprofit organizations.

Both of the bill's sponsors in the Senate — Democrat Siah Correa Hemphill of Silver City and Republican Crystal Diamond of Elephant Butte — were among the freshman class of New Mexico lawmakers in a year when women hold a majority of seats in the House and a record high number of seats in the Senate as well. 

One of the bill's House sponsors, state Rep. Luis Terrazas, R-Silver City, was a newcomer to the Roundhouse as well. 

Correa Hemphill and Diamond each reflected this week on their first months in the state Senate, in a peculiar year that included a two-day special session closely following the regular 60-day session, all taking place in a Capitol building closed to the public due to the COVID-19 public health emergency. 

Both senators serve on the Senate Finance Committee, which was previously chaired by Diamond's predecessor, former Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming. Diamond ran for the District 35 seat on a promise to emulate Smith's fiscal conservatism after he was defeated in the Democratic primary

Their southwestern New Mexico districts intertwine. Diamond's includes all of Hidalgo, Luna and Sierra counties with a swath of Doña Ana as well. Senate District 28, represented by Correa Hemphill, encompasses Grant and Catron counties plus most of Socorro County.

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Correa Hemphill described her first months in New Mexico's part-time volunteer Legislature as both a reassuring and lonely experience. 

"There's much more agreement and cooperation than I think the public is really privy to," she said. "I have way more respect for the way that our government works, and respect for the people who are making our laws, after being present and seeing people in person, watching how respectful people are to each other." 

Yet the partially virtual session, including committee meetings conducted via video conference, kept her in front of computer screens for 12 hours or longer at a time, simultaneously isolating her from colleagues and her own family. 

A man walks on the second floor of the New Mexico State Capitol building while emergency medical technicians wait to administer COVID-19 tests on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021, in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Diamond, who entered the body as part of the Republican minority, was pleased that her capital outlay requests were all approved along with funds for new body armor and other assets for law enforcement agencies in her district.

However, she also said the closed Capitol created disadvantages for her and her GOP colleagues while also inhibiting lawmakers' access to the advice of lobbyists and the rest of the citizenry.

Session was 'an IT nightmare' 

Echoing comments she made at the beginning of the session, Diamond said closing the Roundhouse to the public was "a great disservice to New Mexicans because they were really left out of this legislative process."

It also demonstrated the state's urban-rural divide when it came to internet service required to participate or watch the proceedings, she said: "I come from a district in which most of my constituents do not have access. It completely left out a population of New Mexico, specifically in the rural areas," while occasional outages in the Santa Fe area affected constituents and the lawmakers themselves. 

The result, she said, was "an IT nightmare" that distracted legislators and limited the public's input into the process. Further, she suggested that led to a bias in favor of moving the most progressive bills, and those aligned with Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's priorities, through the process more quickly.

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New Mexico Sen. Crystal Diamond, R-Elephant Butte, speaks on the floor of the state Senate on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021, as seen in the New Mexico legislature's webcast. Diamond was among several Republicans objecting to a committee report which included a "do pass" recommending for S.B. 10, a bill repealing New Mexico's statutory ban on abortion.

Nonetheless, Diamond said she supports maintaining video conferencing as part of the committee process as an alternative to driving to Santa Fe for constituents to offer comments on legislation. 

Bipartisanship and sexism at Capitol

As reported by the Southern New Mexico Journalism Collaborative, 60 out of 159 bills and joint resolutions passed by the Legislature did so unanimously

"Relationship building has always been a priority for me," Correa Hemphill said. "Getting to work with some of the Republican senators was probably the highlight of the session for me, because one of my goals is just to be able to model how to work respectfully with others who you may not agree with on all the issues … and still value each other as human beings and members of the community." 

Yet there were contentious bills, such as the repeal of New Mexico's unenforceable abortion ban, cannabis legalization, a civil rights bill excluding qualified immunity defenses shielding law enforcement officers, paid sick leave requirements and an end-of-life options bill

There were also allegations of racist and sexist bias, and a heated argument on the Senate floor between two Albuquerque Democrats — Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart and Daniel Ivey-Soto — in which Stewart and some colleagues alleged Ivey-Soto was bullying his female colleague. 

Diamond did not take that view, saying that Republican and Democratic males among lawmakers and staff all treated her with dignity and respect. 

"As women, we need to be very careful about classifying debate from a man as abuse. We fought for too many decades to have equal opportunities," she said, adding that in her view Ivey-Soto "debates us in the same manner as he debates male colleagues. That is true equality." 

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Moreover, Diamond pointed to a disconnect between decorum on the Senate floor and campaign mudslinging.

During the 2020 campaign, Diamond was herself the focus of campaign mailers distributed by a Democratically-aligned PAC listing Stewart as its treasurer.

"The decorum of the Senate is defined before we arrive in Santa Fe," Diamond said, adding it was "ironic" that Stewart "spearheaded some of the ugliest and nastiest campaigns based on misleading information and in many cases flat out lies against people that she now immediately has to serve with in the senate."

New Mexico state Sen. Siah Correa Hemphill, D-Silver City, presents legislation on the floor of the New Mexico Senate on Tuesday, March 30, 2021.

Correa Hemphill, who also faced negative campaign attacks last year, said she "never had any negative experiences with any of the male senators or legislators."

"When people are tired and we're discussing challenging issues that we may not agree on, there's always room for growth and for learning new skills … to have those discussions in the most helpful way possible," she continued. "Ultimately, as senators whose behavior is being observed by thousands of other people, it's our responsibility to model how to do that." 

Senators vow to collaborate

In Diamond's analysis, partisan politics "really came into play" with the Cannabis Regulation Act that passed on March 31 — the end of a two-day special session called by the governor after the regular session ended without consensus on a cannabis bill. 

The result, she said, was pressure to pass a bill authored by House Democrats that some Republicans and some Democrats, such as Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph Cervantes of Las Cruces, argued was not ready

"We're going to be fixing that bill for a while," Diamond said, arguing that with more time lawmakers could have arrived at a bipartisan approach to legalization, given that the body will meet anyway in the fall to work on legislative redistricting. 

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The American flag is reflected in a window of the Roundhouse, New Mexico's capitol building in Santa Fe, on Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021.

Both senators expressed confidence that Republicans and Democrats can craft policy together, and that the two of them would continue to work together on behalf of southern New Mexico.

Addressing her own next priorities, Correa Hemphill said, "We're going to have a lot of work to do just helping children transition back into the school setting, back into a typical routine, and working with parents. … As we move forward, I really want to advocate for mental health support in our communities, especially our rural communities, where it's an even larger challenge."

Correa Hemphill said Diamond was "just a genuinely wonderful person — very kind and thoughtful and brilliant. She was really on top of things and I learned a lot working with her." 

While the two disagreed on some proposals, Diamond commended her Silver City colleague for her "open-door policy" and willingness to work on solutions beneficial to both their districts, so "we're not creating circumstances in which we compete against each other, but we all work for each other, with each other." 

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Algernon D'Ammassa can be reached at 575-541-5451, adammassa@lcsun-news.com or @AlgernonWrites on Twitter.