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NM Democratic Party chairman abruptly resigns

Richard Ellenberg

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Under pressure from top state elected officials due to his response to two recent sexual misconduct claims, New Mexico Democratic Party Chairman Richard Ellenberg abruptly resigned from his post Tuesday.

His resignation came just three days after Democrats held their 2018 pre-primary convention in Albuquerque, and it leaves the party facing leadership questions with less than three months before the June 5 primary election.

“I regret the way in which I have managed complaints of survivors who have come forward about sexual harassment, and take full responsibility to continue to learn and grow so that I can be an advocate and ally in the future,” Ellenberg wrote in a memo to Democratic state central committee members.

Ellenberg had come under criticism for his response to sexual misconduct allegations levied against prominent state union leader Jon Hendry and former Doña Ana County Commissioner John Vasquez.

Earlier this week, Ellenberg told the Santa Fe New Mexican that claims by a former union employee that Hendry has harassed her, touched her inappropriately and tried to make it difficult for her to find other work after she had been fired did not sound “credible” to him.

That comment came after the Democratic Party’s vice chairwoman, Neomi Martinez-Parra, had already taken issue with a proposal from Ellenberg that she not pursue a complaint alleging sexual misconduct against Vasquez in exchange for Vasquez stepping down from a post as chairman of the state party’s veterans’ caucus. Vasquez ultimately resigned as a county commissioner last month.

Several top-ranking New Mexico Democrats, including three members of the state’s congressional delegation, had pushed for Ellenberg’s resignation Tuesday and issued a statement shortly after it was announced.

“As Democrats, we stand with the silence-breakers who have come forward to share their stories of sexual harassment and abuse,” said the statement, issued by U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, U.S. Reps. Ben Ray Luján and Michelle Lujan Grisham, and Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver.

“Questioning the credibility of sexual misconduct allegations is contrary to our values, and it is time for new leadership that better reflects them,” the statement said.

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., also issued a statement later Tuesday, as did Albuquerque congressional candidates Antoinette Sedillo Lopez and Damon Martinez.

However, some Democratic candidates questioned the timing of Ellenberg’s departure, with gubernatorial candidate and state Sen. Joseph Cervantes of Las Cruces calling the party “rudderless” in a Twitter post.

State GOP Chairman Ryan Cangiolosi also questioned the timing, alleging Tuesday that Democrats had waited until after their pre-primary convention to act so they could rig results to benefit front-running candidates such as Lujan Grisham, who is seeking the party’s nomination for governor.

“The resignation is overdue, but the hollow calls for action from so-called party leaders only amount to political posturing,” Cangiolosi told the Journal.

Meanwhile, Ellenberg’s resignation comes amid renewed scrutiny of sexual misconduct in New Mexico and around the nation.

New Mexico lawmakers early this year adopted changes to the Legislature’s anti-harassment policy, which had not been updated since 2008, and all 112 legislators were required to undergo harassment training before the start of this year’s session.

Ellenberg, former chairman of the Santa Fe County Democratic Party, won election in April 2017 to a two-year term as chairman of the state party, pledging at the time to heal lingering divisions between the supporters of ex-presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.

The state party will hold an election for a new party chairman during an already-scheduled April 21 state central committee meeting in Truth or Consequences. Whoever is elected at that meeting will serve out the rest of Ellenberg’s term, a party spokeswoman said Tuesday. Martinez-Parra, a Lordsburg teacher, will assume the chairman’s duties until that election is held.

In a statement, the state Democratic Party said Ellenberg had taken responsibility for his words and encouraged an end to a “culture of sexual harassment” in New Mexico.

“We will be moving forward to ensure our Party is an ally for the countless women who have come forward and working to change our culture so everyone is treated with respect and professionalism in the workplace,” the statement said.

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