SANTA FE – Sen. Mary Kay Papen’s early experiences with the state Legislature were as a concerned citizen, making the 280-mile trip from her home in Las Cruces to lobby on mental health and domestic violence.
Papen, a retired Volkswagen dealer in Las Cruces and El Paso, said those trips were an effort to represent the women who relied on Las Cruces’ La Casa domestic violence shelter, where she served as the board president. They were also to fight for better services for the mentally ill, including a grandson, who struggled with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, she said.
“I would come to the committees, and I would be sitting in the audience waiting for them to ask for public comment, and then they wouldn’t pass the bill,” Papen said.
“And so I thought, if I could sit on that side, then I’d be able to vote on this stuff, not beg for it.”
Papen, a Democrat and the widow of the late state senator and Las Cruces banker and businessman Frank Papen, was first elected to the New Mexico state Senate in 2000.
Marking the start of her fourth term this week, Papen, 80, was unanimously elected by the chamber’s 42 members as the Senate president pro tempore. It is the chamber’s top leadership position and one that gives her substantial influence over committee membership and chairs.
As a regular senator, Papen had drawn accolades for her legislative work as an advocate for mental health services and laws to combat violence against women.
She was recognized nationally in 2012 as the legislator of the year by the American Psychological Association Practice Organization. She received a “Hero Award” from the family of Katie Sepich, the New Mexico State University student whose murder in 2003 inspired the state’s “Katie’s Law” requiring DNA collection from anyone arrested on a felony charge.
Papen successfully sponsored the New Mexico Katie’s Law in 2006. Similar legislation has since been passed by 25 other states and the federal government.
Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, said Papen is persistent and direct.
“Often legislators, they’re over here, they’re over there,” Smith said. “When it comes to behavioral health, the mentally ill, she (Papen) doesn’t bounce around. She’s like a laser on target with her approach – extremely persistent.”
She has also won respect for her candid approach, Smith said.
“You may not like what she has to say, but she is going to be very, very candid when she says it,” Smith said. “She’s not searching on how to posture responses. What you see is what you get, right there.”
Papen said her frank style in political discourse is rooted in her own desire that people be clear with her.
“I would rather somebody come straight out and tell me something,” Papen said. “You don’t have to be rude about it, but be frank. It’s easier to try and fix something if you really know what the problem is, not if the problem is alluded to.”
As pro tem, Papen said she’s hoping to help the Senate find compromise on key issues of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’s agenda that have stalled on the Senate floor for the past two years.
Papen said she doesn’t support, in their previous forms, the governor’s proposals to end driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants and to require children who can’t read by fourth grade to be held back without parental consent. However, Papen said she’s optimistic that the Senate can find middle ground on both issues.
“I feel it’s possible – hopefully, maybe – that I would be able to work with her so that we come to the middle of the room on certain issues,” Papen said. “We can give, she can give, you know, and put the best interest of New Mexico first.”
Governor’s spokesman Greg Blair said Martinez is optimistic about finding common ground with Papen.
“While the governor certainly doesn’t expect they will agree on all issues, Sen. Papen has always shown a willingness to work in a bipartisan manner to get things done for New Mexicans,” Blair said.
Papen’s unanimous election as Senate pro tem came in surprising fashion Tuesday, the first day of the 2013 legislative session. Senate Democrats initially had another member in mind for the job.
Democrats, who hold a 25-17 vote majority in the Senate, had nominated Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas, to be pro tem over Papen. Democrats, however, agreed to unanimously vote for Papen, after she won over support from the chamber’s Republicans and announced she also had enough Democrats to win a majority.
Papen’s daughter, Allison K. Smith, a lobbyist for the New Mexico Restaurant Association, said her mother ran for pro tem to maintain the integrity of the Senate.
“She really feels it’s important that the members of the Senate be able to debate with one another, but at the end of the day, be respectful of one another,” Smith said. “I think that was at the core of her decision to run.”
Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, said he doesn’t always agree with Papen, but respects her ability to consider any legislation regardless of whether it was sponsored by a Democrat or Republican.
“She has the courage to call it like it is,” Ingle said. “… I think she’s thought of as an extremely fair person, (she) listens to both sides of an issue, makes a decision.”
Although community issues were Papen’s draw into public service, she said her background as an auto dealership owner has helped her relate to the state’s small-business owners struggling with a weak economy.
“I think that served me well. I think it’s served me well also in understanding people who don’t have a job, people who are struggling, people who are trying to make ends meet with their businesses,” Papen said.
Papen grew up in El Paso and moved to New Mexico in 1963.
Her name is one easily recognized in the Legislature’s history. Her late husband, Frank Papen, served as a Democrat in the Senate between 1969 and 1984 from Senate District 38, the district Papen now represents. The couple married in 1990.
At 80 years old, Papen said she continues to approach her work in the state Senate with high energy.
That includes taking the Roundhouse stairs when traveling from the Senate chamber on the first floor of the Capitol to committee hearing rooms on the building’s third floor. Some younger lawmakers prefer the Roundhouse elevator.
“I don’t see my age as a detriment,” Papen said. “… There are people at 60 that don’t have high energy. There are people at 40 that don’t. There are people at 80 that do.”
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal