State Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto said his passion for working New Mexicans drove him into a fiery debate on the Senate floor late Thursday night.
Other lawmakers in both chambers decried his line of questioning toward Sen. Mimi Stewart, one of the sponsors of the bill being debated, as a personal attack that violated the chamber’s rigid rules of decorum.
Some used harsher terms: “bullying,” “abuse” and “misogyny.”
Ivey-Soto did not return a message Friday seeking comment on the criticisms.
In an interview Friday afternoon, Stewart called the incident a “turning point” for most of the women in the Senate.
“They came to my defense. They backed me up. They even are calling for a censure on Sen. Ivey-Soto,” she said.
The state Legislature has more female lawmakers than ever. In the state House of Representatives, they hold a 37-33 majority.
Of the 42 state senators, 12 are women — two Republicans and 10 Democrats.
Still, Stewart and other women in the Legislature have suggested during this year’s session that women are sometimes treated differently by their male peers.
“You know, it’s very hard to talk about the underlying misogyny in the Senate,” Stewart said. “It’s just the privilege factor that the men think it’s their purview. It’s been a good old boys club for a long time. They can tolerate a few of us but not many.”
Her debate with Ivey-Soto centered on House Bill 20, which initially required only private-sector employers to provide paid sick leave to all workers, no matter the size of their workforce.
Earlier this week, the Senate Judiciary Committee added an amendment extending the benefit to public workers.
Stewart, who insisted the measure was designed only for the private sector, introduced a measure on the Senate floor at the start of Thursday night’s debate to strip the amendment including government workers. Ivey-Soto, who said he felt passionately that the legislation should cover all New Mexico workers, argued there was no reason to exclude them.
Both senators are Albuquerque Democrats who are members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Sen. Joe Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, who chairs the committee, also opposed Stewart’s move to undo the amendment.
“Why wouldn’t we be willing to give [government workers] that benefit?” he asked the Senate on Thursday night. “The argument you’ve been told is they already get it or they get something better. … That’s not the reason. The real reason is we don’t want to pay for it.”
Cervantes had conditioned his tiebreaking vote in the committee earlier this week on including government employees in the legislation.
Later, amid a series of questions from Ivey-Soto, Stewart called the inclusion of public-sector employees a “poison pill” that was intended to lead to the bill’s failure.
An animated Ivey-Soto fired back with more questioning, in which he demanded Stewart read provisions in her own bill and asked her to stand up while presenting it, as required under chamber rules.
At one point, Stewart said, “I’ll continue to answer your questions if you’ll stop being quite so abusive in your questioning of me.”
As the debate became increasingly tense, Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Cerrillos, stood up and objected.
“I believe we are in a bullying state at this point in time, and it’s disgraceful to the public,” Stefanics told Ivey-Soto.
After the debate had gone on more than 30 minutes, Stewart said she would no longer answer any more of Ivey-Soto’s questions.
Senators took a nearly 30-minute recess for tempers to cool off.
“I am disgusted by the way she was treated a few moments ago — the bullying, the attacks, the accusations,” said Sen. Michael Padilla, also an Albuquerque Democrat.
After the recess, Ivey-Soto apologized to the chamber. “If my passion came off as anger, I apologize,” he said. “That was not the intent.”
In the end, the Senate approved Stewart’s effort to remove public workers from the bill. Ivey-Soto was not in the chamber when it began voting on the bill just before 2:30 a.m. Friday. He did not cast a vote.
In the interview later Friday, Stewart acknowledged that standing while presenting a bill is part of the chamber’s rules. But, she said, she had been exhausted after presenting the previous bill and going on an average of four or five hours of sleep over the past two weeks.
“It was so disrespectful,” she said about Ivey-Soto’s request that she stand up. “It was like slapping me. ‘Follow the rules. Stand up.’ ”
The confrontation between Stewart and Ivey-Soto even drew the attention of the other chamber.
“What we are seeing over there is a shame on this Legislature. It is a shame on the notion and ideas of decorum. It is intolerable … to have one member of that body attack another member viciously for doing nothing more than presenting a bill from this chamber, from offering amendments,” said House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe.
“To see a member of that body attack a fellow senator in a cruel and vicious way reeks of the worst type of misogyny and male arrogance that I’ve ever seen in this body or this legislative chamber, that I’ve ever seen anywhere,” he said. “I am outraged.”
A handful of freshman senators also called out Ivey-Soto’s behavior. Sen. Harold Pope Jr., D-Albuquerque, called it “unacceptable and demeaning, in this chamber or outside of it.”
One female senator said the way men behave toward women at the Roundhouse isn’t limited to one individual.
“What happened tonight, that might have been one individual acting, but let’s not pretend that there’s not an issue with how women are treated in this Legislature,” said Sen. Katy Duhigg, D-Albuquerque.
“I have been shocked,” added Duhigg, who is serving her first term in the Senate. “I don’t want to pretend that this is some partisan thing. I don’t want to pretend that this is just about one person because the fact is women are treated terribly here. … It is an issue, and if you’re not feeling it, it’s probably because you’re not a woman.”
Stewart, a longtime lawmaker who serves as president pro tem, the Senate’s top leadership post, said she sees an opportunity for change.
“Now that we have more women — and the new women we have are just rock stars, they want changes,” Stewart said. “They’re younger. They are more progressive. But they notice. They have noticed, and they are talking about a culture that they’re experiencing and that they see us older women going through also, so I believe it gives us a chance as a caucus to work together to address these issues.
“And I am not going to be afraid of that as we move forward,” Stewart added.