February 16, 2021

Senate Minority Leader apologizes to Black Cabinet nominee for ‘insensitive’ questioning

The New Mexico State Capitol, or Roundhouse Wikicommons.

Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca of Belen said Monday he had apologized to Veterans Services Secretary-designate Sonya Smith for what he called “that insensitive line of questioning.”

Baca has been under fire for questions and comments with racial overtones he made during a Friday confirmation hearing for Smith.

“Do you expect that in your time here, in seven years, that you’ve been immersed in this culture enough in this state that you feel comfortable entering a position?” Baca had asked Smith, who is Black. He noted  2.6 percent of the state’s population is African American, while “48 percent is Hispanic or a Hispanic mix. Do you feel like you are comfortable adequately representing both cultures — white, Native, Hispanics?”

Smith responded by asking the top-ranking Republican in the Senate to clarify his question.

“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.

Smith, through a spokesman, declined a request for an interview on the issue over the weekend.

“At this time, Secretary-designate Smith is respectfully declining to do any interviews until after her official confirmation, which we understand will take place this week,” Department of Veterans Services spokesman Ray Seva wrote in an email.

Last week, Baca issued a statement about his line of questioning, which some said was laced with an undercurrent of racism.

Baca didn’t apologize. Instead, he wrote that as a minority veteran himself, he viewed the role of head of Veterans Services “as one that must consider every facet of our diverse culture in New Mexico.”

At the start of Monday’s Senate Rules Committee meeting, Baca, a U.S. Navy veteran, informed senators he had apologized to Smith, who served as a U.S. Air Force reservist.

“I wanted to let the body know that I spoke to her and did apologize to her for that insensitive line of questioning that I did lead her through,” he said. “We had a great conversation and talked about New Mexico and our families and really just a great lady that I plan on supporting on the [Senate] floor,” where she will face a confirmation hearing before the full Senate.

Baca said he also wanted to extend an apology to the Senate and acknowledged the incident has stirred controversy.

“I certainly understand that a couple of you probably had some unwanted attention as a byproduct of my actions and I sure did not want to lay that on your shoulders,” he said. “And I do not want it to detract from the good work that we have done so far and the work that I expect that we’ll do going forward. So, I appreciate your indulgence this morning. I look forward to a productive week and getting some things done for the people of New Mexico.”

Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, chairman of the committee, thanked Baca “for those words.”

“Very much appreciated,” the Albuquerque Democrat said.

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.