The Rev. Al Sharpton was in town to make a speech at the state Capitol. Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton, the first Black woman elected to the New Mexico Legislature, smiled broadly before introducing him.

Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque, called Sharpton a champion for education and an advocate for the voiceless. Republican lawmakers weren’t nearly as enthusiastic about a liberal from the Northeast discussing politics in the Southwest.

Unperturbed, Sharpton thundered away from the lectern.

“People don’t make history by playing to what is popular,” he told state lawmakers. “They make and change history by standing up for what is right.”

Few orators can stir an audience like Sharpton. After he had spoken for 20 minutes, Republicans applauded him almost as loudly as Williams Stapleton and her fellow Democrats.

In the decade since she stood alongside Sharpton, Williams Stapleton has often sounded the same themes as the reverend.

The question now is whether she illegally enriched herself while claiming her commitment was to the poor and forgotten.

Investigators for New Mexico’s attorney general this week searched Williams Stapleton’s home and office in the Albuquerque Public Schools, her longtime employer.

In an affidavit, they stated the evidence suggests Williams Stapleton funneled money from the school district to accounts she controlled. Investigators estimated the amount at $954,000 but kept open the possibility that it is substantially more.

Williams Stapleton isn’t commenting. Her attorney, Ahmad Assed, wrote that they were “anxious to give a detailed statement addressing this matter.” But, he stated, they cannot discuss anything at the inception of an investigation.

Along with the criminal case, Williams Stapleton faces questions about her future in politics.

One is whether Democrats will allow her to continue as majority leader of the House of Representatives. She is the target of one of the bigger public corruption investigations in state history. Williams Stapleton might no longer have the confidence of her caucus.

A second question is whether Democrats outside the Legislature will recruit a candidate to challenge her if she runs for a 15th term next year.

Williams Stapleton survived a primary challenge nine years ago after a public outburst at the Capitol.

She confronted then-Rep. Nora Espinoza, R-Roswell, shouting, “You’re carrying the Mexican’s water on the fourth floor.” Williams Stapleton’s reference was to the woman who was then governor, Republican Susana Martinez.



Williams Stapleton blamed Espinoza and Martinez for a television station running a negative story about her. It highlighted Williams Stapleton receiving both her salary from the Albuquerque Public Schools and her state expense allowance while lawmakers were in session in Santa Fe.

By no means was Williams Stapleton the only lawmaker to take money for legislative expenses while also collecting a salary from the Albuquerque school district. But her attack on Martinez, the nation’s first female Hispanic governor, put Williams Stapleton on the defensive.

She publicly apologized to the governor, saying a race-based reference about another woman was “not in my character.”

Williams Stapleton won reelection after the blowup but then lost her leadership job as Democratic whip. What didn’t change was her willingness to stand against Martinez and other Republicans.

She was one of the few legislators to initially oppose Martinez’s bill to automatically hold back thousands of third graders based on standardized reading tests. Williams Stapleton said the governor’s plan would eliminate parental involvement in decisions on whether students should repeat third grade.

Almost every Democrat in the Legislature eventually came around to the same stand as Williams Stapleton. Mass retention never occurred.

Like Sharpton, Williams Stapleton presented herself as someone committed to helping people who didn’t have lobbyists or corporate clout.

She often delivered stem-winders about bills that she said hurt poor people. One measure would have allowed municipal courts to raise fees by $4.

“Here we go again, Mr. Speaker — after the poor,” Williams Stapleton said.

Over her loud objections, the bill passed the House 58-7 and cleared the Senate 28-12. Martinez killed it with a pocket veto, giving Williams Stapleton an upset victory.

As the years went by, memories dimmed of Williams Stapleton’s harangue against Martinez. In turn, Williams Stapleton’s power increased. She won back the job of Democratic whip in the House, then rose to majority leader in 2017.

The raids on her home and office by a Democratic attorney general have changed everything. Allegations aren’t proof, but her reputation, her career and perhaps her freedom are on the line.

For a state with so few people, New Mexico seems to lead the nation in public corruption. Like the Rev. Sharpton, Williams Stapleton didn’t talk about scandal. She spoke of finding the right path.

Investigators have a similar plan. They’re following the money.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080.

(6) comments

Mike Johnson

Yes, Sharpton and Ms. Williams Stapleton. What a pair. People may have forgotten the kind of things he was involved in not so long ago: From Newsweek:"In 1987, 15-year-old Tawana Brawley claimed she'd been abducted and raped by a group of white men in Dutchess County, New York. Brawley, who is African American, was found by police with the letters "KKK" written on her chest and a racial epithet written on her stomach. She told her lawyers that two of the assailants were law enforcement officials.

Reverend Sharpton took up Brawley's case early on, and became one of her most outspoken supporters. Sharpton called then-Governor Mario Cuomo a racist and accused white state officials of being complicit in the crime. But the incident turned out to be a hoax: After seven months of investigation, including over 6,000 pages of testimony by 180 witnesses, a grand jury found that Brawley had lied about the attack. Six months after the trial, he former boyfriend told reporters she invented the allegations to avoid being punished for running away from home." Now he is an ambulance chasing "Black activisT", and like the attorney he partners with, Ben Crump, have tried to burry their past by pandering to those who think white racism is responsible for all incidents against any Blacks. Good company the two are keeping, made for each other.

Chris Mechels

Sadly, out Attorney General does not come with clean hands either, as recent reporting shows. The ongoing question is one of oversight, which we seem to lack. In the 1990's we made two big mistakes. First we allowed our elected officials (Governor, AG, etc) two terms, thus more opportunity; and demolished the role of the Grand Jury, which was a vehicle for government oversight. Since then, the corruption has taken off, with Bill Richardson perhaps the worst to date. Restoration of the Grand Jury seems essential, but unlikely to happen.

Prince Michael Jauregui

For several-years, I publicly called-out then-NM Governor Susanna Martinez. In March 2011, I even went to her office - her staff was very polite and professional. Although I would sometimes allude to Martinez's "Tejana" background, I could never disrespect Susanna the Human-being and Latina-American success story.

Sheryl Williams Stapleton's attack on former-Governor Martinez confirms what I've long taught: Racism, comes in all colors. None, justified. None, acceptable.

Still, decades later, the self-aggrandizing "Reverend" Al Sharpton continues to greedily, fail his flock.

Mike Johnson

Well said, thank you hermano.[thumbup]

John Onstad

Sharpton is just another corrupt race-hustler. Great Milan, try to drag down Gov. Martinez. Yo my man!

Mike Johnson

[thumbup][thumbup][thumbup]

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