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Stapleton makes history as first black floor leader

SANTA FE – Longtime state Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton of Albuquerque made history last weekend, being elected by fellow House Democrats as the first black floor leader in the history of the New Mexico Legislature.

Rep. Sheryl WIlliams Stapleton

Rep. Sheryl WIlliams Stapleton

Stapleton, who has served in the House since 1995, acknowledged feeling satisfaction at the distinction, but said she didn’t think her ethnicity factored into the leadership vote. She beat out three other lawmakers for the majority floor leader post in a closed-door caucus vote.

“The members know me and know my experience,” she told the Journal.

Although her tenure won’t technically begin until January, when newly elected lawmakers take office, Stapleton’s election is already making waves in New Mexico, which had about 53,000 black residents in 2014 out of a total population of just over 2 million, according to the state Office of African American Affairs.

Harold Bailey, president of the Albuquerque chapter of the NAACP, said Tuesday that Stapleton is highly regarded in Albuquerque’s black community.

“She’s been an outstanding leader in the African-American community and the New Mexico community at large,” Bailey said. “She has a long history of political involvement.”

However, Stapleton has also been at the center of controversy in recent years.

She apologized in December 2011 for referring to Gov. Susana Martinez as “the Mexican on the fourth floor” during a confrontation with a Republican legislator.

She said last week that she still believes the remark was taken out of context – citing cultural differences from her upbringing in the U.S. Virgin Islands – and does not think it will be a distraction in her new leadership post.

In addition, Stapleton, who was also the first black woman elected to the New Mexico Legislature, has faced criticism from some Republicans for not taking unpaid leave from her job as an Albuquerque Public Schools administrator during legislative sessions. The APS policy on leave for employees serving as legislators has been altered several times in recent years.

After two years of GOP control, Democrats reclaimed the House in this month’s general election, prompting the leadership shuffle. Democrats are on track to enter next year’s 60-day legislative session with at least a 38-32 majority, pending recounts in two House races.

As majority leader, Stapleton will play a key role in running House floor sessions and setting the policy agenda for House Democrats. She’s previously held the job of whip with the House under both Democratic and Republican control.

A teachers union ally, Stapleton has been critical of the Martinez administration’s education initiatives. She was one of several Democratic lawmakers who signed on to a 2015 lawsuit seeking to strike down the state’s teacher evaluation system.

In her new post, Stapleton said she hopes stalemates can be avoided in a cash-strapped state in which Martinez, the state’s two-term Republican governor, has two years left in office.

“We have a little cushion in the House and a little cushion in the Senate,” Stapleton said. “I think the governor will be willing to work with us collectively.”

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