Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Even though she had the votes lined up, Mimi Stewart held off on moving into the Senate president pro tem’s office on the first floor of the Roundhouse until the official tally was taken Tuesday.
But the Albuquerque Democrat could breathe a sigh of relief – and start unpacking – after winning election to the influential post on the opening day of the 60-day legislative session.
“It feels like I’ve got the caucus behind me,” Stewart said in an interview shortly after Tuesday’s vote.
A retired educator, Stewart had been nominated by fellow Democrats, who hold a 27-15 majority in the Senate, to serve as president pro tem in November.
But that did not guarantee she would be elected to the post by a full Senate vote.
That’s because, for more than a decade, New Mexico’s Senate president pro tem has been a Democrat elected by a coalition of Democratic and Republican lawmakers.
It’s a new day in the Senate this year, however, after five incumbent Democrats were ousted in last year’s primary elections, including ex-Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces. In all, there are 11 new members this year – or more than one-quarter of the chamber.
Senate Republicans did nominate GOP floor leader Greg Baca of Belen for the pro tem post Tuesday, but Stewart ultimately prevailed on a party-line vote.
In her first remarks on the Senate floor after being elected president pro tem, Stewart called for compromise amid recent civil unrest and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“These threats have shown us, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that if we define the stakes as winner-take-all, no one wins,” Stewart said.
But some Republicans could be wary of Stewart’s call for unity, as Stewart led Senate Democrats’ election efforts – including their legislative caucus committee – during last year’s election cycle.
However, Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, described Stewart as a respectful “policy wonk” who has proven to be an effective legislator over her 26 years in the Legislature – 20 in the House and six in the Senate.
“It’s clear she has the skill set to be able to set the tone for the entire chamber,” Wirth told the Journal.
As president pro tem, Stewart will have a large say in Senate committee chairmanships and assignments.
She has already said she expects greater transparency on the part of committee chairs, especially during a legislative session that’s expected to be largely conducted remotely.
Much of her time during this year’s session will be spent making sure the technology for remote committee hearings is in place so members of the public can testify on bills, as well on Roundhouse security issues, Stewart said Tuesday.
“I need to help the Senate function well,” she said.
However, Stewart said she also plans to introduce several bills dealing with education and environmental issues during the just-started session.
Some of those bills could be heavy lifts, including proposals to increase taxpayer-funded contributions to New Mexico’s teacher pension fund and keeping funding levels flat – for one year – for public schools that have seen a pandemic-related enrollment drop.