Private caucus meetings direct flow of Legislature

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The 2017 Legislative Session starts Tuesday at the Roundhouse in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – It can happen a couple of times a day, or just a few times a whole session.

Legislators of the same party and chamber – Democrats in the Senate, say – will disappear into a committee room or lounge at the Roundhouse to talk strategy, leadership and legislation.

The meetings are private, and lawmakers keep the contents confidential.

But Democrats and Republicans alike say caucus meetings are an important part of the legislative process.

“It’s a safe place for us to have candid conversations,” Rep. Deborah Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, said.

Republican Rep. Monica Youngblood, also of Albuquerque, said caucus meetings are “kind of like halftime.” It’s a chance, she said, to make “sure our team is together.”

The private meetings have played an important role in this year’s session. Senate Democrats, for example, met the night before the session to pick a new majority whip – a position that involves counting votes and helping the majority leader run floor sessions.

Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, won the election, prompting criticism that Senate Democrats now have an all-white leadership team. The previous whip, Michael Padilla, also an Albuquerque Democrat, lost his title during a December caucus meeting after decade-old allegations of sexual harassment resurfaced. Padilla denies the allegations, which predate his tenure in the Senate.

A bipartisan coalition of senators subsequently announced the formation of a Legislative Hispanic Caucus, open to any lawmaker, regardless of ethnicity.

‘Candid’ meetings

State lawmakers won’t say specifically what they talk about behind closed doors.

But the words “frank” and “candid” come up often. The meetings can be a way to work through policy or other disagreements.

They aren’t subject to the state Open Meetings Act, which has a specific exception for “a caucus of a political party.” Other legislative meetings are typically open to the public, with video of the proceedings posted online.

“The caucuses provide legislators an opportunity to come together and have frank, important conversations,” said Sen. Jacob Candelaria, an Albuquerque Democrat who serves as chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus.

“There have been some really challenging and important questions that the entire Legislature has had to face regarding sexual harassment,” he said. “We’ve had two leadership elections. (The caucus) played an important role in facilitating those discussions.”

Legislative leaders adopted a new anti-harassment policy ahead of this year’s session, and lawmakers were required to attend training.

Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Logan, said caucus meetings are an important way to share information, especially between leadership and rank-and-file members. House Republican Leader Nate Gentry, for example, might take the floor in a caucus meeting to provide an update on negotiations with House Democrats or the governor on budget matters, Roch said.

Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell of Roswell presides over the meetings as chairwoman of the House Republican caucus.

“We’re very candid, but that doesn’t mean it’s a free for all,” Roch said.

‘Complicated business’

Former Sen. Dede Feldman, who wrote a book called “Inside the New Mexico Senate,” said the importance of caucus meetings can vary, depending on what the Senate majority leader wants.

At one point, there weren’t any meetings at all – because of hard feelings over the ouster of then-Senate President Pro Tem Manny Aragon, who lost the position in 2001 after three fellow Democrats joined 18 Republicans to oust him from the job. Aragon later became Senate majority leader.

“The caucuses were so divisive after that, they didn’t meet,” Feldman said, “or they were so unpleasant, people just didn’t want to go anymore.”

Caucus meetings can sometimes play a role in bargaining.

Feldman, an Albuquerque Democrat who served from 1997-2012, offered this example: A senator might say in caucus that he can’t support a certain bill if it reaches the Senate floor, giving him leverage to negotiate for something else he wants in return for support – perhaps capital money for his district.

“It’s a very complicated business,” Feldman said.

The majority leader may also use votes taken in caucus to gauge what bills have enough support to pass, influencing when he or she calls the legislation up for a vote during a floor session. Sometimes the caucus votes are taken by show of hands, sometimes with secret ballots, she said.

There can also be some arm-twisting and pressure to unite against, say, the other chamber or the governor.

But often, the meetings are just for information-gathering – hearing presentations from staffers, talking about priorities, for example.

“It’s very fraternal,” Feldman said. “It can be very heated and very passionate. It can be very boring and sleep-inducing.”

Behind the scenes

No one will say precisely what has happened in caucus this session.

But caucus meetings may have played a role in the Legislature’s quick passage of a bill allowing New Mexico to adopt a multi-state compact for nurse licensing.

The measure was amended in a committee meeting one morning, over the objection of the sponsor. Then, after committee, Senate Democrats and Republicans met in separate caucus meetings before the bill hit the floor for a final Senate vote later that day.

At that stage, the amendment was removed, and senators passed the bill without changes, with an agreement to consider potential changes in separate legislation altogether.

A behind-the-scenes caucus discussion may have played a role in the quick action, which sponsors said was necessary to meet a deadline to ensure nurses licensed elsewhere could continue practicing in New Mexico.

The caucus “is an opportunity for the members to discuss issues and ideas and work through disagreements we may have,” Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said in an interview, speaking generally.

Roch said the meetings also help build camaraderie.

“We’re all up here, we’re away from our families and doing this for no pay,” he said, “so we share frustrations and joys. We’re all in this boat together.”

That doesn’t mean everyone’s always eager for yet another meeting.

Roch joked about the case of a lawmaker who switched his party affiliation from Democrat to independent. Lawmakers asked him which caucus meetings he’d start going to.

“He says, ‘I’m going to the Rio Chama caucus,’ and then we all envied him for just a moment,” Roch said, breaking into laughter.

Rio Chama, of course, is a steak house almost adjacent to the Roundhouse.

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