A panel of state legislators deadlocked 5-5 on Tuesday on whether to fire education administrator Rachel Gudgel, who made disparaging comments about Native Americans.
The tie vote means Gudgel keeps her $131,000-a-year job as director of the Legislative Education Study Committee.
The attempt to fire Gudgel occurred in a closed meeting of the committee at the state Capitol. Multiple sources confirmed the failed attempt to oust Gudgel.
In addition to Gudgel’s pejorative statements about Native Americans, lawmakers who wanted to fire her had other issues.
Several former staff employees of the committee said Gudgel drove them off with an abusive management style.
Gudgel, 44, has not responded to requests for comment. She was not present in the brief public portion of the committee meeting.
The 10 legislators who have voting power on the committee cleared the room of a handful of spectators so they could discuss in private whether Gudgel should remain in power.
Committee members heard from Thomas Hnasko, a lawyer hired by legislative leadership to investigate Gudgel. Hnasko completed his work last year, but only two of the 10 committee members had received so much as a synopsis of his findings.
In his appearance before the committee, Hnasko confirmed what legislators had read in media reports: Gudgel had made derogatory statements about Native Americans.
Five complainants who worked under Gudgel said the mean-spirited comments by Gudgel were not isolated.
Isaac Dakota Casados, chairman of the Native American Democratic Caucus, said he was disappointed the committee did not fire Gudgel.
“It’s unfortunate and hard to understand,” Casados said in a phone interview. “I wouldn’t want to be in the corner of somebody who’s carrying a streak of prejudice.”
He and leaders of tribes and pueblos have said Gudgel cannot be effective as an education administrator in a state that’s under a court order to improve public schools for minority kids.
Casados said Gudgel and committee members would be met by Native protesters when they gather later this month for a public meeting in Shiprock.
During the committee’s executive session Tuesday, Gudgel received a more favorable review from Salley Trefethen, a leadership coach who was hired at taxpayer expense to help the director. The coach’s hiring occurred after Hnasko’s investigation.
When Hnasko and Trefethen left the executive session, a coalition of Democratic lawmakers moved to fire Gudgel.
Freshman Sen. Harold Pope of Albuquerque joined four members of the House of Representatives in voting for her dismissal.
The representatives who tried to fire Gudgel were House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton, Christine Trujillo, G. Andrés Romero and Derrick Lente. All are from Albuquerque except Lente, who hails from Sandia Pueblo.
Gudgel kept her job with the help of an unusual bloc of lawmakers.
Democratic Sens. Mimi Stewart of Albuquerque and Bill Soules of Las Cruces are among Gudgel’s more ardent supporters.
Three Republicans joined Soules and Stewart in voting against Gudgel’s dismissal. They are Sen. Gay Kernan of Hobbs and Reps. Alonzo Baldonado of Los Lunas and T. Ryan Lane of Aztec.
All except Soules, chairman of the committee, declined to comment after the executive session.
“There was no decision made,” Soules said in an interview, ignoring the move to dismiss Gudgel and the tie vote that kept her employed.
“Lots of repair has to be done,” Soules said a moment later. He said he was referring to “trust at many levels.”
How can trust be rebuilt with the committee’s leadership unchanged?
“Other than talking to people, I don’t know,” Soules said.
As for Gudgel’s job performance, he said, “The LESC takes all the allegations seriously.”
If this is so, the committee still moved at a languid pace. Rep. Trujillo called for an executive session concerning Gudgel’s conduct in January 2020. Soules and Stewart opposed conducting the closed-door meeting.
Soules said the legislative session was about to begin, and he wanted to give it his undivided attention.
Employees working under Gudgel were startled by Soules’ response.
“The attitude was harassment in the workplace can be set aside because legislators don’t want to hear about it,” said one former staff employee.
Soules and Stewart had enough votes last year to ward off an executive session regarding Gudgel’s conduct.
Pressure for a review of the director’s performance mounted this summer. Heavy publicity about the complaints against Gudgel being buried by some legislators finally led to Tuesday’s executive session.
Stewart, president pro tem of the Senate, and Soules are two lawmakers who often talk about the need for accountability and transparency in government.
It took 18 months for the legislators who supervise this controversial state administrator to meet about her conduct in office.
Talk is cheap.