February 13, 2021

New Mexico state senator faces criticism over questioning of Black Cabinet nominee

The top-ranking Republican in the state Senate has come under fire for what some said was an undercurrent of racism during his questioning of a Black woman who heads the Department of Veterans Services.

The encounter occurred Friday during a confirmation hearing for Secretary-designate Sonya Smith, when Minority Leader Greg Baca, R-Belen, asked Smith if she felt “comfortable adequately representing” New Mexico’s various races and ethnicities, including Hispanic, white and Black residents. 

The question followed some interplay between Smith and Baca about the need to communicate with all cultures about different issues, including the coronavirus pandemic and the vaccine for the virus. 

“That really isn’t what I’m — I mean that is an immutable trait, as I’m a Hispanic man, so I guess what we do in our everyday life we do as that,” Baca said, telling Smith she could answer the question as she wished.

“Are you asking do I feel comfortable representing the Department of Veterans Services as a Black woman? Is that what you are asking?” Smith asked Baca.

“Yes, you’re right, it is immutable,” she responded. “I am who I am. And I don’t think that when Gov. [Michelle] Lujan Grisham tapped me for this position she was concerned about my color. I think she was looking at my skill set and my ability to be the best person foremost.”

Smith added her career achievements — including a stint as a medical technician in the Gulf War while serving as a U.S. Air Force reservist — came “not because I am Black but because I am highly qualified to do what I do.”

After Smith elaborated a little longer, Baca, a U.S. Navy veteran, said: “I appreciate your answer. I apologize, I must have not put my question correctly, but I’ll leave it at that.”

The back-and-forth took place in the Senate Rules Committee, which ultimately gave Smith a “do pass” recommendation. Her nomination next will go to the Senate floor. 

Smith, appointed to the position by the governor in October, heads an agency that oversees a number of divisions serving the state’s veterans. 

Baca’s question drew the ire of Lujan Grisham, who wrote Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque and the committee chairman, a letter on Friday to express her displeasure. 

“That Senator Baca would question Secretary-Designate Smith’s qualifications on the basis of her race is abhorrent to me and, I am sure, to all New Mexicans who understand and value not only diverse representation in leadership but the multicultural fabric of our great state,” Lujan Grisham wrote.

“The senator’s line of inquiry — in which he asked the secretary-designate whether she, a black woman, would be ‘comfortable adequately representing’ New Mexicans — was inexcusable.”

The governor asked the Senate to hold Baca accountable. 

“I believe it would be appropriate for your committee or the Senate as a body to censure or otherwise acknowledge the highly inappropriate and offensive nature of the senator’s question,” she wrote. “And to establish a new framework under which an inappropriate or racially motivated line of questioning may be expeditiously stopped and rectified in the moment as a means of ensuring this does not happen again.”

Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, a member of the committee who introduced Smith at the start of the meeting, said Friday evening he had not yet seen the letter. But, he said, he “absolutely” found Baca’s question inappropriate. 

“I was thinking, ‘What are you trying to get at here? Do you really mean to say this?’ ” he said. “What he was asking her was, ‘Can you as an African American who has been in the state for just seven years really respond to the needs of Hispanics in the state?’ “

He said he thought Smith handled the question well, and that her response left Baca “pretty chastised. He seemed deeply, deeply embarrassed.” 

In a statement, Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque, said Baca owed Smith an apology.

“I find this line of questioning by Sen. Baca to be borderline racism and completely disrespectful,” wrote Stapleton, who is Black. “Questioning a qualified professional because of her race has no place in this Legislature.”

Baca, 49, is a lawyer who served aboard the USS Nimitz during the Gulf War. He was first elected to the Legislature in 2016. Late last year his party elected him as minority leader. Democrats outnumber Republicans 27-15 in the Senate.

In a statement issued Friday afternoon, Baca stopped short of apologizing but said he applauds Smith’s “commitment to minority inclusion in her role as Secretary of Veterans Services. In my line of questioning to her during her confirmation hearing, I hope I was clear that as a minority veteran myself, I view this role as one that must consider every facet of our diverse culture in New Mexico.”

Baca added he intended to vote for Smith’s confirmation.

“Secretary-Designate Smith’s comments today underscored her qualifications to lead this important department,” he said in the statement. “I voted to recommend her confirmation to the full Senate and I look forward to supporting her final confirmation next week.”

A spokesman for the Department of Veterans Services declined to comment on the hearing, but said Smith “feels her testimony today speaks for itself … and thanks the committee for the opportunity to go before the members today.” 

Smith, 56, is a native of Norfolk, Va. She previously served as the special projects coordinator for the state Department of Health.