State legislators often spout clichés about dangerous precedents. They just set one.

A committee of 10 lawmakers voted unanimously Wednesday to pay state education administrator Rachel Gudgel more than $60,000 in severance, even though she made racial slurs about Native Americans.

Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, called Gudgel’s conduct “despicable and disrespectful — worse than I imagined.”

He still voted for the payout to Gudgel, offering a simple reason.

“We spent three months on this and nothing else,” Lente said in an interview. “I want to get back to doing important work on schools in the interest of our children.”

Lente was among a group of lawmakers who tried to fire Gudgel. He couldn’t get enough votes to oust her.

Gudgel, 44, submitted her resignation Wednesday as director of the Legislative Education Study Committee. In doing so, she made a proposal to benefit herself financially, and weary legislators went along with it.

Gudgel sought payments for “earned leave” until Feb. 18, when her resignation takes effect. That’s almost six months, meaning she will collect about half of her annual salary of $131,000 in return for quitting.

It’s a good deal for Gudgel, but a bad bargain for the public. By her own admission, Gudgel denigrated Native Americans, though she called these comments “isolated.”

She also drew complaints from subordinates who said her abrasive management style caused heavy turnover in the Legislative Education Study Committee’s paid staff. It has about 15 positions.

In her resignation letter, Gudgel said she was entitled to receive her salary through mid-February.

“I have earned this leave over a decade of committed service to the Legislature,” she wrote in her letter of resignation.

Her assertion shows just how loose the state employment system can be for a top administrator reporting to part-time legislators.

Gudgel has been director of the committee for more than five years, since January 2016. She previously worked for the Legislative Finance Committee.

She wanted payment for leave she said she accrued in her current position, and in her previous job that ended more than five years ago.

No legislator objected to paying severance to Gudgel, nor did any delve into how she had accrued almost six months of leave.

Democratic Sen. Bill Soules of Las Cruces, the committee chairman, said her amount of leave had been checked and confirmed by “someone at the Capitol.”

Who was it?

“I couldn’t tell you. I don’t know how that got verified,” Soules said.

An at-will employee, Gudgel could have been fired. But lawmakers on the Legislative Education Study Committee deadlocked 5-5 in July on terminating her, and no one was budging.

Soules and Senate President Pro Tempore Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, joined with three Republican lawmakers to block Gudgel’s ouster. The other five Democrats on the committee voted to fire her.

The tie vote kept Gudgel in power but under duress. Leaders of tribes, pueblos and state Democratic Party Chairwoman Jessica Velasquez stepped up pressure to remove her.

“In the wake of Ms. Gudgel’s racist comments, DPNM stands with tribal leaders who have demanded substantive action,” Velasquez said before the Legislative Education Study Committee began three days of meetings in Socorro.

Gudgel did not attend the meetings, and Soules added an executive session to the agenda for Wednesday, the final day. Gudgel submitted her resignation proposal as the executive session approached. Even legislators who had wanted to fire her went along.

“We have to get back to substantive issues of education,” said Rep. G. Andrés Romero, D-Albuquerque, who was among the five lawmakers who tried to terminate Gudgel.

For her part, Gudgel sent a statement complaining she was mistreated since I first reported she had made derogatory statements about Native Americans.

“I love my job. However, the harassment and difficult work environment over the past 3 months has created an atmosphere that is just too challenging for me to continue to work in and be effective,” Gudgel wrote.

A handful of legislative leaders last year fielded complaints about Gudgel slurring Native Americans and mismanaging her agency. They hired a private attorney to investigate Gudgel.

The investigator’s report has been withheld by state lawyers who say it’s a personnel record. But the report was damning enough that House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, and Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque, wanted to fire Gudgel last year.

Sen. Stewart and then-Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, fought hard to keep Gudgel. This small group of legislators eventually decided to suspend Gudgel for two weeks and hire at taxpayer expense “a leadership coach” to help her.

The overwhelming majority of legislators on the committee that’s supposed to supervise Gudgel knew nothing about the investigation, Gudgel’s slurs or her suspension until they read about them in my column.

Gudgel in her statement ignored that most of her direct supervisors knew nothing about her misconduct until recently.

“I am disappointed that I have done everything that House, Senate and LESC leadership asked of me last year and had their support, but now that this issue has become public many in these leadership positions no longer support me today,” she wrote. “I do want to thank Senate President Pro Tempore Stewart for her continued support, trust, and leadership.”

Rep. Trujillo, vaccinated but ailing with COVID-19, had to skip the committee hearing Wednesday. Trujillo tried as far back as January 2020 to convene an executive session of committee members to look into Gudgel’s conduct. Soules and Stewart led the opposition in voting down Trujillo’s motion.

It’s taken another 19 months and an agreement for cash payouts to remove a manager who made racial slurs.

Lawmakers call it the price of progress. I suppose that’s one way of describing expedient politics.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnmexican.com or 505-986-3080.

