In the rough-and-tumble world of politics, Democrats and Republicans are bound to clash.
In New Mexico, perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in the leaders of each party in the House of Representatives.
Those words and others are used to describe the relationship between House Speaker Brian Egolf, a Democrat from the liberal bastion and capital city of Santa Fe, and Rep. Jim Townsend, the minority leader from conservative-and-proud-of-it Artesia in southeastern New Mexico.
“I really feel like their relationship is broken, and that’s because of the political climate,” said Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho.
“Right now, politics is so polarized that if leaders from the other party come to the center and work together, both of their bases call them traitors,” he added.
The tension between Egolf, 44, and Townsend, 66, has simmered for some time, usually bubbling when the Legislature is in session and sometimes spilling onto social media when it isn’t.
“Leopards can’t change their spots and
@NewMexicoGOP can’t claim to be moderate,” Egolf wrote on Twitter last year. His tweet included the hashtag #LipServiceToRespect.
“A skunk can’t change its stripes either @BrianEgolf and leading New Mexico responsibly can be done with real leadership,” Townsend retorted. “Democrat record speaks for itself.” Townsend’s tweet included the hashtag #lastineducation.
For his part, Townsend blames Egolf for their rocky relationship, saying he unfairly uses the legislative rulebook to benefit Democrats, who outnumber Republicans in the House, 45-25.
“I have no reason to believe Brian’s not a nice guy in person, but I can tell you the way he treats my caucus is unfair, and he knows it and he does it purposely,” Townsend said.
“His actions over the last couple of years, by blatantly breaking the rules, have caused distrust,” added Townsend, who is entering his second year as minority leader. “That has been voiced on the floor by not just myself but by other members. I think the lack of trust has caused a real issue.”
Townsend listed a number of examples, including an incident last year in which Egolf called for a vote on a budget bill while Townsend and House Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, were negotiating a piece of legislation with the House Democrats’ whip and floor leader in Townsend’s office. The understanding had been that the bill would not be presented while they were out of the chamber, Townsend said.
“We left our microphone on in our office so we could hear what was going on [in the chamber],” he recalled. “Rod Montoya quickly got up and ran to the floor, objected and even made the statement on the floor that day that — I think his exact words were — ‘Mr. Speaker, you can’t keep your word for five damn minutes.’ ”
At the time, Republican members also complained they had asked to participate in the debate but were denied.
Egolf, who has served as speaker of the House since 2017, said he didn’t want to comment on whether his relationship with Townsend was rife with tension. He would only characterize it as “professional.”
“The jobs that we are in are to produce good legislation that is going to help the people we represent and help make New Mexico a better place,” Egolf said.
“I want the work of the Legislature to be judged by the results that we produce, so I just don’t really want to comment more on whether there is or is not tension,” he added. “I think I like to leave it as, it’s a professional relationship, and we have found opportunities to work together on a few things, and I would hope that we’ll be able to find more.”
Egolf also declined to respond to Townsend’s assertions that he purposely flouts the rules to benefit Democrats.
“He’s entitled to his opinion, even if it’s false,” he said.
“I don’t believe that there’s a basis for him to say that, but if that’s how he wants to comment … he’s perfectly free to do so,” Egolf added. “I think he’s doing the best he knows how to do to represent his district and to represent his party, and I prefer to focus on the things where we’ve had agreement and where we have been able to come together to produce good results for the people of New Mexico.”
Egolf did say, however, that his relationship with Townsend is “very different” than it was with former Rep. Nate Gentry of Albuquerque, Townsend’s predecessor.
“Nate and I were able to work together and reach agreements and get a lot of good things done,” he said. “Rep. Townsend’s approach to his role is very different than his predecessor, and the result is definite in the way the Republican caucus seems not to be as engaged as it was under the leadership of his predecessor.”
Gentry, who like Egolf is an attorney, described the speaker as open-minded.
“What I really took away when I retired in 2018 was, in working with him, there was always a willingness to listen to what our members, the Republican members, wanted and to try to accommodate their concerns on a whole host of things,” from legislation to capital outlay requests, he said.
