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.