Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – One new legislator was mistaken for a secretary.
Another says she stopped the first time she saw her name on a sign in the Roundhouse.
Nearly two dozen new lawmakers are filling the Capitol this session – an influx that has pushed the number of female legislators to historic levels in New Mexico. The freshman class also includes the state’s first Muslim member of the Legislature.
The rookies are educators, lawyers and ranchers.
Together, they have the potential to shake up the Roundhouse culture and shape a session in which lawmakers will try to overhaul New Mexico’s school system in response to a landmark court ruling.
But first, they’re learning how to turn on the microphones and navigate the formalities of speaking in a floor session.
Rep. Abbas Akhil, D-Albuquerque, said a colleague taps him on the shoulder when he picks up the mic at the wrong time.
And he’s still getting used to the formal way debate unfolds in the House of Representatives – where lawmakers typically address one another as “gentleman” or “gentlelady,” then recite the counties the other person represents and request permission to ask a question.
It’s “certainly a very steep learning curve,” said Akhil, a retired engineer. “There’s a certain language that’s used. It’s very nice, but you have to get used to it.”
Akhil, the first Muslim member of the Legislature, took center stage in the session’s first week during a celebration of Asian American Day.
A fellow newcomer, meanwhile, was mistaken for a secretary the first day.
“On the first morning, I think that a number of staff didn’t realize that I was a representative because, I’m speculating, there are so many younger women in the building, which is kind of a new thing,” said Rep. Melanie Stansbury, an Albuquerque Democrat and consultant.
“I got mistaken once as a secretary,” she said, “but it was good-hearted. They were trying to help me.”
The addition of so many female legislators, in fact, means women now make up a majority of the Democratic caucus in the House.
All told, 39 of the Legislature’s 112 members – or 35 percent – are women. It’s the largest number of female legislators in New Mexico in at least 52 years, or as far back as records go, according to a librarian for the Legislature.
1 in 5 members new
Altogether, about one in five lawmakers this session is new. The percentage is especially pronounced in the House, where 29 percent of the membership wasn’t around a year ago.
The shake-up has pushed the House to the left. Democrats picked up eight seats in the general election, expanding their majority to 46-24.
Of the 20 new House members, 15 are Democrats.
Senate seats weren’t on the ballot last year, but three new members were seated this week because of vacancies created by senators who stepped down for one reason or another. The changes didn’t alter the partisan makeup, as Democrats maintain a 26-16 majority.
New Mexico also has a new governor. Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham succeeded Republican Susana Martinez two weeks before the legislative session started.
‘So much to learn’
New lawmakers said they were adjusting this week to the volume of legislation they’re expected to vote on.
“There’s so much to learn,” said Republican Rep. Martin Zamora, a Clovis businessman and rancher. “You get thrown into the system with almost no mercy.”
Akhil said most campaigns focus on a handful of issues important to the constituents of a district. But in the Capitol, lawmakers are expected to vote on issues that span the interests of New Mexicans throughout the state.
“You don’t think about it,” he said, “but the scope of what you have to deal with is just totally mind-boggling.”
New Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil, an Albuquerque Democrat and lawyer, put it this way: “It’s kind of like drinking from a fire hose.”
The newcomers say they’re also adjusting to the responsibility of representing others as they juggle their own careers outside the Capitol. New Mexico lawmakers aren’t paid a salary, though they draw per diem during the session or when attending meetings between sessions. The current rate is $161 a day.
Democratic Rep. Joy Garratt, an instructional coach at Painted Sky Elementary School on Albuquerque’s West Side, said she was helping teachers at 7:30 Monday morning, then going through legislative training that afternoon. She was responding to text messages and calls from her school colleagues throughout the week.
“I really realized what it means to embody a ‘citizen legislature,’ ” Garratt said of taking office.
Democratic Rep. Micaela Lara Cadena of Mesilla said her new legislative role struck her in particular when she saw her name on a sign in the Capitol, outside her new office.
“It caught my attention,” she said. “There I am.”
Not being around her two children every day also underscores the importance of the job, Lara Cadena said.
“It’s an incredible responsibility,” she said. “I think it’s also emotional to be here because home for me is four hours a way.”
But advice is easy to find, for any legislator who wants it.
Sen. Linda Lopez, an Albuquerque Democrat who has served 22 years, said she encourages new legislators to take care of themselves, drink plenty of water and make time for constituents.
“They have to figure out their own style,” she said. “You don’t have to talk to every lobbyist out there.”
Rep. Daymon Ely, a Corrales Democrat who joined the House in 2017, said new legislators should avoid the temptation to spend too much time in the office.
“Don’t be shy – that’s my advice,” Ely said. “You’re here to get your voice heard.”