LAS CRUCES – Kim Stewart came out as gay in 1989 and has been with her partner, now her wife, for even longer, so she doesn’t think often about her sexuality.
“I am who I am,” she said. “Because that’s my life, because it’s been my existence for so many years, it’s not a big deal to me.”
But Stewart, 65, achieved two important historical milestones in her election on Tuesday as Doña Ana County’s next sheriff, so her gender and sexual orientation are once again in the spotlight.
In handily defeating Todd Garrison for sheriff, Stewart will become the first openly gay sheriff in the history of New Mexico. She will also be the first woman sheriff in Doña Ana County history. All previous 32 sheriffs since 1854 have been men.
She will replace Sheriff Enrique “Kiki” Vigil, who served one term and lost in the Democratic primary.
Stewart, who was winning Tuesday’s general election by an 8 percent margin, laughed off the historical nature of her victory.
“To me, it’s a head-scratcher,” she said Wednesday. “I don’t know what to do with it. I don’t know if it’s a big deal. Does it inform how I do the law? Not really. It doesn’t inform my attitudes about policing other than that I believe that people deserve equal levels of protection and service.”
Lifetime of firsts
A native of California who had an 18-year career in law enforcement in the Golden State before moving to Doña Ana County in 2007 with the intention of retiring, Stewart has achieved a lifetime of firsts as a woman.
In 1981, she became the first woman police officer hired by the city of Cypress, California. In 1984, she became the first woman hired as an intelligence detective by the Santa Barbara County sheriff. Then in 1989, she became the first women hired as investigator by the Ventura County district attorney.
She was also a trailblazer in other regards. In 1996, Stewart won a settlement against the Ventura police department after she sued the city claiming she had been harassed and discriminated against because she is a woman and lesbian.
Stewart and her wife, Kathryn Stewart — she took Kim’s last name to make parenting two adopted daughters easier — have been together for 31 years. They became domestic partners legally in California in 2004. They were married in Las Cruces in 2015.
They live about 10 miles north of downtown Las Cruces, east of Interstate 25. Their adopted daughters are 11 and 21 years old. The eldest attends New Mexico State University and lives in Las Cruces, while their younger daughter lives at home.
Stewart acknowledges that her life experience has given her a different outlook.
“I have very different views,” she said. “Look at my situation. I have a wife. My foster dad is African American. I have a different perspective.”
Stewart’s sexual orientation was an unspoken aspect of the race against Garrison. It was no secret and was occasionally mentioned in media coverage. Some people probably chose to vote against her because she is a lesbian (or because she’s a woman).
Stewart believes Garrison made her sexual orientation an issue in the campaign in an underhanded way. In his campaign and promotional materials, she says he chose to highlight the fact that he is married and has six kids as way to distinguish himself from Stewart.
“I thought, okay, that’s nice, but I don’t know how that makes you qualified to be sheriff,” she said. “I thought, ‘What’s that about?’ It was unspoken. ‘This is whom I am and I’m the all-American guy and she’s not.'”
Garrison could not be reached for comment.
She never brought up her sexual orientation in her campaign, she said, “because it’s not germane.”
“I’d rather be known as the good cop than the gay cop,” she added.
The election of Stewart and her defeat of Garrison are remarkable in other ways. Stewart will become the top law enforcement official in a county government that fired her in 2010 and from which she later won a $1.59 million settlement after she sued the county over her termination. She worked as an internal affairs investigator for the county from 2008 to 2010.
At a 2015 trial, she testified that she had been subject to months of retaliation by county managers for investigating complaints of racial discrimination in the animal control and codes enforcement departments. A jury found that county officials had violated her rights under the state’s Human Rights Act and Whistleblowers Protection Act.
The lawsuit was based in part on her investigations of Curtis Childress, who she alleged had committed racial discrimination against two animal control employees. Childress was Garrison’s choice for undersheriff if he had been elected.
She denies she feels any traditional sense of vindication toward the county because of her election.
“It’s not necessarily vindication in the way you think of it,” she said. “It’s vindication in that justice can prevail. I’m the voice for fairness and equity and equal treatment, not only internally, but also for our constituents.”
But Stewart says she’s disappointed that her lawsuit and the subsequent settlement did not stimulate greater change in how the county operates. However, she is hopeful that she will be able to promote additional change as sheriff.
“I really did hope my lawsuit would have greater impact on how the county treats its employees,” she said. “To some extent it did, but not to the extent that I was hoping. The county has continued to have a real active role in retaliation against employees. That has changed a little, but I’m not entirely sure it wasn’t just driven under ground.”
Blake Gumprecht may be reached at 575-541-5453, firstname.lastname@example.org or @blakegumprecht on Twitter.