For nearly five decades, the number of female senators has slowly crept upward, peaking at 13 in 2001. This year, the 42-member chamber has 11 women.
But it will drop off markedly next year: A combination of retirements and defeats at the polls means there will be only six female senators in 2013.
“It is disappointing,” said Sen. Gay Kernan, a Hobbs Republican who has served for a decade and returns next year. “I think women bring a certain perspective to the Legislature that I think we miss out on when our numbers decrease.”
Coincidentally, the state House gained five women — possibly six, depending on the outcome of a still-unsettled Las Cruces contest — in this year’s elections.
That means overall, the 112-member New Mexico Legislature next year will have at least the same number of women it has currently, 31.
The historical high was 36 women in 2001, according to records compiled by the Legislative Council Service.
If the number for next year is 31, that means women will account for nearly 28 percent of New Mexico lawmakers. That would give the state a ranking of 18th nationally in the percentage of female legislators, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.
So what difference does it make whether the lawmakers who are involved in committee discussions, floor debates and behind-the-scenes confabs are female?
“In general, I think women have a tendency to be really good listeners,” Kernan said. And they may be more willing to compromise, she suggested.
Senate Rules Committee Chairwoman Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, who returns next year for a fifth term, said women tend to focus more on commonalities, and on seeking resolution — “so you don’t perpetuate the issue; you try to find a way of resolving it.”
They’re used to negotiating, said Sen. Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, who’s headed back for a fourth term.
“And so many issues pertain to women and to families. I’m distressed that we don’t have more women, that we’ve lost women,” Papen said.
Departing Sen. Dede Feldman, D-Albuquerque, who’s retiring after 16 years, said much of a lawmaker’s job is gathering information, learning the basics about issues that are unfamiliar.
“You’ve got to be able to ask stupid questions,” she said. “I think a lot of times men don’t want to ask the stupid questions.”
“The voices of women are important on financial issues — on taxation issues, on bread-and-butter family issues,” Feldman said. “Women have a different take on it.”
Sen. Sue Wilson Beffort, R-Sandia Park, who has been in the Senate since 1996 and is a longtime member of the powerful Finance Committee, said a growing portion of the state budget is allocated for Medicaid, child care, behavioral health and other related issues.
But men haven’t been as interested as women in serving on the between-session interim committees that deal with those issues in hearings that can be long and painstaking, she said.
“As you’re constructing the budget, you really have to understand the issues inside and out when making judgments on where you fund things,” the lawmaker said. “It would be nice to get some more robust participation on these committees.”
Susan Loubet, executive director of New Mexico Women’s Agenda and a lobbyist for decades on women’s issues, said it’s not just about numbers, but about whether female lawmakers have power.
The women leaving the Senate at the end of the year include Democratic Whip Mary Jane Garcia of Doña Ana; Education Committee Chairwoman Cynthia Nava, D-Las Cruces; Conservation Committee Chairwoman Bernadette Sanchez, D-Albuquerque; and Feldman, who chairs the Public Affairs Committee. On the House side, three members of the influential Appropriations and Finance Committee — Reps. Danice Picraux, D-Albuquerque; Joni Gutierrez, D-Mesilla; and Rhonda King, D-Stanley — are leaving.
“We’re sort of starting over again in terms of gaining power,” Loubet said.
The first female state senator was Democrat Louise Coe, a teacher and school superintendent who lived on a ranch near Carrizozo and served from 1925 through 1940. It would be another 25 years before a woman was in the Senate again.
Coe served as Senate president pro tem for six years, the only woman thus far to do so. Now two female senators are trying to follow in those footsteps: Both Lopez and Papen have announced they’re running for the Senate’s top job. It’s vacant because President Pro Tem Tim Jennings, D-Roswell, was defeated in his re-election bid.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal