Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – As Democrats resume control of the state House, they’ve put in the speaker’s chair the young lawyer who kept them together the past couple of years and helped engineer their resurgence.
Rep. Brian Egolf of Santa Fe assumes one of the most powerful positions in state government at the most challenging of times: The budget cupboard is bare, and the road to recovery will be painful.
Egolf spent the past two years as House minority leader, rallying his fellow Democrats – outnumbered for the first time in 60 years – to take on the GOP majority.
When Republicans unleashed a torrent of legislation they opposed, Democrats resisted, in long hours of debate on the House floor.
Now, Egolf is running the show, requiring a different skill set, and one he hopes his college-era schooling in diplomacy will help with.
There are fundamental philosophical differences between Republican Gov. Susana Martinez and the Democrats who now control both houses of the Legislature over how to balance the budget.
“This will create tremendous challenges for the new speaker, to come up with a means to reach a compromise with the governor,” said Brian Sanderoff, an Albuquerque pollster and political analyst.
Egolf, the 29th person to be House speaker since statehood, succeeds Republican Don Tripp, a Socorro businessman who had the job for two years after his party won a majority in the 2014 election.
The two men, on opposite ends of the political spectrum, got along fine.
“He is respected, I know, on my side of the aisle,” Tripp said. “Some of the conservatives don’t like his political stand on items, but … I think he’s pretty well-trusted. Most people have found him good to his word.”
Tripp, who has resigned his legislative seat, bought Egolf the gavel he will use to move things along and keep order on the House floor.
“Part of being a good speaker is being fair with the opposition and promoting debate on the floor and keeping the process as open as possible,” Tripp told the Journal. “I think it’ll force him to be a little less political, the fact he has to be speaker over both sides of the aisle.”
First elected in 2008
Brian Franklin Egolf Jr., 40, was first sent to the House in 2008 from a heavily Democratic Santa Fe-area district. He has been easily re-elected, sometimes with no opponent at all, since then.
He is squarely within the progressive camp of Democrats, but he says the idea that most resonates with him is the “square deal” touted by Theodore Roosevelt, the former Republican president who in 1912 ran as the nominee of the newly formed Progressive Party.
“So I see my politics as making sure I do everything I can so that everybody gets a fair shake and a fair deal,” he said. “I really can’t stand it when it seems that the big person has the field tilted in their favor and can squish the little guy.”
Egolf, in his second-floor law office just off the Santa Fe Plaza, pulled out an old, framed photograph that was his grandmother’s.
In the center of a group of men – apparently Progressive Party supporters – gathered in Albuquerque in 1912 is his great-grandfather, Harry Franklin.
According to family lore, Franklin, a surveyor, lived in Santa Fe for a time in the early years of the 20th century before relocating to Oklahoma.
Harry Franklin’s brother, Wirt Franklin, was a prominent Oklahoma oilman and a founder of the Independent Petroleum Association of America.
Egolf’s father and late grandfather also were oilmen; his grandfather, William T. Egolf, founded Petroleum Investments Ltd.
Speaker Egolf was born in Oklahoma City but grew up in Santa Fe, where he graduated from the private Santa Fe Preparatory School.
A self-described science nerd with a passion for physics, he also sang and danced in high school and college musicals.
At Georgetown University – where he graduated from the School of Foreign Service, majoring in diplomacy and international security – he was in the Mask and Bauble Dramatic Society, the oldest continuously running collegiate theater troupe.
When he graduated, he moved to New York and started a theater company. But he soon gave that up and headed back to D.C.
Politics had tugged at him “in fits and starts.” While at Georgetown, he had been a White House intern and then worked for President Bill Clinton’s re-election.
Back in Washington, he worked for the Treasury Department and for then-Rep. Tom Udall, now a U.S. senator from New Mexico.
Egolf then returned home and went to law school at the University of New Mexico. His small law firm has handled a range of cases, including forcing county clerks in Santa Fe, Taos and Los Alamos counties to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples before the state Supreme Court legalized gay marriage statewide.
Egolf’s wife, Kelly, is the founder of an organic juice business in Santa Fe. The couple met in Washington, D.C., and have two daughters: Cameron, 9, and Sidney, 6.
Clashes with GOP
The new House speaker describes himself as pragmatic, worried about the consequences of the decisions made in the Capitol – “Who, 100 miles away from this building, is going to be helped or hurt by the things that are done here?” – and wary of the gamesmanship and superheated partisanship.
He told the governor recently that “my goal was to try to turn down the temperature of the conversation a little bit.”
But he has been a target for Republicans over the years.
GOP members of the energy committee he was newly chairing in 2011 stormed out to protest a presentation on environmental rules. The state Republican Party this year filed a complaint with the attorney general alleging Egolf wrongly received personal payments in 2015 from a political committee. The GOP provided no evidence for it, and Egolf showed the Journal receipts for the payments, which were expense reimbursements.
Egolf has been an aggressive fundraiser for himself and other Democratic candidates, and was instrumental in his party’s victories in the November election that gave Democrats a 38-32 margin in the House this year.
“He built a great opposition over the last two years and built a great campaign operation,” said Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque.
He called Egolf “a very smart, pragmatic and inclusive leader.”