Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – A Rio Rancho clergyman and civil rights leader faults Gov. Susana Martinez for not speaking out after the recent murders in a South Carolina church, a criticism her spokesman labeled “ridiculous.”
The Rev. Charles Becknell, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of New Mexico, says the governor’s lack of public comment underscores what he views as the Republican governor’s frayed relationship with the state’s African-American community.
The nine South Carolina victims – including the pastor, who was also a state senator – were gunned down in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston last month, allegedly by a 21-year-old white man who had joined them at a Bible study class.
The governor did not issue a public statement. But she “was, and is, heartbroken by the tragedy and senseless violence that occurred in South Carolina,” spokesman Chris Sanchez said.
“She has personally called Governor Nikki Haley to offer her thoughts, prayers and support. (She also praised Gov. Haley for her decision to call for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina capitol),” Sanchez wrote in an email.
The flag was removed from outside the South Carolina Capitol on July 10.
Meanwhile, some African-American Republican lawmakers commended the governor’s outreach and efforts, and said the blacks she has tapped during her tenure have been very strong appointments.
But Becknell, the pastor of Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church in Rio Rancho, wrote to Martinez on June 23, saying many predominantly African-American churches in New Mexico were grieving the Charleston killings and “need to hear from you … need this expression of concern from your office.”
In an interview with the Journal, Becknell reiterated his long-standing criticism of the governor for what he contends is her failure to appoint black New Mexicans to high-level positions in state government.
And he said he wanted Martinez to “just bring some comfort to the people and let us know she understands what we’re going through.”
He said he got no response to his letter.
Sanchez said it was “shameful” for Becknell “to try to use a national tragedy to score political points on other issues.”
Martinez, who is in her second term, ran into criticism early on for cuts she made to the $5.4 billion state budget that included vetoing the entire budget of the African American Performing Arts Center at Expo New Mexico.
There are currently few – if any – blacks, who according to census figures account for about 3 percent of the state’s population, in the highest-profile posts such as Cabinet secretaries, university boards of regents, and influential financial boards.
The governor had appointed Conrad James of Albuquerque, who is black, to the University of New Mexico Board of Regents in 2013, but he resigned after he was elected the following year to the state House of Representatives.
There are also administration-appointed African-Americans serving as deputy secretary of the Corrections Department; as executive director and in other positions at the Office of African American Affairs, which was created under the administration of Republican Gov. Gary Johnson; as general counsel in the Department of Indian Affairs; and as commissioners of the Martin Luther King Jr. Commission.
“I do think the governor has made some substantial efforts,” said James, a Republican, who pointed to what he said is the improved statewide outreach and coordination with business and community leaders that has given the Office of African American Affairs a higher profile.
“I think she may not have appointed enough (blacks) in their eyes, but the folks she has appointed have been very qualified,” said Rep. Jane Powdrell-Culbert, a Republican House member from Corrales who is black.
The lawmaker also said there has never been a governor who has satisfied every group.
“I’m a legislator. I wish we could get her to do everything we wanted,” Powdrell-Culbert said.
But former state Treasurer James Lewis, a Democrat twice elected statewide, said “I think there has been some real concern that we aren’t being included, as African-Americans.”
“The (population) numbers should not dictate the representation,” said Lewis, whose 38-year career in government included being chief of staff to Gov. Bruce King.
Bishop David Cooper, senior pastor of New Hope Full Gospel Baptist Church in Albuquerque, said he isn’t critical of Martinez for not issuing a statement, but he agrees it would have been appropriate for the state’s highest-elected official to say something in solidarity.
“I think that some of the leaders in our community are sensitive to what they believe is a lack of interaction as it relates to the governor’s office,” Cooper said.
But “talk with follow-up” is the most important thing, Cooper said. He suggested that New Mexico look again at issues such as racism, hate crimes, treatment of mental illness, gun violence and the accessibility of guns.
“I just think there needs to be additional discussion on the issue of race,” said Harold Bailey, former executive director of the Office of African American Affairs.
“Racism is alive and well, and it’s going to continue to be alive and well if we do not address it openly and come into the discussion with an open mind.”