Former U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson, a fixture in New Mexico politics for nearly two decades, is headed for the Black Hills to become president of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.
After five terms representing Albuquerque as a Republican in the U.S. House and bids for a seat in the U.S. Senate in 2008 and 2012, Wilson said she is turning the page on her New Mexico political career with the transition to higher education.
The South Dakota college announced her hiring Thursday.
“I’m starting a new chapter of my life,” Wilson, 52, told the Journal.
“I’ve always expected at some point in my life I’d devote my full energies to higher education, and the fit (at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology) is just very good,” she said.
Earlier this month, Wilson – an Air Force Academy graduate and Rhodes scholar with a Ph.D. in international relations – was named as one of four finalists for the position. She was the only woman and only finalist not currently working in higher education.
Wilson said she was “proud to be the newest Hardrocker,” using the nickname for the school’s athletic teams.
University regents on Thursday praised Wilson’s leadership skills and Washington, D.C., connections as key factors in their hiring decision.
“At a time when higher education increasingly must make its case for more external funding and sustained research support from the federal and private sectors, our search committee took particular note of Dr. Wilson’s Capitol Hill experience, as well as her connections to decision-makers in Washington and throughout the scientific research community,” said Regent Terry Baloun, chairman of the university’s presidential search committee. “We are excited to have her join our team.”
Wilson succeeds President Robert Wharton, who died in September while in office.
The South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, with a student population of about 2,400, is located in Rapid City in the state’s Black Hills region. Wilson is scheduled to start the job June 17.
Wilson’s husband, Jay Hone, works as a lawyer with New Mexico’s General Services Department. They have two children; Joshua, 20, and Caitlin, 16. Wilson said the family is “still working” on plans to transition to South Dakota.
Asked whether the South Dakota job means a permanent departure from New Mexico, Wilson said, “This is more about growing new friendships, not leaving old ones. … If I’m able to develop half as many friends in South Dakota as I have in New Mexico, I will be living a blessed life.”
Gov. Susana Martinez, who tapped Wilson to lead her gubernatorial transition team after Martinez’s 2010 election, called Wilson “a strong advocate for New Mexico.” She praised Wilson’s record in Congress and service in state government as a Cabinet secretary for the Children, Youth and Families Department under Gov. Gary Johnson.
“I was proud to hear that Heather will take on this important new role,” Martinez said. “She is uniquely qualified for this position in higher education and the school will benefit greatly from her intellect, her skills, and her tenacity.”
Former Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., a political mentor for Wilson, said, “Clearly they have picked a terrific president. She has been extremely desirous to be more involved in higher education, and I think this will give her a chance. She will, in my opinion, shine.”
During the 2012 Senate campaign against then-Democratic Rep. Martin Heinrich, Wilson was regarded by national Republicans as a top-tier candidate capable of winning the seat held for 30 years by Democrat Jeff Bingaman. But national Republican groups pulled their financial support for Wilson after early polls suggested she trailed Heinrich by too large of a margin.
Four years earlier, Wilson, a moderate Republican, lost the primary election to succeed Domenici to the more conservative Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M.
Pearce went on to lose to then-Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., by 22 points. Wilson, four years later, lost to Heinrich by 6 points in a general election with President Barack Obama topping the ballot in his bid for a second term.
Longtime New Mexico political analyst Brian Sanderoff said Wilson’s move to an out-of-state university is logical after her recent political struggles in New Mexico.
“It’s not surprising that she would try her hand elsewhere, given her last two electoral defeats,” Sanderoff said.
“She had a long, successful career and then she reached a political brick wall when she ran for statewide office twice,” he said.
John Billingsley, chairman of the New Mexico Republican Party, said Wilson will be missed in New Mexico.
“We wish her the best, and we know that she will make New Mexico proud,” Billingsley said. “We are extremely grateful for her years of service and her commitment to improving our state.”
Wilson reaffirmed Thursday that she has no plans to return to elected office.
“I’ve already ruled that out,” Wilson said. “I’ve done my time in elected office, and I’ve been released on good behavior.”
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal