Women made a big splash in New Mexico politics last year.
One story after another highlighted how women had made state history by winning a majority of seats in the House of Representatives. Though still in the minority in the Senate, women set a new record in that chamber, too, with 12 seats.
This year, they have continued to generate headlines, some of which don’t reflect too well on their male counterparts.
During the 60-day legislative session that ended a week ago, part of the narrative focused on the treatment — or mistreatment — of women by men at the Roundhouse.
The discord comes not only on the heels of the #MeToo movement but just months after women made huge strides in state-level elective office. It sparked introspection among male lawmakers, plans for sensitivity training and calls for the resignation of two powerful senators whose tough questioning over a controversial bill sponsored primarily by women was seen by some as bullying and misogynistic.
‘It will stop right here’
The first and most noticeable incident started nearly a month into the session when Republican Sen. Greg Baca of Belen asked then-Cabinet secretary nominee Sonya Smith whether she thought she was qualified to lead the Department of Veterans Services as a Black woman who was relatively new to New Mexico. Baca later apologized, calling his line of questioning inappropriate.
That cringeworthy episode was capped off in the final days of the session when Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, accused Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, also an Albuquerque Democrat, of “abusive” behavior during a heated late-night floor confrontation that prompted a reckoning of sorts in which other lawmakers stepped forward to say that men were behaving badly. Ivey-Soto apologized that night and was seen crying after the session.
The state’s chief executive, a woman, weighed in on the incidents, too, and she put men on notice at the conclusion of the session.
“This is not about being angry or upset at any of my male counterparts, who are incredible leaders and have done incredible work,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said. “But we just have to stand up and stop creating environments where it is just too easy to be hostile, angry, sexist, racist and inappropriate. … It will stop right here.”
The governor herself has been accused of inappropriate behavior.
Lujan Grisham’s former campaign communications director, James Hallinan, said he was the victim of “sexual and physical abuse” by the then-candidate for governor. He claimed Lujan Grisham dumped water on his crotch and then touched his genitals during a 2018 campaign meeting. The Governor’s Office has said the allegations are “categorically false.”
Everyone has a different story to tell.
Female legislative staffers and lawmakers who are currently in office or have served in the past said their experiences range from complete respect to offensive behavior.
“I was there from 1997 until 2012, and between that time and this time, there has been a sea change,” former Sen. Dede Feldman said. “There has been a cultural shift.”
Feldman said women now make up “kind of a critical mass” in the Legislature, more so in the House than in the Senate.
“But certainly the Democratic women who are there now are, I think, younger, more outspoken and more conscious of bullying tactics, even if they may be subtle,” she said.
Don’t even try
Former Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, a Las Cruces Democrat, said she never felt abused.
“I’ve been mad at somebody for the way that they have opposed my bill, but I think that’s why we’re there,” she said.
“Some people take offense at things,” added Papen, only the second woman to serve as Senate president pro tem in New Mexico. “I guess at my age and having grown up and as long as I was there, if I’m offended, I’ll go talk to somebody or just drop it and move on.”
Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, said she hasn’t experienced sexism or abusive behavior at the Capitol, either.
“My personality is very direct,” said Lundstrom, a veteran lawmaker and budget wonk who serves as chairwoman of the Legislature’s House Appropriations and Finance Committee. “I think those kind of abusive people would be afraid of what the results would be if they tried it with me.”
Former Rep. Linda Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, who now serves as superintendent of the state Regulation and Licensing Department, called poor treatment of women in the Legislature “pervasive.”
“It is not limited to elected officials; it is not limited at all,” she said. “It happens amongst lobbyists. It happens amongst staff.”
Feldman, who served 16 years in the Senate, said she not only witnessed the mistreatment of women but experienced it, too.
“Actually, it was more acceptable at that time,” she said. “We had several senators who had been there a long time and felt that only their way was correct, and those people were in leadership positions, so it was more rare for somebody to challenge them.”
Feldman said the mistreatment took various forms, from belittling senators on the floor to attaching unnecessary amendments to legislation.
“In committee, I witnessed people belittled for the way they look, for the way they acted,” she said. “These were sometimes legislators that were berating department heads or government employees who were just coming to testify about some bill. The Department of Health was a favorite target by some senators.”
While women have made major inroads over the past decade, men had been the dominant force in New Mexico politics for generations.
Case in point: It wasn’t until about 2017 that a women’s bathroom was installed in the lawmakers’ lounge near the House chamber.
“That gives you some idea of where people’s mindset was at,” Rep. Kelly Fajardo, R-Los Lunas, said last year.
‘Women versus men’
Feldman recalled an especially inappropriate incident in the late 1980s when former Sen. Mary Jane Garcia, a Democrat from Southern New Mexico, championed a bill to ban cockfighting.
“She was really bullied and really maligned for carrying that bill,” Feldman said. “They had cockfights that were named after her as ‘La Malinche.’ On the floor of the Senate, she was belittled. The male senators asked her to define what a cock was, and this was her first term in the Senate.”
Garcia reflected on the incident in an interview with the Associated Press in 2007, when her cockfighting ban had the support of then-Gov. Bill Richardson and would finally pass the Legislature.
As a freshman lawmaker in the ’80s, Garcia was one of only four women in the Senate. When the men asked her to define a cock, she told the AP, “everybody started laughing.” She asked that the bill be killed.
“I just couldn’t go through with it because I was so embarrassed,” she said. “… I knew I just couldn’t debate it to the end.”
In a brief telephone interview last week, Garcia said she always worked well with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and that she didn’t recall women being treated badly at the Roundhouse.
“I always worked well with both genders,” she said. “It hurts me to see them fighting that way because you can’t get anything done. All you’re doing is spending taxpayers’ money foolishly. They should work together as state senators. Period.”
Penny Mendoza, who has worked as a committee secretary in the Senate for 19 years, said she’s never been subjected to sexism, at least not at the Capitol.
“As individuals, the senators have always treated me with a lot of respect,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if they’re Dems or Republicans.”
But Mendoza said the political environment at the Roundhouse has become increasingly toxic.
“Right now, it’s the worst that it’s ever been between the Dems and the Republicans,” she said. “And that’s probably because of COVID and the way we’re having to operate and a lot of what’s happening at the national level, so this year has not been a good year for a lot of reasons.”
While differences of opinion are just the nature of politics, Mendoza said the gender divide has been overblown.
“I’m devastated with the fact that it’s come down to kind of a women-versus-men kind of thing because I don’t see it,” she said. “I really don’t.”
Freshman Sen. Crystal Diamond, R-Elephant Butte, said women have to decide if they want equality or special allowances. Female legislators might have to forgo certain traditional manners and signs of respect “that are often granted to a lady because we have made this world our own,” she said.
“If we are asking for equality, then when I stand up to debate, they should debate me in the same manner that they would debate a male counterpart, and sometimes that can be interpreted as disrespect to a lady,” she said. “It’s a very slippery slope when we ask for equality but then we expect allowances as a lady that have often been granted by men traditionally.”
Diamond said Ivey-Soto, who is known to scrutinize pieces of legislation line by line, treats men and women equally.
“He is very aggressive, but he’s not disrespectful [or] discriminatory,” she said. “He debates us like he debates a man, and as women, we have to be very careful not to define debate from a man as abuse.”
Calls to resign
Diamond blamed Democratic leaders in the Senate, including Stewart, the president pro tem who called Ivey-Soto’s behavior abusive, of setting the confrontational tone of decorum in the chamber.
“We’re coming off a partisan, very mean-spirited campaign season,” she said, adding Stewart was directly involved in a political action committee that targeted Republicans, including Diamond.
“When we say we’re going to hold ourselves to a higher level of respect with each other, we are right on the tail of campaigns that were anything but respectful to each other,” Diamond said.
Ivey-Soto, who has been in the Senate since 2013, declined a request for an interview.
He and Sen. Joe Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, have been singled out by Emerge New Mexico, a statewide organization whose mission is to “increase the number of Democratic women leaders from diverse backgrounds in public office.”
After the blowup between Ivey-Soto and Stewart, which came after complaints from other women about the way they were treated in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Cervantes chairs, the pro-women organization called for the “immediate resignation” of Cervantes and Ivey-Soto, who is a committee member. The group accused Ivey-Soto of “intense bullying” and said Cervantes “demeaned and humiliated” three female representatives in the committee.
Cervantes did not return messages seeking comment.
A bill that would require every private employer in the state to provide paid sick leave to their workers sparked the hard line of questioning from the two male senators.
The Senate Judiciary Committee had advanced the bill to the floor — but only after adding an amendment to extend the benefit to public workers. While Ivey-Soto ultimately voted against passing the measure out of committee, Cervantes’ tiebreaking vote was contingent on the legislation applying to the public sector, too.
When Stewart presented the bill on the floor, she introduced an amendment to remove government employees from the legislation, insisting the bill was designed only for the private sector. That triggered another round of tough and tense questioning from Cervantes and Ivey-Soto.
When Stewart refused to answer any more questions from Ivey-Soto and sat down, Ivey-Soto said a “sponsor has to stand while they’re presenting the bill,” resulting in rumblings on the floor and Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Cerrillos, to call Ivey-Soto’s behavior “bullying.” Eventually, a 30-minute recess was called for tempers to cool down.
‘No wilting daisy’
Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, said he found it confusing “that somehow [Ivey-Soto] was perceived as threatening” Stewart, who is the most powerful person in the Senate as president pro tem.
“I mean, the reality is he has no authority over her. She has tremendous authority over him,” he said.
Ortiz y Pino said he was “a little taken aback” that Stewart was somehow being bullied. He said Stewart does not allow herself to be bullied.
“Incidentally, Senator Stewart herself is a rough questioner,” he said. “She’s not always gentle in her questioning, and she is no, whatever the word is, little daisy, wilting daisy. She’s a very strong, ferocious, I would say, senator who can stand up to very, very tough things and who usually comes out the winner.”
From his perspective, Ortiz y Pino said Ivey-Soto was “loud and insistent” in his questioning but “he didn’t really insult her — he didn’t really call her names or anything.”
Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, said Ivey-Soto posed tough questions, but she saw the incident as “perhaps a lack of courtesy,” not an attack on women.
“When we talk about doing sensitivity training, I think we need to be really careful about making sure that we don’t inhibit good debate because debate is difficult,” she said. “You’ve got to be able to answer the questions.”
After the confrontation, Stewart said inappropriate behavior has become part of the norm at the Capitol.
“We have new people, and most of them are women,” she said. “We have three great new men, and, you know, they’re as shocked by it as the women because they haven’t been here. … So I have to honor the new people that we have and their outrage over what happened” in committee and on the Senate floor.
Stewart, who has served in the Legislature since 1995, first as a representative and as a senator since 2015, said she had never before felt so “personally attacked.”
“It’s not really what he said,” she said. “It’s the way he did it.”
Kernan said she’s seen women in both chambers who “have a reputation for being just as deliberate and perhaps over the line as some of the men.”
“For anyone to stand and say that just the men are doing that is incorrect because I have seen it the other way,” she said.
Kernan said she didn’t know why Stewart stopped answering Ivey-Soto’s questions.
“I just don’t believe you can hide behind the fact that you’re a woman,” she said. “You’ve got to be able to stand up and debate if you’re going to be in the Senate.”
Ortiz y Pino said he’s had several conversations with his female colleagues since the episode between Stewart and Ivey-Soto.
“I just confess to being not as attuned to the offenses that they’re feeling as they obviously are because I’m male, because I’m oblivious, because I’m old. I don’t know what, but I just don’t get it,” he said.
When they’ve asked him what can be done to remedy the discord, Ortiz y Pino has said communication is necessary.
“You can’t just allow it to fester and build up and then suddenly explode as an example of male chauvinism when we didn’t know that we were accumulating all of these bad experiences we’ve been going through,” he said. “So, they are going to try to have some frank discussions with us.”