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The ‘COVID cohort’ joins Capitol

Freshman Sen. Siah Correa Hemphill, D-Silver City, signs paperwork on the Senate floor Tuesday as Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, looks on. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – They arrived without their friends and family, taking the oath inside a building surrounded by chain-link fences, police cruisers and the National Guard.

For new members of the state Legislature, it was a surreal start.

“All of us campaigned during a pandemic,” Democratic Sen. Carrie Hamblen of Las Cruces said, “so having different circumstances is nothing new to us.”

The incoming class of legislators – 21 are new to the Legislature and two switched chambers – will help shape the Roundhouse for years to come. They defeated some of the most powerful people in the Capitol, in Hamblen’s case, the previous Senate president pro tem, Mary Kay Papen.

It’s also a history-making group. Women now make up a majority of the House, and the Senate has its first African American lawmaker.

But the swearing-in proceeding was an unusual sight. The Roundhouse was largely empty, closed to the public as a health precaution to limit the risk of COVID-19. Police and the National Guard assembled outside the Capitol to protect against potential violence.

Sen. Crystal Diamond, a single mom and Republican from Elephant Butte, said she had hoped her daughters could join her on opening day. Cayden, 12, and Reece, 11, helped knock on doors as Diamond won election in a sprawling district once represented by John Arthur Smith, a Deming Democrat who led the powerful Senate Finance Committee for years.

But rather than start the session surrounded by friends, family and constituents, Diamond began her work from a desk on the Senate floor, a Plexiglas barrier erected between legislators. The building was closed to all but lawmakers, legislative staff and some members of the media.

“It was almost eerie,” Diamond said. “I feel like coming in as a freshman that I’m at a disadvantage because I can’t access my constituents.”

New look Legislature

The 2020 election didn’t change the partisan composition of the Legislature much. Republicans picked up a seat in the House and Democrats a seat in the Senate.

Democrats now have a 45-25 edge in the House and a 27-15 majority in the Senate.

But there’s been plenty of leadership turnover.

Mimi Stewart, a progressive Democrat from Albuquerque, was elected Senate president pro tem, and Sen. Greg Baca of Belen is the new Republican floor leader in that chamber.

The Senate has four new committee chairpersons, and the House has two.

Rep. Stefani Lord, R-Sandia Park, talks with House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, on the first day of the 2021 legislative session at the state Capitol earlier this week. Women now make up a majority of the House. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Several of the newly elected members of the Legislature said their colleagues made them feel welcome Tuesday, even amid unusual circumstances and leadership changes.

“I have the privilege of not knowing any better,” Republican Rep. Ryan Lane of Aztec said. “It was a bit lonely, you might say.”

But he added: “Regardless of party affiliation or how long you’ve been there, I’ve found people to be very welcoming.”

Lane, a lawyer and owner of the Vanilla Moose ice cream shop in Aztec, succeeded Paul Bandy, a Republican who retired last year.

Hamblen, president and CEO of the Las Cruces Green Chamber of Commerce, said other senators made it a point to help the newcomers. She is one of four LGBTQ lawmakers who joined the Legislature this week, bringing the total to six.

“The thing that was really comforting,” Hamblen said, “is that it didn’t matter what side of the aisle you’re on. Every single senator knew we were coming in at a really unusually unusual time. They did their part to make sure we had a good day.”

Rep. Stefani Lord, R-Sandia Park, said that passing through the security checkpoints was a bit like entering a demilitarized zone. She succeeded fellow Republican Gregg Schmedes, who joined the Senate.

Lord said she’s optimistic about the session but anxious about the technological challenges – missing a vote, say, because of a faulty internet connection or hearing fewer people testify on important legislation.

Lord, who’s retired, got her start as an activist, founding a group called Pro-Gun Women.

“It’s going to be very strange being up here through March in a session with somebody you might never meet or see,” Lord said. “I worry tremendously about the people having their voices heard.”

Barrier broken

Sen. Harold Pope Jr., D-Albuquerque, said he was surprised to learn after launching his campaign that he’d be the first African American member of the New Mexico Senate following 109 years of statehood.

He said he hopes to be an example to others, the way Black leaders were to him in his military career. Pope retired from the Air Force in 2018, where he served as a dental assistant before college, then later as a chemist and acquisitions officer.

Sen. Harold Pope Jr., D-Albuquerque, signs the roll beside Chief Clerk Lenore Naranjo on the Senate floor Tuesday as the 2021 legislative session begins. Pope is the first African American member of the Senate.

“I want to let everyone know that as African Americans, even though we’re a small percentage of the state, we’re still members of the state,” Pope said. “I just hope to bring that voice to the Senate.”

Pope grew up in Pueblo, Colorado, and earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. He joked that he’s seen both sides of the green chile war.

Pope defeated Republican incumbent Sander Rue to join the Senate.

Some of the newcomers are already familiar with the Roundhouse.

Rep. Meredith Dixon, an Albuquerque Democrat who succeeded Abbas Akhil in the House, had served earlier as a policy analyst for House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe.

It was weird, Dixon said, to return to the Capitol on an opening day with empty hallways. She said she and two other newly elected members of the “COVID cohort” sat in a vacant committee room – spaced well apart – as they connected through a video link to the House proceedings.

“As a first-year,” Dixon said, “it was so helpful not be alone and adrift.”

Watching the broadcast from home, her husband, Kevin, took a picture and circled Dixon’s face in red, setting her apart from the sea of small faces on screen.


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