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Women climb to historic levels in Legislature

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Mimi Stewart has served in the Roundhouse long enough to know she prefers a good mix of men and women.

“Without enough women,” she said, “it kind of turns into more of an old boys club. It really does.”

From left, Rep. Joanne Ferrary, D-Las Cruces; Rep.-elect Andrea Romero, D-Santa Fe; and Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero, D-Albuquerque, walk through the Roundhouse this month. The number of women serving in the Legislature is hitting historic levels. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Stewart, a Democratic senator from Albuquerque, should find the next session a little more to her liking.

A historic number of women – at least 38 altogether – are set to serve in the state Legislature next year, a 31 percent increase from 2016. It will be the largest number of female legislators in New Mexico since at least 1967, the earliest year for which records are available, according to a librarian for the Legislature.

Stewart, who has served in either the House or the Senate since 1995, said the increasing proportion of women will have an impact.

Majority Whip Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, takes the Pledge of Allegiance, beside Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, at the beginning of the 2018 legislative session in January. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

“What happens is that you tend to have more compromise, you tend to have more openness, you tend to have more working together as a group,” she said in a recent interview.

Despite the gains, women will make up only about one-third of the 112 legislators in both chambers overall. It’ll be closer to even in the House, where 31 of the 70 members will be women.

Female membership in the 42-member Senate, meanwhile, has dropped, from 11 women in 2012 to seven women in recent years. But the increasing number of women in the House has more than offset the decrease in the Senate.

Rep. Kelly Fajardo, R-Belen, speaks during a 2017 meeting of the Legislative Council as members consider a revised anti-harassment policy. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

And women have more opportunities to increase their numbers before the start of the Jan. 15 session. Sen. Carroll Leavell, R-Jal, retired this month, and Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, will step down at the beginning of the year to serve as lieutenant governor.

Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, is expected to appoint Leavell’s replacement. Incoming Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is expected to fill the vacancy created by Morales.

New Mexico’s proportion of women in the Legislature is higher than the national average, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Women make up 34 percent of the New Mexico Legislature, compared with 28 percent for the whole country.

Rep. Joanne Ferrary, a Las Cruces Democrat elected in 2016, said women often bring a different perspective. They work more frequently in some professions – such as teaching and nursing – than men, she said.

“I do believe we kind of look at things differently,” said Democratic Rep. Linda Trujillo of Santa Fe. She was also first elected in 2016.

Researchers at four universities this month released a study that found fewer interruptions when there are more women in Congress.

The researchers – from the University of California, San Diego; Stanford and Harvard universities; and the University of Pittsburgh – examined transcripts from committee hearings over a 22-year period in their paper, “A Woman’s Voice in the House.”

“Both women and men are less likely to interrupt others when women’s proportion on a committee increases,” they said. “Further, women are more likely to stay on the same topic as other women, while men are likely to change topics introduced by women.”

In New Mexico, the proportion of women in the state House of Representatives is set to climb from about 39 percent of the membership to 44 percent.

Of the incoming freshman class of 20 new representatives, 10 are women. And nine of the new women are Democrats.

“There’s a common sense of optimism, willingness to really work and a willingness to work together, not just with Democrats, but with everybody,” said Rep.-elect Joy Garratt, an Albuquerque Democrat and teacher.

It’s tough to generalize, she said, about the differences in male and female candidates. But Garratt said the women running for office this year showed a real commitment to listening to voters and considering new perspectives.

Republican Rep. Kelly Fajardo of Belen said she thinks women in the Legislature tend to pursue their real priorities. They might introduce fewer bills than men, she said, but work harder to push the proposals they really care about.

“Women tend not to carry legislation for the sake of carrying legislation,” Fajardo said.

She added that when she first took office six years ago, the Roundhouse didn’t have a women’s restroom near the House floor.

“When the Capitol was built,” Fajardo said, “the thought of women legislators – women involved in policymaking – was an afterthought.”

Stewart said the atmosphere is different when there’s a more even split between men and women. People talk more about their families and kids, she said, when women are present.

“The difference between me walking into a room with a lot of men and me walking into a room with men and women,” she said, “it just feels very different.

“You walk in when it’s just men, and they’re bantering about sports and alcohol and everything else. You walk in when there’s men and women, and they’re just talking about real things – they’re talking about more important, real things.”

The Governor’s Office, meanwhile, will remain headed by a woman. In 2010, Martinez became the first woman to be elected New Mexico governor, and Lujan Grisham became the second when she won this year.

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