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Granddaughter continues longtime lawmaker’s legacy

Sen. Shannon Pinto, D-Tohatchi, gets emotional as her name is read to take her grandfather's seat in the New Mexico Senate last week. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Sen. Shannon Pinto, D-Tohatchi, gets emotional as her name is read to take her grandfather’s seat in the New Mexico Senate last week. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – On the opening day of this year’s 30-day legislative session, Shannon Pinto sat in the familiar chair on the Senate floor and let the feelings wash over her.

Pinto is the granddaughter of Sen. John Pinto, a trained Navajo Code Talker and one of the longest-serving Native American legislators in U.S. history, and was appointed to fill the vacancy in the Senate caused by his death last year at age 94.

But until last week, she’d purposefully avoided sitting in his chair on the Senate floor, even when she helped him navigate some of his final sessions as a legislator.

“At the beginning of this journey up here, it’s been very emotional,” Shannon Pinto said in a Journal interview.

Pinto, a Tohatchi Democrat, said she plans to continue working on some of the bills close to her grandfather’s heart – including infrastructure projects on Native American land – and may consider how he would have voted on certain controversial bills.

She also said she spent time during the session’s opening week going through her grandfather’s papers and hearing stories about him from others senators.

“I don’t want to use the word destiny – it’s something more subtle than that,” she said of her path to becoming a legislator.

Sen. John Pinto, who was a Navajo Code Talker during World War II, served in the state Senate from 1977 until his death in May of last year. His granddaughter, Shannon Pinto, an educator, was appointed to his seat last July. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Sen. John Pinto, who was a Navajo Code Talker during World War II, served in the state Senate from 1977 until his death in May of last year. His granddaughter, Shannon Pinto, an educator, was appointed to his seat last July. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

John Pinto was a beloved figure in the Senate – where he served from 1977 until the time of his death – and his granddaughter was appointed to his seat last July by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Her familiarity with the Roundhouse from the years spent helping her aging grandfather has come in handy, but Shannon Pinto says she still has a lot to learn.

“There’s just so much information out there, and it’s impossible to do everything,” she told the Journal.

Fellow senators say she’s proving to be a quick study.

“We already kind of knew Shannon,” said Senate Majority Whip Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque. “She’s been in the Senate all the time.”

“She’s smart, she’s knowledgeable and she’s so interested in learning,” Stewart added. “It’s not as steep of a learning curve for her as it would be for others.”

An educator who has worked as a middle and high school math teacher in Tohatchi, Pinto said a high-school basketball injury prevented her from joining the U.S. Air Force, which at least some of her siblings did, but she has now found her way to serve.

“You want to have a purpose,” she said. “You want to have a cause.”

After being appointed by Lujan Grisham, Pinto is serving out the remainder of the term her grandfather was elected to in 2016.

She is one of two newly sworn-in senators this year at the Roundhouse, along with Sen. Roberto “Bobby” Gonzales, D-Ranchos de Taos, who was appointed to fill the seat previously held by Sen. Carlos Cisneros of Questa, who also died last year.

Shannon Pinto said she plans to run for election this year to a new four-year term representing Senate District 3, a largely rural district that stretches from Gallup to Shiprock and had an adult population that was more than 75% Native American as of 2010, according to U.S. Census data.

During an interview last week, Pinto said she does not plan, at least for now, to continue his tradition of singing the “Potato Song” at least once per legislative session on the Senate floor.

In Navajo, the song tells the story of a potato, planted in the spring and visited through the summer until it is ready to be harvested.

“I feel like that was his – he created that,” she said, brushing away tears.

While Navajo culture calls for a four-day mourning period after a loved one dies, Pinto said she’s still coming to terms with her grandfather’s death.

“I don’t feel I’ve fully gone through that process,” she said.

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