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Shake-up in leadership for NM House Democrats

SANTA FE – After losing control of the New Mexico House of Representatives for the first time in 60 years, House Democrats are facing a shake-up in leadership.

House Speaker Ken Martinez, D-Grants, confirmed Tuesday that he won’t seek election to a new Democratic leadership post in the new-era House, even though he said he likely had the votes needed to be elected.

MARTINEZ: Won't seek minority leader post

MARTINEZ: Won’t seek minority leader post

“Having been speaker, I think it’s not a good idea to be kind of a partisan leader,” Martinez told the Journal. “If I was the (minority floor) leader, it would seem to be about me wanting to be speaker again.”

With Martinez set to step aside, several other House Democrats said Tuesday they will seek to become the House minority leader, the chamber’s top-ranking Democrat. A caucus meeting to vote on leadership positions is expected to be held within two weeks.

Rep. Brian Egolf of Santa Fe and Rep. Eliseo Alcón of Milan both said Tuesday that they are gunning for the post, while others could also enter the fray.

Egolf said a big part of the job would be aiming to reclaim control of the House in 2016, when all 70 seats will once again be up for election. He said he would aim to end the “Republican experiment” by raising campaign cash and highlighting policy differences.

For his part, Alcón said he would bring experience to the position. He caused a stir in 2011 with his comments that Gov. Susana Martinez lacks compassion and would “kick you in the kidneys” if you were lying outside the state Capitol.

A Martinez aide described the comments at the time as an “unfortunate personal attack.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, said he will seek election as whip for the House Democrats, a position he held for the past two years while the party held a majority.

He is expected to face a challenge from Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton, also of Albuquerque, who could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday.

“We have to flip the switch and understand the role of a legislative minority,” said Maestas, who added that Democrats might end up being frequently outvoted in the House but can still seek to influence legislation and proceedings in the chamber.

Republicans gained four seats in the 70-member House in last week’s general election and, as a result, will enter next year’s 60-day legislative session with a 37-33 majority.

The last time Republicans had outnumbered Democrats in the chamber was 1954.

House Republicans held their own caucus meeting Nov. 8, nominating Rep. Don Tripp of Socorro to be the next House speaker and naming Rep. Nate Gentry of Albuquerque as their floor leader.

The change in control is expected to lead to a new policy direction. Voter ID legislation and a measure dealing with mandatory labor union dues are among the issues expected to be on the House GOP agenda for the 2015 session. Other bills previously sought by the Martinez administration, such as a proposed repeal of the 2003 law that allows immigrants in the country illegally to receive New Mexico driver’s licenses, will also likely be revisited.

House Speaker Martinez said his decision not to run for a leadership position in the House was not made in response to the Democrats’ election losses or to some legislators’ dissatisfaction with him for allowing a vote on a 2013 tax package.

The tax package, which included a corporate income tax cut and an expansion of the state’s film tax credit for TV shows, was passed during the final minutes of the 2013 legislative session and subsequently signed into law by Gov. Martinez.

Rep. Martinez, who is not related to the governor, also said he does not plan to publicly endorse anyone in the House Democratic leadership elections.

“I think we should be ready, willing and able to pass the baton along to the next generation,” he told the Journal .

Martinez spearheaded the House Democrats’ attempt to retain control of the House, which fell short despite pro-Democratic political action committees pumping more than $2 million into key races around the state.

In another post-election twist, Rep. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, said Tuesday that she will apply to the Bernalillo County Commission to be named to the state Senate seat currently held by Sen. Tim Keller.

Stewart, who has served in the House since 1995, said she had been thinking of the possible move for several years, even before this year’s election results.

Keller, who is also an Albuquerque Democrat, was elected last week as the next state auditor. His term does not start until Jan. 1, meaning his Senate seat will likely not be vacated until after that date.