January 21, 2020

Musical chairs with Senate committee leadership

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New Mexico State Senate.

The New Mexico Senate on Tuesday unanimously approved three new leaders for key committees, including Sen. Joseph Cervantes as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He succeeds a longtime colleague, Richard Martinez, who was convicted last month of aggravated drunken driving.

Earlier in the day, the Senate Committees’ Committee, which chooses members of other panels that debate legislation before it reaches the Senate floor, selected Cervantes for the high-profile leadership position in which he likely will influence two key issues: legalizing recreational cannabis for adult use, which he opposes, and a firearms restriction for people considered at risk of harming someone, which he supports.

Martinez, D-Ojo Caliente, relinquished the committee chairmanship after his conviction but did not step down from his Senate seat.

Martinez injured two people in a drunken-driving crash in Española in June. He admitted to police at the scene he had consumed alcohol before driving that evening. He spent four days in jail earlier this month for his conviction on both aggravated drunken driving and aggravated reckless driving charges.

Other Senate leaders had called for Martinez to step down from his chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee.

Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, was elected to his Senate seat in 2012. He previously served as a member of the House of Representatives, where he had experience chairing a judiciary committee.

“It’s a good opportunity for me to go back to a position I held in the House,” he said.

Cervantes resigned from the House chairmanship, however, after an internal power struggle involving then-House Speaker Ben Luján in 2007. Luján, a powerful Northern New Mexico Democrat, spent decades in the Legislature before he died of lung cancer in December 2012.

A lawyer and a former Doña Ana County commissioner, Cervantes began serving in the House in 2001 after he was appointed to the position by the Doña Ana County Commission to replace Rep. Delores Wright, D-Chaparral, who died in February 2001. He was elected to the seat in 2002.

He said he remains opposed to legalizing recreational cannabis, which Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham supports. She has said legalization would create an array of new jobs. 

But Cervantes, who ran against Lujan Grisham in the 2018 Democratic primary for governor, said he doesn’t believe legalizing cannabis is the right move in a state where crime and addiction are pervasive problems.

“Will making marijuana available make it better or worse? I think I know the answer,” he said.

Cervantes, talking to reporters after the hearing, jokingly said he liked marijuana a lot when he was 18.

An advocate for gun control measures, Cervantes has introduced Senate Bill 5, which would give courts and law enforcement the power to take firearms and ammunition away from any person considered a risk to themselves or others.

Getting enough votes to pass such a bill this year will not be easy, he said, but he hopes to win over county sheriffs and others who oppose the bill by arguing it will make the state safer.

A similar bill died during last year’s 60-day session.

The Senate Committees’ Committee chose Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Cerrillos, to replace Cervantes as leader of the Senate Conservation Committee.

The committee also appointed Sen. Gabriel Ramos, D-Silver City, to chair the Senate Indian and Cultural Affairs Committee, previously led by Sen. John Pinto, D-Gallup, who died last year at age 94. Pinto, the longest-serving sitting legislator at the time of his death, had served as a Navajo Code Talker during World War II.

Lujan Grisham appointed Pinto’s granddaughter, Shannon Pinto, to fill his seat and serve on the Indian and Cultural Affairs Committee. Shannon Pinto thanked the Senate during its inaugural session Tuesday and said she is looking forward to serving the state.