A Republican legislator said she was verbally assailed by House Majority Whip Sheryl Williams Stapleton during a committee break at the Capitol on Wednesday and that the Democratic leader angrily referred to Gov. Susana Martinez as “the Mexican on the Fourth Floor.”
Rep. Nora Espinoza, R-Roswell, said Stapleton accused her of publicly questioning her (Stapleton’s) integrity during a recent controversy involving Albuquerque Public Schools, where Stapleton works as an administrator while also serving in the Legislature.
” ‘You’re carrying the water for the Mexican on the Fourth Floor,’ ” Espinoza quoted Stapleton as saying, referring to the controversy and the Republican governor.
“She said it three times right there” during a lunch break of the Legislative Education Study Committee, Espinoza said.
Stapleton acknowledged confronting Espinoza on the integrity issue, then making the remark about the governor, but she said she did not mean it in a derogatory way or as an ethnic slur. She said she was upset because Espinoza had spoken “negatively about APS and corruption,” calling her personal integrity into question.
“If I offended anyone, I apologize,” Stapleton told the Journal in a telephone interview later. “That was not my intent.”
Referring to someone as a “Mexican” in New Mexico – where many residents pride themselves on Hispanic, or European, ancestry – has often been construed to be an ethnic slur. Martinez’s paternal grandparents were from Mexico. Martinez, born in El Paso, is the nation’s first elected Hispanic female governor.
“I would never say anything derogatory,” said Stapleton, who in 1994 became the first black woman elected to the New Mexico Legislature.
Stapleton, who was born in the Virgin Islands, said she had grandparents who were Cuban and Puerto Rican and that she considers herself at least partly Latina. She said she told Espinoza in Spanish that, “I have a lot of respect for you because you are a Latina, like I am.”
Espinoza, who denied questioning the integrity of Stapleton by name, said she was left in “a state of shock” by Stapleton’s behavior Wednesday. “I couldn’t believe what was happening.”
Martinez was away from her Fourth Floor office at the Capitol on Wednesday, participating in public events in Alamogordo.
“Yes, we are aware of the incident,” Governor’s Office spokesman Scott Darnell said. “We do not have any comment on her (Stapleton’s) statement, except to say that it’s certainly sad and disappointing.”
Stapleton acknowledged that she approached Espinoza during the committee lunch break Wednesday to object to comments Espinoza made last month about possible “corruption” within Albuquerque Public Schools.
The corruption discussion emerged in late October when KRQE -TV’s Larry Barker raised questions about Stapleton being paid her APS salary as coordinator of vocational education while also collecting the Legislature’s per diem allowance for legislative sessions and meetings.
Stapleton’s receipt of her school district salary while away from her APS office and in Santa Fe on legislative business – a practice in which she is not alone as a legislator and public school employee – was in violation of APS policy at the time.
After the fact, APS Superintendent Winston Brooks changed the school district’s policy to allow Stapleton to receive her APS salary while performing legislative service.
Brooks on Wednesday commented on Stapleton’s confrontation of Espinoza, saying: “I don’t condone that kind of behavior; I think it’s totally inappropriate. I’m very disappointed that we would have an employee be as culturally insensitive as she apparently was today. I intend to have my staff look into it.”
Espinoza said Wednesday that she never mentioned Stapleton’s name in media interviews earlier this year about the APS policy controversy. “I was questioning Superintendent Brooks about why all of a sudden he was changing the regulation. (I asked) Is there corruption?”
Espinoza said the Governor’s Office never has contacted her about Brooks and the APS policy change.
Rep. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, another member of the Legislative Education Study Committee, witnessed the incident involving Stapleton on Wednesday and confirmed what Stapleton said.
But, while calling the confrontation inappropriate, Stewart said she did not think Stapleton meant the remark about the governor to be an ethnic slur.
“That’s not the way I understood it,” Stewart said. “She (Stapleton) was pretty angry at Nora for saying she (Stapleton) was essentially corrupt.”
Stewart, a retired APS employee, said New Mexico’s part-time legislators, many of whom also hold full-time jobs to support themselves, “are in a hard situation” with the dual duties, while also being in the public eye.
Journal staff writer Hailey Heinz contributed to this report.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal