A Democratic state senator known for criticizing members of his party says the leader of his caucus wants to boot him off the Senate Finance Committee after he opposed the way Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham was appropriating federal funds without legislative approval.

But Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, says that’s not true. She said if she removes Jacob Candelaria, who also represents Albuquerque, from that position, it will be because he has pulled away from his party and no longer caucuses with other members.

The back-and-forth exchange Sunday, initiated after Candelaria tweeted Saturday he was to be removed because of his objection to the governor’s use of those funds, came days after the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled against Lujan Grisham and with Candelaria and Sen. Greg Baca, R-Belen, over which branch of government has the authority to spend the money.

That high court unanimously sided with the two senators, who questioned the governor’s making decisions on how to spend about $1.6 billion in federal pandemic aid without input from the Legislature.

Candelaria said Sunday he believes the most recent move to limit his influence is retaliation by Stewart, whom Candelaria has been critical of in the past and who might be displeased with his recent legal win.

“It’s no big surprise to me that this is coming on the heels of the decision of the Supreme Court on Wednesday,” he said. “This in no way has dampened my spirits. If leadership wants to act in this sort of retaliatory fashion, that’s their decision, just as it will be the Senate’s decision as to whether it will go along with this childish behavior.”

Stewart countered: “He’s completely wrong. What he did this week [before the Supreme Court] has nothing to do with what I might have to do.” While she said it is “possible” she may move to remove him from that committee, “it will have nothing to do with his great performance in front of the Supreme Court.”

She said she watched the Supreme Court hearing Wednesday and thought Candelaria “was amazing, calm, he was deferential without being obsequious.” But, she said, Candelaria “doesn’t seem to want to work with us.”

Stewart said she asked Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, to call Candelaria on Saturday and ask him to rejoin the caucus. Muñoz said Sunday he did just that, adding he told Candelaria, “I don’t want to lose you on [Senate] finance.”

“I never mentioned us taking him off Senate finance,” Muñoz said. “He did. He made assumptions.”

Candelaria, in response to Muñoz’s explanation, said, “I did not assume anything.”

The 11-member Senate Finance Committee is among the most powerful legislative bodies in New Mexico, as it plays a major role in shaping the state’s annual operating budget. The committee can break or make just about any piece of legislation that comes with a price tag.

The conflict between Candelaria and the Senate Democrats has been brewing for months. In May, Candelaria parted ways with his Democratic caucus. Two months later, he said Stewart and Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, lacked the moral and ethical integrity to run the 42-member body. Around that time he used Twitter to allege a bill he sponsored during this year’s 60-day legislative session to end the use of the “gay panic” defense in criminal cases died in the House as a result of the “petty political actions of Democratic leadership.”

In mid-July, he sent Stewart an email in which he resigned as a voting member from all interim legislative committees. In that email, provided to The New Mexican by Stewart on Sunday, he wrote, “I have no objection should you wish to remove me from the Senate Finance Committee.” He also wrote, “I regret that you felt it necessary to intonate this threat during our last discussion.”

Candelaria said he had engaged in a series of emails with Stewart about the issue based on his criticism of her leadership work on a number of issues.

But should there be an effort to remove Candelaria from the Senate Finance Committee, another committee — The Committee’s Committee — would first have to meet and approve the action during the regular legislative session slated for January or during a planned special session in December focused on redistricting efforts. Then, Candelaria said, the entire 42-member Senate body has to vote to approve the action.

He said he plans to lobby his colleagues to “not go along” with the plan if it is enacted.

“I expected there would be a political price to pay for doing the right thing, but this is a small price to pay for my own integrity,” Candelaria said.

He said he would be “tickled” if Stewart didn’t pursue removing him.

“I think I’ve done a good job on that [finance] committee, and I’d like to stay,” he said.

Earlier this year, Candelaria said Stewart changed his seating assignment on the Senate floor and moved his office in the Roundhouse from the second to the third floor in retaliation for his criticisms of what he called “her discriminatory employment and management actions” involving the former director of the Legislative Education Study Committee, Rachel Gudgel. Gudgel, who was accused of making racial comments about Native Americans and was criticized by subordinates about her management practices, resigned from her position in early September.

Last month Candelaria, who has served in the Senate since 2013, said he will not seek reelection next year.

General Assignment Reporter

Robert Nott has covered education and youth issues for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He is assigned to The New Mexican's city desk where he covers a general assignment beat.

(1) comment

Mike Johnson

Nothing but political retaliation by Mimi, against the man responsible for exposing, defeating, and embarrassing the Governor's egregious totalitarian overreach in front of the Supreme Court.

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