SANTA FE – New Mexico Senate Democrats made history this week by electing a second woman to the chamber’s majority leadership team amid the #metoo movement and the growing political power of women.
But the move is drawing criticism from some Hispanic lawmakers who are concerned about a lack of representation at the highest levels of the Senate, where Hispanics for decades have steered the ruling party’s legislative agenda. Now, the leadership team is all white.
On Monday, Senate Democrats chose Mimi Stewart as majority whip to replace Michael Padilla, who was forced out following complaints about decade-old harassment allegations at a previous job.
Stewart joins Senate President Pro Tempore Mary Kay Papen, marking the first time two women have been part of the majority leadership team, according to the Legislative Council Service. Sen. Peter Wirth, a Santa Fe lawyer, is majority leader.
While some are celebrating the rise of women in leadership, Stewart’s selection marks the first time since 1986 that the upper chamber had an all-white leadership team in a Southwestern state where Hispanics have historically held high-profile elected positions.
The long stretch of Hispanics holding the top leadership position in each chamber ended only recently when longtime Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez lost his re-election bid in 2016.
Hispanics make up the majority of the caucus that elects the leaders, but some Hispanic lawmakers say at least one of the top three spots should have gone to a Latina since the state has the highest percentage of Hispanic residents in the nation.
The top two GOP leadership positions also are held by whites.
Sen. John Sapien, a Corrales Democrat, said the all-white team has sparked questions among Hispanic lawmakers about the direction of the Democratic Party and how the party views Hispanics.
“What concerns me is the message this sends,” Sapien said.
Sen. Joseph Cervantes, a Las Cruces Democrat who is running for governor, said he has mixed feelings. While placing women in important leadership roles was long overdue, he said he is concerned about Hispanic voices in the state Democratic Party being sidelined.
“This is why Gov. Susana Martinez got elected,” said Cervantes, referring to the Republican Latina governor who twice comfortably beat two white Democratic opponents. “The Democratic Party in New Mexico has not given Hispanics a reason to go out and vote (for Democrats).”
Papen said although the Democratic leadership is all white, a number of Hispanic senators chair key committees.
Sen. Howie Morales, a Silver City Democrat, said he wasn’t too worried. “(Stewart) was elected fairly by the caucus and I look forward to what we can accomplish together,” he said.
Patricia Roybal Caballero, an Albuquerque Democrat who serves in the New Mexico House, said Senate Democrats have an obligation to make sure they have an ethnically diverse leadership team.
“We are the face of New Mexico and we need representation in our leadership,” she said.
New Mexico is a state that historically has elected and elevated Hispanic political leaders from its territorial days. Its sizable Hispanic population and influential Hispanic families dating to Spanish colonial days helped give rise to such leaders as the late U.S. Sen. Dennis Chavez and former U.S. Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr.
In recent years, Sapien said Hispanics have been losing influence in the state Democratic Party due to changes to the state central committee that critics say favor white affluent precincts, which typically have higher voter turnouts.
“It’s been a subtle transition of power,” Sapien said. “Now it’s overt.”
Gabriel Sanchez, a University of New Mexico political science professor, said the change in New Mexico is similar to challenges the Democratic Party is facing nationally.
“The Democratic bench just isn’t as deep because they haven’t worked as hard to recruit people of color to run for office,” Sanchez said. “This is reversible, but it’s going to have to take hard work.”