State Rep. Doreen Gallegos has a grand new title — acting majority leader of the House of Representatives.
Gallegos, D-Las Cruces, should not have received the designation. If she runs for the job of full-fledged majority leader in a couple of weeks, her Democratic colleagues ought to reject her for an obvious reason.
Gallegos is married to Scott Scanland, a New Mexico lobbyist since 1987. Scanland has a higher profile at the Capitol than many lawmakers. He’s represented clients ranging from cities to the fireworks industry to Sunland Park Racetrack & Casino.
He makes a living by persuading legislators to see the world through the eyes of his clients. The majority leader can also try to steer the votes of her caucus.
Legislators who are married to lobbyists have a conflict of interest unless they disqualify themselves from voting on bills involving their spouse. Money clients pay to Scanland also benefits Gallegos. New Mexico is a community property state.
House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, told me he suggested Gallegos for acting floor leader. Egolf said Gallegos has done a good job as Democratic whip, No. 3 position in the caucus. She would take over any routine administrative duties that are the statutory responsibility of the majority leader, Egolf said.
What Capitol insiders view as routine business can appear inappropriate to most everyone else.
This is a time House members should be especially attuned to avoiding even the appearance of conflicts. Gallegos has stepped in for Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton, who’s the target of a wide-ranging criminal investigation.
Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque, resigned Friday from the House of Representatives. She quit some 48 hours after heavy publicity about investigators from the state attorney general’s staff searching her home and office in the Albuquerque Public Schools.
Williams Stapleton is suspected of funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Albuquerque school system to accounts she controlled, according to an affidavit the state filed to justify a search warrant. She says she’s innocent of any wrongdoing but surrendered the legislative seat she held for 27 years.
House members must choose wisely in replacing Williams Stapleton or lose the chance to rebuild public trust.
“I don’t know if Doreen is going to seek the job,” Egolf said of the upcoming election in which 44 Democratic House members will choose their longer-term floor leader.
Asked if Gallegos had a conflict because her husband is a statehouse lobbyist, Egolf said, “I think that’s for the caucus to decide.”
Gallegos didn’t respond to messages seeking comment.
A former Democratic majority whip, Rep. Moe Maestas of Albuquerque, is in a position similar to Gallegos. He is married to high-profile lobbyist Vanessa Alarid.
Maestas sent me a message Sunday stating he is not a candidate for majority leader.
With Williams Stapleton’s abrupt resignation, Egolf said, Democratic House members need time to confer with family members to decide if they want to run for the leadership job. He said he expects an election in 10 days to two weeks.
Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Galisteo, wants to install a short-term replacement. McQueen said Rep. Daymon Ely, who is not seeking reelection, would be an excellent floor leader until his term ends in 17 months.
Ely, of Corrales, is an attorney and a recognized expert in the House on legislative procedures. He is not lobbying for the leadership job but is willing to do it.
“Having Ely would avoid the specter of people campaigning,” McQueen said. “Even though what Sheryl is alleged to have done is horrible, people have a lot of fondness for her.”
The idea of choosing a caretaker as majority leader might not appeal to everyone. House Democrats have talented younger members, some of whom might want the job.
Rep. Javier Martínez is one possibility. He ran for majority leader in 2017, losing to Williams Stapleton.
Martínez, son of immigrants and an attorney in Albuquerque, had been a legislator for only two years at the time. Williams Stapleton’s seniority carried the day. Martínez is better positioned this time. He told me he’s considering another run for majority leader. But, as McQueen suggested, Martínez said campaigning for the job would be uncomfortable.
“It’s been a long, sad three days,” he said of Williams Stapleton’s fall from power.
Egolf says he’s staying out of the election. He doesn’t want to be accused of favoring one of his House members over others.
There’s a certain inconsistency at play in all this. Lobbying is out of bounds for the speaker, but the spouse of a lobbyist still might end up as Egolf’s floor leader.