Senate tension mars opening day as governor urges action - Albuquerque Journal

Senate tension mars opening day as governor urges action

A group of protesters display signs, chant and disrupt the start of the Governor’s State of the State speech broadcast in the House Chambers Tuesday, January 18 2022. YUCCA, Youth United for Climate Crisis Action, claimed responsibility. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The bang of the gavel usually opens a day of ceremony and introductions at the Capitol.

But tension erupted almost immediately Tuesday in the state Senate – where members clashed over requiring masks in the chamber and then whether to remove Sen. Jacob Candelaria from the powerful Senate Finance Committee.

Neither dispute was settled.

At one point, Candelaria stopped by the desk of Sen. Michael Padilla – his proposed replacement on Senate Finance – for an exchange that was not picked up by the microphone.

Padilla put up his hands and appeared to tell Candelaria to “get away from me.”

Candelaria walked out of the chamber. He said afterward he had simply wanted to ask Padilla a question.

The conflict played out in the first two hours of the first day of the session, and comes after an especially contentious special session last month on redistricting. It was a jarring contrast to what’s often an easy-going afternoon dedicated to introducing family members and guests, while preparing for the governor’s annual State of the State speech.

But Tuesday’s mood was tense.

A proposal to keep the Senate’s mask mandate in place triggered the first conflict.

The proposed rule failed to get the two-thirds vote necessary to become effective immediately and instead is expected to be brought back through a committee recommendation, a process that will require just a majority vote.

The Senate voted 26-15 in favor of the measure Tuesday, but it was two votes short of the required two-thirds.

The dissenting votes came from Republicans, though all but a handful of them had masks on, anyway. Some GOP members said the mask rule should be vetted in committee rather than automatically extended.

Republican Sen. Gregg Schmedes, a Tijeras doctor who works as an airway surgical specialist, was among those not wearing a mask as he sat at his desk on the chamber floor.

He told the chamber that he would respect social distancing protocols, but that he doesn’t believe masks are effective “the way we’re using them.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends masks for indoor public spaces in areas of high transmission, such as New Mexico, which has had record-breaking daily case counts in recent weeks.

The absence of universal masking was noted on Twitter by Democratic Sen. Jeff Steinborn of Las Cruces, among others, drawing a GOP retort on the floor.

“I guess this legislative session is starting like the last one – with a lack of respect,” Republican Sen. Mark Moores of Albuquerque said. “If we want to work together, stop being a teenage girl on Twitter.”

In an interview, Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, said she hopes the opening rancor doesn’t interfere with the chamber’s work.

“I’m hoping we can all calm down and just work on the legislation we need to work on,” she said late Tuesday. “We’ll have to see.”

‘No yelling’

Stewart was in the middle of some of Tuesday’s conflict.

She proposed new committee assignments that would remove Candelaria – who has repeatedly criticized her leadership – from the Senate Finance Committee.

Amid the fallout, Candelaria last month changed his political affiliation from the Democratic Party to “decline to state,” or independent.

On Tuesday, he passionately urged senators to reject the motion to remove him from the committee, describing the Senate as a deliberative body that respects the independence of its members.

“That’s the point of a Senate – to be able to fiercely disagree and debate without childish, petulant retaliatory actions being taken,” Candelaria said.

Stewart said she had plenty of reasons to propose the committee assignments, but wasn’t going to discuss them in an interview. Candelaria, she said, had said in an email last year he wouldn’t object to the change.

“I don’t find it helpful to engage with him at all,” Stewart said.

The Senate postponed a vote on the issue.

Candelaria later stopped by Stewart’s desk – adjacent to his own – and then Padilla’s as he walked out of the chamber.

Contradictory accounts emerged of what was said.

Stewart said Candelaria yelled, which he disputed. “That’s absolutely false. There was no yelling,” Candelaria said.

The committee dispute, in any case, may end with a whimper.

Candelaria said late Tuesday that he is voluntarily giving up his objection to the new assignments and is ready to move on for the good of the Senate.

Candelaria, a civil rights lawyer from Albuquerque, added that he intends to resign from the Senate later this year and that he will pursue discrimination litigation against Stewart.

The mask mandate is expected to resurface Wednesday.

An emergency health order already requires indoor masking for public spaces in New Mexico, but legislative officials say it does not apply to the Legislature, which is empowered by the state Constitution to set its own rules and procedures.

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, urged lawmakers to respect each other’s wishes until a rule is in place.

Schmedes, for his part, did not wear a mask when seated at his desk, but put one on when visiting legislative staff to sign paperwork. While seated, senators are about 6 feet from each other, though the layout in the chamber varies.

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