“I was finished with my bachelor’s, working on my master’s and I wasn’t ready to leave that campus environment. I wasn’t ready to work, or grow up, or leave. It was comfortable. … And I couldn’t do blood, so medical school was out of the question, so I applied to law school. I knew that would have kept me there for another three years,” she said, seated at the conference room table of Stelzner, Winter, Warburton, Flores, Sanchez & Dawes, where she specializes in utilities law.
Winter had always been the studious type, getting all A’s, staying out of trouble, “kind of not on the radar” in school, she says of her childhood in Chicago’s Polish district, where life was insular – revolving around family, food and religion. Tiny vegetable gardens grew at the backs of houses and, “on holidays, the priest would bless our food.”
“The first house that we had was a brownstone and my parents had the basement, and my dad’s grandparents, my great-grandparents, were in the floor above us, and cousins and aunts and uncles were in the two floors above them. (Her three siblings also lived there.) And then we moved to the suburbs …”
Winter’s first jobs were as a lifeguard and working retail. Long-term career goals: “Either a fashion designer or politician.”
Though the closest she has come to the latter is marrying City Councilman Brad Winter, she did declare art as her first major at William Rainey Harper College in Chicago.
“Mostly I was charcoal, pencil, pastels,” she said. “Once I came here (the University of New Mexico), I started pursuing sewing, costume design, that sort of thing. I quit doing art classes but kind of concentrated in the home ec department on campus.” (She had transferred to UNM because some of her friends were going there.) Winter would be close to finishing her third degree before choosing a profession. “I had no idea I’d be a lawyer until I was in my last year of law school,” she says.
Winter has been advising and representing public agencies and local governments since 1987. Clients include Raton Natural Gas, Los Alamos County, Trinidad Power & Light in Trinidad, Colo., and the City of Scottsdale, Ariz. She serves as general counsel to the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Authority and represents local government interests in regulatory and rate-making proceedings before the state Public Regulation Commission.
Q: How did you end up in such a specialized field?
A: I’m a local government board-certified specialist, with an emphasis in public utilities or in consumer advocacy. And it started in Attorney General Hal Stratton’s office. I started there doing two years in litigation, and an opening came up in the Consumer Protection Division and it was consumer advocacy by the AG’s office, representing residential ratepayers in natural gas, telecommunications and electric rate cases. And I transferred from litigation to there, and as soon as I saw a Public Service Company of New Mexico filing – it was probably three bankers’ boxes full of spread sheets and financial statements – that’s when I knew. It was like being 27 years old and having that, ‘This is what I want to be when I grow up’ moment. It was really just a perfect mix of math and advocacy.
Q: What has kept you doing it for almost 25 years?
A: (The job) is always different. … My consumer advocacy now has shifted from residentials to large consumers of electric energy or large consumers of water or large consumers of natural gas. So there’s still that consumer advocacy component of it, sort of public service – helping government be more efficient, be more economic. It feels good to help other people even if my consumer is a government. It’s still very satisfying work. … If I can make it work better, even if there’s never the perception that it’s working better, if I know I can help it work a little better, great, it makes me feel better. I like it.
Q: You thought seriously for a while about fashion design. How did you come by that talent?
A: My mom was a sewer. … I like costumes – you know the whole Gothic fairy tale, Grimm costume. Not Hollywood today, but Elizabethan. The costuming in “(Snow White and) the Huntsman” looks amazing.
Q: You have said you probably would have been a career student if that would have paid the bills. Did you consider a degree in anything else?
A: I did actually. Petroleum geology. Don’t ask why.
Q: What do you think is the biggest misperception people have of you when they first meet you?
A: Probably that I’m cold or arrogant, but … I like to listen. … People sometimes feel a bit intimidated by listening. I sit there, I’m quiet and I listen, and sometimes people take that the wrong way. My listening has been characterized as anything from arrogance, to stupidity to calculating – you know, it’s across the board.
Q: Do you have any goals you’d like to achieve in the next decade or so?
A: I would love to do regulatory mediation, and I just … got my certification in meditation out in California. I would like to apply that skill some day – bringing people together in a nonadversarial, or a less adversarial format.
Q: How does your cultural heritage affect how you live your life today?
A: We were blue-collar, hard-working , typically the laborers. The Poles were the laborers in Chicago in the mid-1900s. And so my grandfathers, my uncles, they owned furniture stores, they built furniture, they all worked really hard. So there’s no doubt that even though it’s not – I don’t know that it comes from Warsaw necessarily – but there’s a work ethic I definitely inherited, and a commitment to family.
Q: What do you think has been your greatest contribution to the state or the Albuquerque area?
A: Probably just that I’ve been part of a process that keeps our utility rates as low as possible. And it’s so out there. It’s so not on the radar. It’s like so, ‘Big deal, so what?’ But I know that I’ve done that. I know I’ve been part of that process.