SANTA FE – The New Mexico Senate opened the 60-day legislative session on Tuesday unanimously electing Sen. Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, as Senate president pro tempore.
On the other side of the Roundhouse, the state House elected Rep. Ken Martinez, D-Grants, to be speaker of the House. Martinez, who was nominated for the post in December, succeeds the late Speaker Ben Lujan, who died of lung cancer last month.
Papen’s election to Senate leadership was a change of course for Senate Democrats, who initially nominated Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas, to serve as pro tem. The pro tem plays a key role in assigning members to committees where a majority of legislative debate occurs and directs Senate floor debate in the absence of the lieutenant governor.
Democratic leaders said they switched to supporting Papen, viewed as a more conservative Democrat than Campos, to maintain a united party position. The move came after Papen claimed she had the support of the Senate’s 17 Republicans and enough Democrats to win a majority in the 42-member Senate and derail Campos’ candidacy.
“I think it was wonderful that we could come together as a body and do that,” Papen said. “You know, Sen. Campos and I are not that far apart on a lot of the things where we think we need to have New Mexico going forward.”
Papen, 80, follows former Sen. Tim Jennings, D-Roswell, as pro tem. Jennings lost his bid for re-election to the Senate in 2012. Jennings had been elected pro tem by winning support from Senate Republicans and a small group of Democrats.
Papen, a former auto dealer, is the second woman to be elected pro tem of the New Mexico Senate.
“I think we’ve got to focus not on ourselves, but we’ve got to focus on why we’re here and who we represent,” Papen said. “I anticipate us coming together and working across the aisle.”
On the Senate floor, Campos indicated the party’s intent to unite behind Papen by standing to nominate the Las Cruces Democrat for the post. Papen was the only nominee.
Campos, in an interview with the Journal, said the decision to step aside as the party’s pro tem nominee was difficult, but said the move was in the best interest of the Democratic Party and the state Senate.
“It was a decision of unity,” Campos said, “And I was working to ensure that as an entire state Senate that we’re here to represent the needs of the people. That’s what was driving the decision.”
Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, echoed Campos’ remarks, saying the move for Democrats to rally behind Papen was in the best interest of the party’s legislative efforts.
“I think what we did was for the best interest of the Democratic caucus, our Democratic Party of the state of New Mexico, and for the best interest of the state,” Sanchez said.
In the state House, Martinez called his election as House speaker a “bittersweet moment” after he was handed the gavel used by his predecessor, Lujan.
The election realized a long-held dream of following in the footsteps of his late father, Walter K. Martinez, who served as speaker in the 1970s.
Martinez, who had been the House majority leader since 2005, acknowledged the “brutal election season” of 2012. But he urged his House colleagues to get past partisanship and work together.
He was elected on a party-line vote, 38-32, over Republican nominee Rep. Tom Taylor, R-Farmington. But Martinez quickly reached across the aisle, telling House members they would be “equally well-served if Tom Taylor was the speaker.”
“He’s a kind man, he’s a gentle man, he’s a smart man, and he’s my friend,” Martinez said, adding that the two would co-sponsor legislation.
He also singled out House Appropriations Chairman Henry “Kiki” Saavedra, D-Albuquerque, for coming up with a budget proposal last year that was adopted unanimously, saying Saavedra understood that “the most important thing is to listen, to learn, and to include everybody.”
“That’s the way it should work here,” Martinez said.
He urged Democrats and Republicans to combine forces on job creation, pension solvency, and changes to the law that allows illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.
“I think we’ll settle any contentious issue this year if we all work together,” the new speaker said.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal