Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – For Mimi Stewart, education has been a driving force – one that provided an escape hatch from a turbulent childhood and, years later, propelled her into the political arena.
The newly elected New Mexico Senate president pro tem, Stewart still fondly recalls teaching students with learning disabilities how to read.
But the Albuquerque Democrat has had to do some learning of her own over her 26-year legislative career to arrive at the helm of the Senate.
“I think there’s nothing wrong with being feisty, intentional and intense,” Stewart, 73, said in an interview the day after being elected to the chamber’s top position last week. “But I’ve learned to listen more to other people.”
When she first arrived in Santa Fe in 1995, Stewart said, she at times had little patience for opposing viewpoints.
She remembers getting advice from former House finance committee Chairman Max Coll, who told Stewart her quick-to-surface anger made it easy for political opponents to get under her skin.
Stewart’s temper still flares at times, such as when she described a tax package passed in the final minutes of the 2013 legislative session as a “royal screw-job.”
However, she said, her move from the House to the Senate – she was appointed in 2014 to a Senate seat previously held by Tim Keller – and her subsequent ascension to leadership roles have forced her to think about how the entire chamber functions.
“I have become much more pragmatic – I just want things to get done,” Stewart said.
Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, has worked with Stewart in recent years on several education-related bills, despite the pair’s divergent views on other policy issues.
She called Stewart a “tough politician” but said the two retired educators have been able to find common ground.
“I think the thing I can say about Sen. Stewart is she’s always open to listening to my ideas,” Kernan told the Journal.
For her part, Stewart said she still considers herself a progressive, but said she no longer thinks of herself as having “far-left” views.
“I think the older I get, the more conservative I get on certain things,” Stewart said.
School was her passion
Stewart was 3 years old when her father, a traveling salesman, died in a traffic crash just days before Christmas. He had been heading back to his Florida home with silver dollars in his pockets for his kids at the time of the wreck, which occurred after he fell asleep at the wheel.
Her mother subsequently moved Stewart and her siblings to Douglas, Arizona, where she had family connections, and married a man who Stewart said physically and sexually abused her and her siblings.
“I threw myself into school, because life with my stepfather was very abusive,” said Stewart, who describes herself as a survivor and not a victim of abuse. “I just loved school because … it was important to me to be around adults that actually gave me positive reinforcement rather than the beatings and abuse that I had at home.”
Ultimately, Stewart spent her senior year of high school living with a friend’s family in a Denver suburb after her mother and stepfather moved again. Her mother killed herself shortly thereafter, and she said she never saw her stepfather again.
It’s a family story that Stewart said she did not feel comfortable discussing publicly until several years ago.
“I do think it’s important to understand where people are coming from,” she said.
After becoming a teenage orphan, Stewart spent a year attending college in Nebraska before following a high school boyfriend to Massachusetts.
She graduated from Boston University, went to graduate school and ultimately stayed in the Northeast for more than a decade before moving to New Mexico in 1978.
Once back in the West, Stewart got a job with Albuquerque Public Schools as a teacher – she worked mostly in elementary special education during her 20-plus year career – and started a family of her own.
House race victory
Stewart made her first run for a state Senate seat in 1992, after becoming involved in the American Federation of Teachers, a prominent teachers union.
She was narrowly defeated in that year’s primary race by incumbent Democrat Shannon Robinson – whom she would go on to beat in two future elections – but was undeterred and ran again for a House seat two years later.
When she was on the campaign trail in 1994, many district residents did not know the name of their current state representative, Stewart recalls.
“I kind of vowed then and there that people were going to know who I was,” said Stewart, who defeated Patricia Baca in that year’s primary election and went on to win the general election.
At the Roundhouse, Stewart quickly made a name for herself as a member of the House Education Committee.
Former state Rep. Rick Miera, a fellow Albuquerque Democrat who served as the committee’s chairman, called Stewart an “early pioneer” on educational literacy issues in the Legislature.
“I think she spurred many of us to open up that book a little further,” Miera said in an interview. “We needed to listen to what she was talking about.”
In fact, Stewart said her passion for teaching reading is the “biggest reason” she got into politics.
But there are different ideas within the education community about how to best teach children to read, and Stewart has occasionally ended up at odds with traditional allies.
For instance, Stewart said, a teachers union unsuccessfully lobbied Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to veto a 2019 bill she had sponsored that called for screening and support plans for young children with dyslexia.
During this year’s 60-day session, Stewart plans to push bills holding state funding levels steady for school districts that saw a pandemic-related enrollment decline and increasing taxpayer-funded contributions into an educators pension fund.
Meanwhile, Stewart has also weathered controversy in the Legislature, including a 1999 arrest for drunken driving in Santa Fe.
She pleaded guilty to the charge, saying she had made a mistake, and was ordered to attend DWI school and perform community service.
Going beyond education
While education issues have been Stewart’s focus during her legislative tenure, she has also ventured into other policy areas in recent years.
Specifically, Stewart has sponsored several high-profile environmental bills, such as a 2020 solar energy tax credit measure that was signed into law by Lujan Grisham.
She also played a key role in brokering a deal on 2019 legislation to create a new state Ethics Commission, after two competing bills had stalled in a Senate committee.
It’s that pragmatism that Stewart acknowledges she’ll need in her new position as Senate president pro tem, who plays a key role in determining committee assignments and chairmanships.
Unlike the two previous presidents pro tem – Democrats Tim Jennings of Roswell and Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces – Stewart was not elected by a coalition of Democrats and Republicans.
Instead, she was elected on a party-line vote after being nominated for the post by fellow Democrats during a closed-door caucus meeting.
Despite the partisan vote breakdown, Stewart said she will strive to put political differences aside when possible.
“I have to help Democrats and Republicans work together,” she said in the recent interview.
The start to this year’s session has been marked by security concerns and the COVID-19 pandemic, which prompted the controversial decision to close the Roundhouse to members of the public and lobbyists for the session’s entirety.
While Stewart acknowledged the unique session will pose challenges, she said her political education is paying dividends.
“I’m more relaxed, and I’m having more fun,” Stewart said.