Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – State Senate Majority Whip Michael Padilla dropped out of the race for lieutenant governor Monday – following criticism over sexual harassment allegations lodged against him a decade ago.
In particular, Padilla has been singled out by fellow Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham, a U.S. congresswoman running for governor.
She called on Padilla last month to end his campaign for lieutenant governor because of claims that he’d harassed women while working as a supervisor for the city of Albuquerque. The two would have paired them on the same ticket, if they’d each won their races.
Padilla has repeatedly denied the harassment allegations, and he said no one has made a similar accusation against him since he left his city job in 2007.
But “I do not want to be a distraction as we come together as New Mexicans to solve this unacceptable workplace issue,” he said in a written statement Monday.
His departure from the race comes as sexual harassment allegations shake up statehouses and political campaigns across the country. In New Mexico, women who work at the Roundhouse have described an environment filled with inappropriate comments, unwanted touching, leering looks and sexual propositions.
The allegations against Padilla, however, stem from his time trying to overhaul the 911 call center in Albuquerque – years before he won election to the state Senate in 2012.
Padilla, a Democrat, represents the South Valley and was elected majority whip in the Senate last year.
A city investigation in 2007 determined that Padilla had repeatedly asked a dispatcher out on dates and at one point told some of the women who worked at the center that “it may be 2006 out here, but in my house, it’s 1969 and the women make tortillas, take care of the kids and clean the house,” according to Journal articles at the time.
Padilla said he would never say such a thing. The allegations arose out of his efforts to improve the 911 center, he said, a stressful job that naturally made some employees unhappy.
“I accept full responsibility for making too many changes too fast at the 911 communications center in Albuquerque in 2006, which made the work environment too stressful,” he said.
Padilla’s withdrawal shakes up the campaign for lieutenant governor. He had raised more money than any other candidate in the race, and he was coming off a round of national publicity over his successful push to ban “lunch shaming” in New Mexico.
Padilla, who grew up in foster homes, shared personal stories about knowing what it’s like to go to school hungry. His legislation bans schools from publicly identifying or stigmatizing students whose parents don’t pay their cafeteria bills.
Four candidates remain in the race – Doña Ana County Commissioner Billy Garrett; former state Rep. Rick Miera of Albuquerque; Eagle Nest resident Jeff Carr, a former member of the Public Education Commission; and David McTeigue of Rio Rancho, a juvenile probation officer.
State Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, said Monday that he is considering whether to enter the race.
Padilla didn’t answer questions about whether he would resign from the Legislature or give up his leadership post, as some critics have said he should.
His decision came as Democratic activists said they were planning to gather outside the state Democratic Party headquarters today to call for his campaign to end.
Earlier Monday, state Rep. Kelly Fajardo asked top staffers at the Legislature to explain how they handled at least three reports of sexual harassment – including a 2016 email that included allegations against Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales. Fajardo and other lawmakers are also pushing for the Legislature to toughen its anti-sexual harassment policy.
In a two-page letter, Fajardo, a Belen Republican, asked the directors of the Legislative Council Service and Legislative Education Study Committee to respond by Dec. 15.
She asked about three reports of sexual harassment revealed in Journal articles. Two of the reports were formal sexual harassment complaints involving maintenance staffers at the Capitol.
The third, however, was a letter emailed to top staffers last year – when an outgoing legislative official said someone with a national nonprofit group had alleged sexual harassment by Sapien.
The nonprofit staff member, according to the email, said Sapien had tried to get her to meet him alone for drinks when she asked to discuss legislative business – overtures she took as sexual advances.
Sapien on Monday called it a “false allegation by a disgruntled employee,” referring to the outgoing legislative official. He said it’s his understanding that legislative officials followed up on the email to evaluate the claims.
“There was not a credible allegation that this took place,” Sapien said.
He also pointed out that the letter was sent last year – when he faced a tough re-election race against a Republican challenger – even though the alleged incidents happened earlier.
The emailed letter wasn’t one of the complaints revealed to the Journal in response to a request under the state Inspection of Public Records Act. The Journal obtained the letter on its own.
“Clearly,” Fajardo said in written statement Monday, “there has been a breakdown in the system, and I am troubled that complaints may have been filed but not pursued. I want a detailed accounting of how these complaints were handled so we can evaluate the weaknesses of our current process and make the appropriate changes.”
In a letter responding to Fajardo’s request, legislative officials said Monday that they are still reviewing what information they can release. They said they aren’t sure how one of their predecessors handled the initial report about Sapien, but noted that the woman involved said she didn’t want to pursue the matter. They took appropriate action when learning later of the concern, they said.
“We want to assure you that we take allegations of sexual harassment or any harassment seriously and do not avoid addressing them,” Raul Burciaga, director of the Legislative Council Service, and Rachel Gudgel, director of the Legislative Education Study Committee, said in the letter. “We have not swept the issues you referenced under the rug.”
Journal Capitol Bureau Chief Dan Boyd contributed to this article.