Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Rachel Gudgel – a top legislative staff member who was reprimanded last year after allegations that she made disparaging comments about Native Americans – is stepping down.
Gudgel, director of the Legislative Education Study Committee, submitted her resignation letter Wednesday, and the committee accepted it during a meeting in Socorro.
Lawmakers quickly appointed an acting director – Vanessa Hawker, the committee’s deputy director and a former budget officer at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center.
Hawker will serve through at least the end of the 2022 legislative session.
Sen. William Soules, a Las Cruces Democrat and chairman of the Legislative Education Study Committee, said the resignation resolves a difficult period for the agency, which analyzes education policy.
Pueblo governors and the Navajo Nation president had called for Gudgel’s removal, and a motion in July to fire Gudgel failed on a 5-5 vote.
“It was very clear that it was going to be difficult for the LESC to move forward with her as the director just because of the public outcry,” Soules said Wednesday.
Gudgel said she intends to go on leave until mid-February, allowing her to use the paid leave she has accumulated as a legislative staffer since 2005. She has been paid about $129,000 a year.
In a written statement, Gudgel said she loved her job.
But “the harassment and difficult work environment over the past 3 months has created an atmosphere that is just too challenging for me to continue to work in and be effective,” Gudgel said.
She said she was disappointed because she had done everything legislative leaders had asked, “but now that this issue has become public many in these leadership positions no longer support me today.”
Her dismissal comes after a confidential investigation last year into an employee complaint, including allegations that she had made disparaging comments about Native Americans.
Native American leaders called for release of the report, and Gudgel faced harsh criticism.
Legislative staff wouldn’t release the findings of the personnel investigation, making it unclear precisely what she was accused of and what allegations, if any, were substantiated.
But Gudgel has said she was reprimanded. She was also put on probation, and lawmakers hired a management consultant to work with her and the LESC staff, according to legislators.
Gudgel subsequently apologized for what she described as “isolated, insensitive comments” and asked Native American families for forgiveness.
She was hired in 2015 as LESC director, a post that made her a top adviser to lawmakers on education policy and budgeting. She had previously worked as the principal education analyst at the Legislative Finance Committee and as a public defender.
Tribal leaders said Gudgel’s resignation was nothing to celebrate and that lawmakers should adopt legislation protecting the educational rights of Native American students.
“The legislature must work on regaining the confidence of tribal leaders,” Pueblo of Acoma Gov. Brian Vallo said in a written statement released by the All Pueblo Council of Governors. “It’s time for a fresh start.”
The Legislative Education Study Committee meets between legislative sessions to review education policy and research, and its staff provide technical support to lawmakers during regular legislative sessions.
Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, an Albuquerque Democrat and member of the LESC, said Gudgel showed courage by resigning from a job she wanted to keep.
Gudgel played a critical role, Stewart said, in recent legislation that revised New Mexico’s budget formula to boost funding directed to schools serving large Native American communities.
Going forward, Stewart said, “I’m hopeful that we can all come together as a committee and focus on kids’ learning and education. There’s a lot of work ahead of us.”