Gentry also credited Egolf for making decisions that were good for the state, even if they benefitted predominantly Republican areas.
“Like that big Carlsbad sinkhole area — there’s probably not a Democrat within 100 miles of there,” Gentry said, referring to legislation that addressed a potentially disastrous problem in that southeastern New Mexico city. “So, he did things that were right to do for the state, and I didn’t get the sense that he cared too much about who represented that area so long as it’s the right thing to do.”
Gentry and Egolf have known each another at least since law school, but they might have crossed paths before that when they both worked on Capitol Hill, Egolf said.
Gentry said they didn’t always agree.
“We would be at each other’s throats from time to time as you would expect just because we had philosophical differences,” he said. “But the door was always open to his office when he was speaker, and he was always 100 percent straight with me.”
Gentry said he and Egolf had the benefit of reversing roles. For a time, Gentry was majority leader when Republicans briefly won control of the House; Egolf served as minority leader.
Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, recalled the period when Democrats were in the minority. He said cooperation is key but suggested Townsend and other Republican leaders don’t seem much interested in working together.
“I’m proud that we continue to work with our Republican rank and file to find common ground,” he said. “But sadly, House Republican leadership is more interested in scoring cheap political points than in governing New Mexico and uplifting our communities.”
Montoya, the House minority whip from Farmington, said Democrats are missing the point. Egolf, he said, is “completely ignoring” Republican lawmakers who represent about 33 percent of the state’s population whose views and voices are falling by the wayside.
“He is not the speaker for New Mexico. He is the speaker for the districts that Democrat legislators hold — period,” Montoya said. “This is a fault of leadership, so the dysfunction that has been there for two years, quite frankly, lays at his feet.”
Republicans are being disregarded because Democrats have such an advantage in the House, Montoya said.
“Part of this is that there is no effort to work with the minority since we’ve ended up in such a disparity in numbers,” he said. “They don’t need our input. They don’t want our input. They just say what they’re going to do and then they [expletive] on us. Really, when I say ‘they,’ it’s not they. It’s he. It’s Speaker Egolf.”
Egolf and Townsend said their relationship isn’t all bad and note they have cordial conversations and have worked well together.
Egolf said Townsend has attended Egolf’s statewide “jobs listening tour” during stops in Eastern and southeastern New Mexico, and they’ve gone out to dinner afterward.
“These listening tours are a good example I think of our, not just me, you know, but the majority’s efforts to try to incorporate Republican ideas and to act in a bipartisan way,” Egolf said.
Like Egolf, Townsend said he hopes the pair can find more opportunities to work together.
“I think sometimes he sees me as being very combative because I won’t agree with something he’s proposing. But it’s not personal. My job is to represent the well-being of my caucus,” said Townsend, who spent some 37 years in the energy sector and retired in 2017 as a director of Holly Energy Partners.
“I hope to have a better relationship with the speaker. But it’s going to require more communication and time on both of our parts in order to make it happen — I’m willing to do that,” Townsend added.
Freshman lawmaker Rep. Susan Herrera, D-Embudo, said her experience is that Egolf and Townsend both “try to make it work.”
“I think people make a bigger deal of it than it really is,” she said. “People get upset or take umbrage over something that I don’t see as all that important.”
Herrera said Egolf is respected by Democrats and Republicans alike and tries to be fair.
“He’s certainly no Mitch McConnell, let me put it that way,” she said.
But Harper, the Republican from Rio Rancho, said the relationship between Egolf and Townsend isn’t good for the state at the moment.
“When we stop campaigning and we govern and we work together and compromise, that’s when the most good for New Mexico happens, so we need to get past this,” he said. “We need to go back to statesmanship instead of partisanship.”
Asked whether he believes Egolf and Townsend’s relationship is salvageable, Harper said he doesn’t know.
“These last two years in the House have just been miserable,” said Harper, who has been in office for eight years. “It shouldn’t be that way. It just shouldn’t be that way.”