SANTA FE – Democrats who will control both houses of the Legislature in January meet this weekend to choose their leadership teams, and two Santa Fe lawyers may be in line for new, powerful positions.
Minority Leader Rep. Brian Egolf of Santa Fe is running to be the next House speaker, after Democrats regained the majority in that chamber in last week’s election.
Sen. Peter Wirth appears to be the likely successor to Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, who was just ousted from the Senate.
Egolf, considered by many to be the front-runner, faces opposition from Rep. Roberto “Bobby” Gonzales, D-Taos, in his bid for the speaker’s job. Wirth appears to be the only candidate in his caucus for majority leader.
The Senate’s top job, president pro tem, is considered likely to remain in the hands of Sen. Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, who has held it since 2013.
The positions of House speaker and Senate president pro tem will be voted on by the entire membership of the chambers once the Legislature meets in January. The task of the Democratic caucuses this weekend is to nominate the majority’s candidates.
The majority leader decision, however, rests exclusively with Senate Democrats, so the vote at their caucus meeting Saturday in Belen will be final.
Senate Majority Whip Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, said he has decided not to run for majority leader in the aftermath of Sanchez’s loss, and to his knowledge no one else plans to oppose Wirth.
“I think we’re coming together, even though there is a massive shift with the change in majority leader,” Padilla said Thursday. He has been majority whip for two years, and plans to run for it again.
Wirth is an even-keeled and well-respected liberal known for his willingness to reach across the aisle and work with Republicans. Currently the chairman of the Senate Conservation Committee, he was elected to the Senate in 2008 and served for four years in the House before that.
Sanchez, who had been targeted for defeat by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez and her political allies, was defeated last week by Republican newcomer Greg Baca after 24 years in the Senate. The majority leader controls the voting agenda on the Senate floor, and the governor complained Sanchez blocked some of her legislation.
Egolf, who has been in the House since 2009, has been the minority leader for the past two years, since Democrats in 2014 lost control of the House to Republicans for the first time in six decades.
The new Democratic speaker will succeed Speaker Don Tripp, R-Socorro.
There was a four-way contest for House majority leader heading into the House Democratic caucus, which is scheduled for Sunday in Santa Fe. Running for majority leader were Albuquerque Democratic Reps. Javier Martinez, Sheryl Williams Stapleton and Patricia Roybal Caballero, and Rep. Debbie Rodella, D-Espanola.
Although the outcome of last week’s election isn’t yet official, if the current results hold when three close legislative races are recounted, Democrats would outnumber Republicans 38-32 in the House and 26-16 in the Senate. The Senate already had a Democratic majority, but shored it up with an apparent gain of two seats.