March 3, 2023

Senator: Mountain unlikely to get confirmation hearing during session

By Robert Nott and Daniel J. Chacón, The Santa Fe New Mexican

James Mountain, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s controversial pick to head the state Indian Affairs Department, could spend most of his first year in office as Cabinet secretary-designate.

State Sen. Katy Duhigg, an Albuquerque Democrat who chairs the Senate Rules Committee — the first stop for the governor’s appointees before they face a confirmation hearing in the full Senate — said Thursday the Senate is unlikely to hold a hearing for Mountain before the end of this year’s 60-day legislative session.

“He has not been submitted to the Rules Committee for confirmation; my understanding is that he will not be this session,” Duhigg said.

Mountain, a former governor of San Ildefonso Pueblo, was accused of rape in 2007 and indicted on a number of related charges, including kidnapping and aggravated battery, the following year. The case was dismissed in 2010 after the prosecution said it did not have enough evidence to take it to trial. The court record is under seal.

The sexual assault allegations have sparked criticism against Mountain and questions about his ability to lead a department that oversees a task force addressing high rates of violence against Indigenous women and girls.

Angel Charley, executive director of the Albuquerque-based Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women, said earlier this week she feared the session would end without a public hearing on Mountain, where criticisms could be voiced.

“We’re concerned this will not make it into Senate Rules for a full confirmation hearing,” she said.

Cabinet secretaries don’t need Senate confirmation to serve in their positions. One of former Gov. Susana Martinez’s Cabinet appointees, Hanna Skandera, served as the public education secretary for four years before being confirmed by the Senate.

Mountain, who attended at least one Senate hearing in the state Capitol Thursday, told a New Mexican reporter he did not have time for an interview.

“I have a meeting I have to get to at this time,” he said before moving on. 

Maddy Hayden, a spokeswoman for the governor, said in text message the Governor’s Office does plan to submit Mountain’s nomination to the Senate Rules Committee. But, she added, the committee first has to prioritize confirmation hearings for several college and university regents Lujan Grisham appointed Wednesday.

“If necessary, we will continue the confirmation process with the Senate Rules Committee in the interim,” Hayden texted.

Chris Nordstrum, a spokesman for Senate Democrats, said in an interview the Senate Rules Committee can meet and vote to confirm Mountain or other Cabinet secretary appointees in the months between legislative sessions. 

But Mountain would not be confirmed until the full Senate met to vote on his appointment — which likely would not happen until the 2024 legislative session.

Duhigg announced during a Senate floor session Thursday the Rules Committee would be considering the confirmations of the secretaries of cultural affairs, public education, general services, and aging and long-term services.