Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – With their numbers at historic levels, New Mexico's female lawmakers are mapping out ways to work together across party lines to amplify their voice in the Legislature.
They elected bipartisan, bicameral leadership Thursday in the second meeting of the newly formed Women's Caucus.
Rep. Kelly Fajardo, R-Belen, and Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, will lead the group of 39 women. Together, they make up 35 percent of the Legislature – their largest share in at least 52 years, or as far back as records go. It's also 7 percentage points higher than the national average.
“I'd like to see women speak with one voice on issues affecting women and children,” Sedillo Lopez said in an interview. “Women are very effective, because we tend to collaborate and compromise, so I think we should take advantage of the fact we have so many women now in the Legislature.”
Caucus meetings are part of the Roundhouse culture. They give groups of legislators time to meet behind closed doors to have frank, informal conversations and develop strategy.
The caucuses are typically divided by party and chamber. House Democrats, for example, will meet alone periodically to plot strategy, as will House Republicans.
But the Women's Caucus crosses those boundaries. Every woman in the Legislature, regardless of party or chamber, is a member.
“For a lot of us,” Fajardo said of the idea, “it's building bridges, building camaraderie.”
Members of the caucus said they intend to avoid “wedge issues” – such as abortion – and focus instead on legislation where they might find agreement. Priorities mentioned Thursday include bills affecting families and female-owned businesses.
“The Women's Caucus has the potential to be successful if we focus on common ground,” said Rep. Cathrynn Brown, R-Carlsbad.
Democrats make up roughly three-quarters of the Women's Caucus.
The number of women in the Legislature overall has climbed sharply – 34 percent, in fact, since 2016. Nearly a dozen women in this year's Legislature are participating in their first session.
The new caucus “will open up the dialogue across the aisle,” said Rep. Christine Chandler, a newly elected Democrat from Los Alamos. “Any kind of mechanism that opens up communication between the two parties is a good thing.”
Women have also gained ground in the new administration of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. About 64 percent of the Cabinet secretaries she has appointed are women, compared with about 45 percent at a similar point in the administration of her predecessor, Republican Susana Martinez.