January 16, 2023

Nostalgia and relief: Those who’ve left the Legislature miss the action — but not too much

Gabriela Campos/The Santa Fe New Mexican

Outgoing state Rep. Roger Montoya works on a painting Friday in his home studio in Velarde.

By Robert Nott, Santa Fe New Mexican

John Arthur Smith doesn’t miss any of it.

Doesn’t miss the 600-mile roundtrip drives from Deming to Santa Fe; the long nights at the Roundhouse hashing out legislation; the headaches that come with making tough and often unpopular decisions. 

Like many who’ve seen their legislative careers come to an end — some of their own volition; others by voters’ decisions — Smith admits to feeling pangs of nostalgia when a new session is about to begin. But for the longtime state senator, considered an institution by some after his long tenure as chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, nostalgia and wistfulness are two different things.

More than two years removed from politics, Smith said he easily segued back to working as a real estate appraiser after his surprising defeat in a 2020 Democratic Party primary election. He now jokes he has to make up for all the income he lost serving as a volunteer lawmaker.

“I wanted to get as far away from that environment as I could,” Smith, 81, said last week.

Looking back, said he has “absolutely no regrets” about losing the election or walking away from the life of a public servant.

His peaceful acceptance of a post-political life could serve as a playbook for lawmakers who, like old soldiers, don’t so much die as fade away from the limelight once they leave the Legislature. 

Smith has plenty of company; at least 16 members of the House of Representatives either chose not to run for reelection or lost their 2022 races, and must look forward to a similar transition. (Another, former Rep. Moe Maestas, D-Albuquerque, was appointed to a vacant Senate seat and will continue serving for at least two more years.)

As their terms officially expire Tuesday at the start of the 2023 legislative session, interviews with several outgoing lawmakers indicate most are ready to leave it all behind without a second thought. Most plan to reconnect with family, refocus on their jobs and step out of a spotlight that led them to become, for a time, local celebrities. And targets.

Which doesn’t mean some of them won’t return to politics sometime in the future.

Feeling lighter

Rep. Kelly Fajardo, R-Los Lunas, likes the sense of quiet that has enveloped her since the November general election.

“The phone stopped ringing, I stopped getting invited to events,” said Fajardo, who chose not to run for reelection after serving in the Legislature for 10 years. 

People tell her she’s going to miss it. She says she won’t.

“It’s a weight being lifted off, it really is,” said Fajardo, who is in her late 40s. As she spoke by phone, she sounded like a bird happily awaiting spring. 

Her family runs a print company and she works in real estate. “Those will continue,” she said. Like many of her former colleagues, she said she wants to spend more time with family and travel more.

One place she will be traveling to is the state Capitol in Santa Fe. She said she wants to remain involved in issues she cares about, like supporting an open primaries bill. To that end, she’s going to register as a lobbyist.

“I went from the dark side to the darker side,” joked Fajardo, known for her daily contribution of vaudeville-type humor on the House floor. “All I need is to become an attorney and I’ll have a trifecta.”

A mentor to incoming women lawmakers in the state Capitol, Fajardo said the best thing about being a legislator was helping constituents achieve simple but important goals — such as the time she got on the phone with the state Public Education Department to get General Educational Development certificate records to a woman who needed them to land a job.

The worst thing, she said, was the division she saw seeping into the House over the past few years, a change she attributed in part to the physical distancing brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and the political mood on the national front.

“It was hard to reach across the aisle, hard to be friends with somebody [from the other party],” she recalled.

She’s looking forward to forging a new identity, one not “wrapped up in the Legislature” as she has seen happen with some of her colleagues. “It’s kind of who they are,” she said.

“There are those of us who, when the phone stops ringing, we don’t care,” she said. “We don’t lose our identity in that. We move on quicker and easier.”

Working it out through the arts

It’s not easy for everybody, however. For Roger Montoya, a House Democrat from Velarde, the Legislature taught him a valuable lesson in “what not to do” as a lawmaker. He said some of the disappointing realties of stepping behind the curtain of politics include seeing concessions made to serve self-promotion and not the people, as well as the “blatant fidelity to corporate dollars” that gets in the way of helping people hit hard by poverty and social ills. 

He went into the Legislature as something of an artistic celebrity. Before he was elected to the House, Montoya was a co-founder of the Española Pathways Shelter and the La Tierra Montessori School of the Arts and Sciences. In 2019 he was named one of 10 CNN Heroes for his community service work. 

He also made headlines in the 2020 election when it was revealed he had acted in some porn films in the 1980s. It didn’t stop him from winning the election. But former state representative Joseph Sanchez, also a Democrat, defeated Montoya in the 2022 primary election. 

Montoya is returning to his artistic roots, painting a huge oil-on-linen piece that, he said, is a way of working through his two-year political experience. He hasn’t fully formed the thoughts behind the work, but the canvas calls to him daily in his studio in Velarde.

With just days left to serve and most constituents turning their attention to his successor, Montoya said he cannot think about running for office again at this point.

“At this particular moment I do not see a political office (in the future) but I think it would be foolish to say no,” he said. “Things can change. But at this moment, at 62 years old, I feel I’m in a healing space and I need to ground and connect to what matters: measurable change in society — and policy making is not it for me.”

A supporter of initiatives to help support business, infrastructure and social needs in rural areas, Montoya said he was pained by some of his legislative experiences, which at times led him to cross swords both with members of his own caucus and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration. He’s not ready to talk about the specifics of it all yet.

But he might, in the future, do so in print.

“I see value in penning a book about my life and how this segment of my life has elevated me to a new place,” he said. 

The best option now, he said, is a return to being an artist and the nonprofit world in which he once comfortably moved. “That would be enough for any human to do for the rest of their life,” he said.

Six is enough

Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, will be a full-time lawyer and world-traveler once again. No more 30-day or 60-day sessions to break up his work flow, interrupt travel plans or pull him away from family and friends.

Caught by phone as he moved from one appointment to another one day last week, he said of his three two-year terms in office: “I figured six years wold be enough to satisfy my instincts to do community service. I feel like I did what I wanted to do and I left.”

As he talked, he said he began wondering how he managed to maintain his law practice and serve in the Legislature because of all the weekend work at the Roundhouse. It did get in the way of life, he said.

He recalled his wife, Cynthia Fry, asking him to go with her to Australia for three weeks about two months before the 2020 legislative session began. 

When he told her he couldn’t do it so close to the start of the session, she told him that if he could find 60 days to mess around with his legislative buddies in the Roundhouse, he could find three weeks for her and Australia.

So they went to Australia.

Ely seemed to be in perpetual motion, even while seated, during legislative sessions. Among other initiatives, he worked to create the State Ethics Commission and, more recently, shape new anti-harassment policies in the Legislature. 

Won’t he miss all that action?

No, he said. 

As a “public policy guy,” he said he will look for ways to contribute, perhaps by offering free legal service to people who need it. He said he does not plan to become a lobbyist or run for public office again. 

He speaks well of his Republican and Democrat colleagues, noting they are all well-meaning people who are trying their best.

But at the age of 65, he said, “Enough’s enough.”

And then he was off to another appointment. 

Expecting new things — like a baby

Rep. James Strickler, R-Farmington, was waiting in Holland for his daughter to deliver a baby — “anxiously awaiting” he said via phone. 

A veteran of the oil and gas industry, Strickler said after 16 years in the Legislature he just wanted to wind it all up and turn it over to someone else, which is why he did not run for reelection. Mark Duncan will succeed him come Tuesday. 

Like other House lawmakers, Strickler expressed surprise that he is still being addressed as a representative. They assumed their terms ended on Dec. 31, but state statute actually keeps them in place until their successors take over on the first day of the session.

Strickler, who debated legislation in measured but almost always questioning tones, said he is not the least bit concerned about returning to civilian life.

“I stay busy all the time,” said Strickler, who is in his late 60s. “I have an active oil and gas business, we have active real estate interests and rentals. I’m an amateur farmer. I don’t plan on retiring from work.” 

The best thing about serving in the Legislature was being on two committees — Taxation and Revenue and Energy, Environment & Natural Resources — and working on tax policy issues to attract and support businesses, he said. 

The worst thing, he said, is the loss of moderates on both sides of the aise.

“We need balance,” he said. “That’s been really frustrating; that we can’t work together more positively.”

Now he has more pressing concerns, like when the new baby will arrive. 

He expects to stay active locally on economic growth initiatives. He might, down the line, consider a run for local office, like city council or county commission, he said. Several nonprofits have asked him to join their boards. 

He’s not ready, he said. 

“I’m going to take off a year, I’m going to take a time out,” Strickler said. “Beyond that, you never know. I’m kind of a joiner, so I will probably do something.”

Then, he added, “I just don’t need to go to Santa Fe anymore.”

Author