January 22, 2018

Senator calls on Martinez appointee as education chief to resign

New Mexico Public Education Department

NM PED Secretary Christopher Ruszkowki at Breakfast Before the Bell at Chaparral Elementary in Deming. (Twitter)

State Sen. Linda Lopez is calling for the head of the New Mexico Public Education Department to resign over comments last month touting Manifest Destiny as one of the “fundamental principles of the country” — remarks that drew a scathing rebuke from Pueblo leaders.

The department says Secretary-Designate Christopher Ruszkowski has reached out to tribal officials to express remorse after his comments at a charter school conference were reported in The Albuquerque Journal.

But the remarks have still stirred outrage among indigenous New Mexicans who argue Ruszkowski demonstrated a lack of understanding about the history of westward expansion and the role of the education system in dispossessing Native Americans. The comments even drew the attention of The Washington Post this month.

In a letter to Ruszkowski, Lopez wrote that he had still not explained what she described as “ill-advised comments.”

“Given the unsettling nature of your comments, and the unremorseful attitude you display by refusing to explain and apologize to those you offended by those statements, I believe it is long overdue that you resign as secretary-designate of the New Mexico Public Education Department,” wrote Lopez, a Democrat from Albuquerque.

The letter from Lopez is significant because she chairs the Senate Rules Committee, which is responsible for vetting and voting on the governor’s appointments to cabinet posts, such as Ruszkowski’s.

But a spokeswoman maintained Ruszkowski has the full support of Gov. Susana Martinez and fired back, suggesting Lopez is using a double standard.

Spokeswoman Lida Alikhani pointed to remarks in 2011 by current House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton describing Martinez as “the Mexican on the fourth floor” — remarks for which Stapleton later apologized. And Alikhani brought up remarks by the new Senate Democratic Whip, Mimi Stewart, who said over the summer that “we don’t know how to teach kids from poverty. They come with no skills. Well, they have street-fighting skills.”

Lopez did not call on Democrats Stapleton or Stewart to resign, she argued.

“Linda Lopez has the most pathetic record in the entire Legislature and this is all about covering for her failings,” Alikhani said in an email. “… No, Secretary Ruszkowski is not going to resign. He is the best choice to serve all of New Mexico’s children.”

Speaking at a charter school conference last month, Ruszkowski said: “This is a country built over the last 250 years on things like freedom, choice, competition, options, going west, Manifest Destiny – these are the fundamental principles of this country.”

The All Pueblo Council of Governors wrote in a letter to Ruszkowski a few weeks later that the comments were “utterly disgraceful, lacking any sensitivity, understanding appreciation of the atrocious impacts of Manifest Destiny upon generations of our people.”

“A person in your position in 2017 in a state with a population that has been significantly victimized and devastated by these policies you espouse regrettably has no place in a leadership capacity,” the council said, calling an apology “the least that our children, their parents and our leaders deserve.”

Lopez in her letter pointed to the Public Education Department’s policies, such as changes to language programs, as “one more example of the continuation of Manifest Destiny’s legacy.”

The Senate has not yet confirmed Ruszkowski, who took office over the summer and will almost certainly have to leave office anyway at the end of the year when Martinez finishes her term.

Still, the letter from Lopez seems to set up another showdown over the governor’s pick for public education secretary. The governor’s first education secretary had one of the most contentious confirmation processes of the Martinez administration. Ruszkowski may prove no less controversial.

Contact Andrew Oxford at 505-986-3093 at aoxford@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewoxford.