In the spirit of being politically incorrect, I say the New Mexico Senate has too many men.
This august assembly is out of step with the state’s population. Like a funhouse mirror, it distorts the way New Mexico looks.
The Senate has 32 men, nine women and one vacancy. The numbers were even more lopsided before politicians moved the needle by appointing two women to the Senate this year.
I learned long ago that gender shouldn’t matter in deciding who holds public office. The nuns who rapped young knuckles and dispensed pearls of sexism told me and my classmates the best man should win. President John F. Kennedy was their guy, even though he had accepted a Pulitzer Prize for a book crafted by Ted Sorensen, his lyrical speechwriter.
With voting rights for women approaching its 100th anniversary, I realize few believe gender should still be a political consideration. Smarts, honesty and a good work ethic are all that should matter in choosing someone for public office.
Normally, I would agree. But because 78 percent of the Senate’s members are men, the chamber doesn’t resemble the state it’s supposed to understand and reflect.
This is why I hope Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham appoints well-qualified Kristina Ortez to fill the Senate vacancy. The opening occurred because of the death in September of Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa.
Cisneros’ Senate District 6 is a Democratic stronghold that includes parts of Taos, Santa Fe, Rio Arriba and Los Alamos counties.
Ortez, 45, knows the territory, though she grew up in a rural enclave of California’s San Joaquin Valley. She received a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Harvard College and a master’s in public administration from the University of New Mexico.
Ortez, executive director of the Taos Land Trust, would provide the Legislature with expertise on water issues and climate change.
The governor’s other option for the appointment is Rep. Bobby Gonzales, D-Taos. He is a retired school administrator who’s been in the House of Representatives for 25 years.
In terms of government experience, Gonzales wins by five furlongs. But the Capitol is full of lawmakers who either work in public schools or have retired from teaching jobs. They are built-in lobbyists for the school system, yet public education remains one of the weaker parts of what New Mexico has to offer.
Ortez would be a fresh voice in the Legislature. She’s lived and studied in other parts of the country. She would provide a perspective that’s often lacking in a place where every other elected official claims to be a 15th-generation New Mexican.
And Ortez has just as much of a rooting interest in the state’s betterment as any sitting legislator. She is raising her two young daughters in Taos. The demographic of parents with small children is another that’s underrepresented in the statehouse.
If Lujan Grisham chooses Ortez, Gonzales wouldn’t lose any power. He would remain in the House of Representatives and have the opportunity to run for the Senate in next year’s election.
But as an incumbent by appointment, Ortez would become the favorite to win the Democratic primary in June. That will be the decisive race. Republicans are so dispirited they don’t bother fielding candidates in most legislative elections in Northern New Mexico.
A newcomer such as Ortez might even be closer to neighborhoods and ordinary people than are longtime lawmakers who are accustomed to receiving handouts and prodding from lobbyists.
Someone unconnected to the free-spending customs of the Legislature might also question the bloat of state government.
Frugal Democrats are in short supply in the statehouse. I keep waiting for at least a few of them to show a rebellious streak by moving to shrink the number of Cabinet departments from 23 to perhaps 15. Instead, lawmakers added another Cabinet agency this year, the Early Childhood Education and Care Department.
Republicans are almost as ho-hum about the size of government as Democrats. Only 10 of the 112 state legislators voted against yet another stand-alone department.
It’s clear the old guard won’t stop the growth of government in a state that should economize. That’s another reason I hope someone who’s not steeped in Capitol excess gets the Senate appointment.
But the prevailing issue is representation. The Senate looks more like a men’s club than a snapshot of a state where 50.5 percent of the residents are women.
Lujan Grisham, New Mexico’s second female governor, can change the political equation, if ever so slightly.
It’s not social engineering. It’s about hearing opportunity when she knocks.
Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-490-1048.