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Stewart wins nomination for top NM Senate post

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – State Sen. Mimi Stewart, a retired teacher from Albuquerque, emerged as the Democratic nominee on Saturday for Senate president pro tem – the chamber’s top leadership post.

If approved by the full Senate, Stewart would lead a body in which more than one-quarter of the members are newly elected. She would be the first president pro tem from Albuquerque in 15 years.

Some of the Senate’s most powerful leaders – including the chairman of the Finance Committee and president pro tem – lost their re-election bids earlier this year.

The sweeping change in composition comes as New Mexico faces severe economic damage and a health system strained by the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.

“People are hurting,” Stewart said in an interview. “We’ve just got a lot of work to do, and I’m hoping we can pull together to do it.”

Stewart’s nomination came in a closed-door meeting Saturday of newly elected and returning members of the Senate’s Democratic caucus. She joined the Senate in 2015 – serving as majority whip the last three years – and spent about 20 years in the House.

The caucus re-elected Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, as Senate majority leader but elevated two others to new roles:

⋄ Sen. Linda Lopez, a consultant from Albuquerque and longtime chairwoman of the Senate Rules Committee, was elected to serve as majority whip, a position puts her at the center of talks on legislative strategy and vote counting.

⋄ Sen.-elect Brenda McKenna, now a field representative for Democratic Congresswoman Deb Haaland, will serve as chairwoman of the caucus itself, presiding over the private meetings of Senate Democrats.

McKenna, who’s Native American, is from Corrales. She replaces Pete Campos of Las Vegas.

Stiff competition

In the race for president pro tem, Stewart faced competition this month from Campos, Lopez, Daniel Ivey-Soto and Gerald Ortiz y Pino, all Democrats.

Stewart said it took multiple rounds of voting before she won a majority of the votes for the nomination.

Her approval as president pro tem still must be voted on by the Senate as a whole, opening up the possibility of a new candidate who assembles a coalition with Republicans to win the position. The chamber’s 15 Republicans would need support from at least seven Democrats to pick a different president pro tem.

Eight years ago, Sen. Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, was elected president pro tem that way, defeating Campos, the nominee backed by a majority of the Democratic caucus.

Papen, who lost her re-election bid in the primary and will leave the Senate at the end of the year, said she would encourage the next president pro tem to “be fair and listen.” The pro tem, she said, is in position to work with the Democratic and Republican floor leaders and encourage strong communication.

“I’m a moderate,” Papen said in an interview. “My approach was to do everything possible to have both sides work together.”

Expanded majority

Democrats picked up one Senate seat in the general election, pushing their majority to 27-15, according to unofficial election results.

But voters this year reshaped the chamber even beyond party affiliation – changes that are expected to make the Senate more open to progressive priorities passed by the House.

Stewart said Saturday that she expects the Senate to support marijuana legalization, repeal of an anti-abortion law and increased distributions from New Mexico’s largest permanent fund – all measures that have passed the House at least once, only to die in the Senate.

The proposed constitutional amendment to tap more heavily into the Land Grant Permanent Fund, Stewart said, might be revised to provide extra funding not just for early childhood education programs but also for schools more generally. In 2018, a state district judge ruled that New Mexico’s school system violates the rights of some students by failing to provide a sufficient education.

Stewart said it’s too early to determine who she would support as committee chairpersons.

A key decision will be the successor to Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith of Deming. He has sometimes frustrated more liberal lawmakers with his desire to limit spending increases.

Stewart said she wants to see more transparency in the Finance Committee and would support a chairperson who “understands the status quo isn’t working.”

Committee power

Altogether, the 2021 Senate is set to have 11 new members, along with 31 returning incumbents.

The president pro tem is the top leadership position.

In contrast to the House – where power is consolidated with the speaker – the Senate divides leadership duties between the majority floor leader and the president pro tem.

The pro tem presides over the Senate in some circumstances and serves as leader of the Committees’ Committee – a panel that chooses the chairpersons of the Senate’s standing committees and their membership.

It’s an important role because the committee chairpersons have substantial influence over the flow of legislation, such as what gets heard and when. Their power to set the agenda in committee hearings can be critical to whether a bill ultimately advances to the floor for consideration by the full chamber.

The Senate majority leader, meanwhile, manages the agenda of Senate floor sessions, an especially powerful role in the last days of a session when time is limited and a long list of bills await action.

Senate Republicans will also have new leadership. Their caucus chose Sen. Greg Baca, R-Belen, as the minority floor leader, unseating Stuart Ingle of Portales.


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