Two leading legislators are scheduled to meet Thursday with controversial education administrator Rachel Gudgel, perhaps signaling an attempt to negotiate her removal from office.
Gudgel is director of the Legislative Education Study Committee, a job that pays her $131,000 a year. Lawmakers who are her direct supervisors deadlocked 5-5 last month on whether to fire Gudgel for slurs she made against Native Americans and complaints from subordinates about her management of the agency.
The tie vote kept Gudgel employed. It also angered members of New Mexico’s tribes and pueblos who have called for her firing.
Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, has supported Gudgel in his role as chairman of the Education Study Committee. But now, Soules has called a meeting of himself, Gudgel and the committee vice chairman, Rep. G. Andrés Romero, one of the lawmakers who voted to fire her.
Soules would not comment on whether the meeting is intended to broach the possibility of Gudgel resigning in return for a severance package.
“There isn’t any set purpose,” he said, playing down the significance of the meeting. “I talk to Rachel all the time. We discuss a lot of things.”
Those conversations didn’t include Romero, D-Albuquerque, who has been firm in saying Gudgel must be removed from office.
Soules also has scheduled an executive session of his committee’s 10 voting members for next week in Socorro. Their last closed meeting in July ended with the 5-5 vote on a motion to fire Gudgel.
Other lawmakers say it’s unlikely any votes would change, meaning Gudgel would have a job but not the confidence of much of the public. Legislators say another option is to negotiate Gudgel’s departure by giving her money in return for her resignation.
Paying an at-will employee to quit would not be popular with the public. But at least a few legislators say they would defend that decision as the fastest way to make a change in staff leadership and return to work on improving New Mexico’s public schools, which chronically lag in national rankings.
Soules said he has no power to make any deal with Gudgel. This is true, but he could raise the possibility.
Romero said he doesn’t know what to expect. He agreed to the meeting with Soules and Gudgel on the understanding no decisions would be made until all 10 committee members get their say.
Still, Romero considers Gudgel’s continued employment a barrier to progress.
“I think this weighs heavily on everybody,” he said. “We need to get back to solving substantive issues in education and rebuilding constituents’ trust.”
Soules would not discuss whether Gudgel still has his confidence.
“I’m not going to comment either way,” he said.
Gudgel, 44, has admitted making what she called “isolated, insensitive comments about Native Americans and Native American education in 2019 that were insulting and harmful.”
Her misconduct was hushed up by a handful of legislative leaders, notably Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, now president pro tem of the chamber. Stewart and a few other lawmakers in leadership positions arranged a deal in which Gudgel was suspended for two weeks and a taxpayer-funded “leadership coach” was hired to help her.
The overwhelming majority of legislators knew nothing about Gudgel denigrating Native Americans until they read about it in my column. Angered, those lawmakers with supervisory authority over Gudgel dug into her job performance.
A movement to dismiss Gudgel followed. Many of the 45 Democrats who control the 70-member House of Representatives have called for her firing or resignation.
Stewart’s position was Gudgel had already been punished with a suspension. Stewart has tried to sidestep the fact that most lawmakers responsible for supervising Gudgel were kept in the dark for a year.
Gudgel’s legislative support comes from many Republicans and some Democrats in the Senate. Soules and Stewart joined with the three Republicans on the Education Study Committee in voting to retain Gudgel.
Sen. Shannon Pinto, a Democrat from the Navajo Nation, also issued a public statement of support for Gudgel.
Her opponents in the Senate are outspoken. They include freshman Sen. Harold Pope, D-Albuquerque, who voted to dismiss her.
Another Democrat from Albuquerque, Sen. Jacob Candelaria, said the moral decision is to fire Gudgel. He said senators condemn institutional racism in speeches, yet Stewart and Soules have allowed it to continue by supporting Gudgel.
Outside the Legislature, advocacy groups are watching each development.
Isaac Dakota Casados, chairman of the Native American Democratic Caucus, said his organization of 72,000 voters is equally focused on Gudgel and the lawmakers backing her.
“Their position to retain her is a concern to us, and it will be in the Senate election in three years,” he said.
Casados is right.
A high-ranking state employee belittling Native Americans is only part of the story. What shouldn’t be lost is how Stewart led an attempt to cover it up.