November 20, 2020

Tension among Democrats over pro tem race

The alleged involvement of a progressive political group in the race for state Senate president pro tem seems to be causing some consternation among some New Mexico Senate Democrats.   

According to sources familiar with the Senate Democratic Caucus, state Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, announced during a recent caucus meeting that he was approached by an unnamed political group that offered something in exchange if Cervantes voted for the groups choice for pro tem. 

Sources NM Political Report spoke with, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation, said Cervantes did not specify what was offered or which political group offered it. 

Cervantes declined to discuss the matter, but did not deny that it happened. 

“I think it’s important that I work through the channels and the process we have for ethics issues,” Cervantes said. “So I’d tell you that I wouldn’t talk with you about that publicly until the appropriate time to do so.”

When asked which authority he reported the possible incident to, Cervantes didn’t give any more details. 

“I have spoken with individuals in a confidential way and in the appropriate way that we have for reporting things of concern,” he said. 

The pro tem position is voted on by the full Senate, but Democrats will have a 27-15 majority when the next legislative session begins in January. 

One source said several caucus members have been approached by representatives from the New Mexico Working Families Party to discuss potential legislation, with the conversation quickly turning to the pro tem race. 

Working Families state director and former state senator Eric Griego called the notion that his group would try to drum up votes with a bribe “absurd.”

“First of all, we’ve not talked to Senator Cervantes at all,” Griego said. 

Griego said his group has been meeting with members of the Senate Democratic Caucus to discuss legislation and that occasionally the pro tem race comes up in conversation. But, he said, his group has only offered up their list of preferred Senators in those conversations and that the implication of quid pro quo is “super libelous.”

“It’s patently false, we just don’t work that way,” Griego said. 

The Working Families Party is a national organization that operates as both a political party in some states and also as a political advocacy group. 

Griego said the local chapter worked hard this year to oust what the group calls “corporate champions.” The group endorsed a list of candidates this year and helped get moderate Democrats out of office during the primary. Griego said his group wanted to follow through with that effort.    

“We worked our butts off to elect good people, both in the primary and the general,” Griego said. “And we’re not just going to hope that it turns out ok, in terms of leadership. That’s, that’s just not responsible.”

And while the Working Families Party is officially a minor political party in New Mexico, Griego said it is Working Families’ non-profit organization that has met with Democratic Senators. And those talks, Griego said, are the organization’s way of making things more transparent and said in his experience in the Senate, these types of votes come down to “backroom deals.”

“I hope everybody’s talking to their Senators about who they think should be the pro tem,” Griego said.

The Senate president pro tem has a major voice in picking committee chairs. The current pro tem, Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, lost in the primary election to Carrie Hamblen of Las Cruces. Hamblen was endorsed by Working Families, and Hamblen easily won the seat in the general election. 

Papen won the pro tem race after Republicans and conservative Democrats chose her over Democrat Pete Campos, of Las Vegas, who was chosen by the Democratic caucus that year. Campos ultimately stepped back and Papen was elected unanimously.

Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, also lost his primary race to a Working Families backed candidate. But ultimately, voters in that district chose the Republican candidate, Crystal Diamond. Smith is the outgoing chair of the Senate Finance Committee, which is where many proposals backed by Working families stalled. 

Now, with an open pro tem spot and a Senate Finance leadership role to fill, progressive Democrats have a chance to lay a path to pass legislation that has historically been held up, like decriminalizing aborton and tapping the state’s land grant permanent fund for early childhood education. 

The five Democratic Senators who are vying for the pro tem spot are Campos, Linda Lopez of Albuquerque, Mimi Stewart of Albuquerque, Daniel Ivey Soto of Albuquerque and Jerry Ortiz y Pino of Albuquerque. 

Griego would not say which is the top choice of Working Families or which ones the group sees as a bad choice. But Ortiz y Pino is the only one of the five who was endorsed by Working Families during the primary and general elections. 

The Senate Democrats are slated to meet Saturday in an attempt to unify their pick for pro tem.