House Democrats pick temporary floor leader

House Majority Whip Doreen Gallegos, D-Las Cruces, shakes hands with then-Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, after the Senate approved a plan to create a new endowment fund for New Mexico early childhood programs in 2020. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Rep. Doreen Gallegos

SANTA FE – Democratic legislators on Saturday designated House Majority Whip Doreen Gallegos as the acting majority leader, a position she’ll hold until the caucus holds an election in the coming weeks.

Democratic members of the House met in a private caucus meeting for about four hours Saturday to discuss the resignation of Sheryl Williams Stapleton, who stepped down Friday amid a criminal investigation, but they didn’t settle on a successor.

Gallegos is a Las Cruces Democrat who serves as House majority whip, the No. 3 position in the Democratic leadership team, making her a natural fit to serve temporarily as majority leader.

Stapleton had been the second-highest ranking legislator in the House, having served as majority leader since 2017.

House Democrats said they expect to elect a new majority leader in coming weeks.

“We are fortunate to have a number of highly-qualified and capable members who would serve as excellent additions to leadership,” House Speaker Brian Egolf of Santa Fe said in a written statement. “Given the serious responsibilities of this position, we want to ensure that potential candidates and caucus members have the time needed before a careful selection is made.”

The majority floor leader plays a key role in managing the flow of legislation on the House floor and shaping political strategy.

Stapleton’s resignation Friday came as law enforcement agents investigate possible kickbacks and violations of the Governmental Conduct Act.

No charges have been filed, and Stapleton has said she “unequivocally” denies the allegations. She stepped down, she said, to devote her full attention to her defense and avoid disrupting the work of the House.

Her attorney, Ahmad Assed, said Stapleton not only “adamantly maintains” her innocence but also is eager to cooperate with investigators.

The state Attorney General’s Office and a federal grand jury last week served subpoenas on Albuquerque Public Schools, where Stapleton works as coordinator and director of Career and Technical Education.

Legislative staff also received a subpoena.

A search warrant affidavit said the Attorney General’s Office was conducting a “criminal investigation of racketeering, money laundering, receiving illegal kickback, and violations of the Governmental Conduct Act.”

Stapleton’s resignation isn’t expected to affect the partisan composition of the House. The Bernalillo County Commission, where Democrats hold a majority, will appoint a replacement to represent her district, which covers a chunk of southeastern Albuquerque.

Before the resignation, Democrats held a 45-24 edge in the House over Republicans, with one independent.

Besides Egolf and Gallegos, the other member of the Democratic leadership team is Majority Caucus Chairwoman Doreen Wonda Johnson of Church Rock.

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