(30) comments

Russell Scanlon

I find these comments interesting. First I must say that I am a recent arrival to NM and as a lifelong Democrat Liberal/Progressive I am incredibly dismayed by the corruption and scandals that plague the Democratic Party in this state. It is depressing and it must change. However, regarding this specific issue let’s do a little mental experiment:

The Republican Party has been saying for years that we needed “good businessmen” (I am deliberately being gender specific.) to run the government, right? Hopefully Donald Trump has disproved this concept forever—although he was admittedly a terrible businessman.

And is it not routine for CEO’s to receive “golden parachutes” and obscene bonuses when they retire or are forced out of their positions?. . .

Therefore, aren’t we just getting what some of us asked for?

I don’t think this person should get a dime quite honestly, and in a truly fair society it would not happen. They would resign in disgrace. But that is not the system we have established.

So in spite of all the hyperventilating about ‘left wing corruption”, as usual, the truth resides in a gray area where we all share responsibility.

Cindy Eakin

If she earned the leave, she should be paid. Human Resources/Payroll would be responsible for calculating her accrued leave. Did she properly accrue 6 months in 10 years? Sounds like pretty generous leave. Maybe she worked for the state for more than 10 years,

Being an at-will employee has nothing to do with being paid for your accrued leave when you separate from employment, whether it is voluntary or involuntary.

Steve Fitzer

Milan Simonich is a notoriously petty and unprofessional columnist. In this particular instance, leaders were not giving him personnel information he wanted because they were legally required not to (a fact that he admits to and dismisses). In retaliation Milan has been throwing a tantrum for the last several months using the platform of the New Mexican to disparaging good people by printing misleading and sometimes false information in a petty attempt to ruin lives. Milan is unfit to be called a journalist and should resign or be fired from the Santa Fe New Mexican immediately.

Augustin de la Sierra

I read what Gudgel said. Her weird (to say the least) remarks on many occasions indicate to me a low intellect. She has belittled more than indigenous people. Her remarks and policies towards women are profoundly sexist and hostile.

Gudgel is yet another graduate of the UNM Law School. Time and again, I read or observe attorneys from same and wonder how the law school continues to remain accredited. Or if the law school even cares.

Has Gudgel ever apologized? I hope these reports follow Gudgel for some time. I hope that she is forced into a training program. Maybe she will never understand how stupid so many of her remarks have been. But if she wants to make a living, training might give her pause.

Emily Hartigan

Um, isn't a blanket condemnation of UNL Law grads a bit precipitous? Unfair?

I confess an "interest" as my sister and a number of folks I know went there, but even the grads of the law school at which I taught (Marco and Jon Carlo Serna, an interesting duo, but many others) seem to be a cross-section of humanity. No better, no worse.

Augustin de la Sierra

Please be aware that New Mexico is tied with four other states for having the lowest required score to pass the Uniform Bar Exam.

I have known a few fine attorneys who are graduates of UNM Law School. I have known many more who are incompetent. In my opinion, one should thoroughly check the bona fides of any graduate of the UNM law school before retaining him or her.

Mike Johnson

Good point, and remember Deb Haaland actually failed the NM bar exam after getting her law degree at UNM.......

Chris Mechels

UNM is definitely a Second Rate law school, and produces some real losers; like MLG, AG Hector Balderas, and Auditor Brian Colon. However it seems that Gudgel was "cumlaude" as an undergrad and in law school. A bit above those folks I mentioned above.

Augustin de la Sierra

The Governor Michele Lujan Grisham, NM Attorney General Hector Balderas, and U. S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland are exceptional leaders whose feet I do not deserve to wash. They are all UNM Law School graduates. They are the exceptions of which I spoke.

Mr. Mechels, I do not think I have ever seen you either be objective or display an understanding of how hard it is to serve in public office.

Emily Hartigan, the former chief judge in the 13th judicial district is a graduate of St. Mary's Law School. He's a fine judge.

Emily Hartigan

It's called a "nuisance settlement" for a person who has some nerve, and obviously still fails to understand why her ignorance and intransigence (and disingenuousness) got her here.

The question for us is, do Wirth and other seemingly competent legislators understand how they got here, and are they willing to open up the process even if that is less "efficient" than secrecy?

arthur lynn

I would need to know what she said before passing judgement.

Diane Gonzales

She admitted denigrating Native Americans. Is it the actual words you'd like to hear?

Augustin de la Sierra

For a report on what Gudgel said, see https://abq.news/2021/06/allegations-of-racism-and-stonewalling-prompt-call-for-investigation-of-legislatures-top-education-staff/

Khal Spencer

Question I have is whether she has been putting her foot in her mouth for the entire six years? If so, why did it take so long to get this aired out?

Mike Johnson

She obviously has "leverage" over some powerful people in the Senate.....considering the corruption in that place, many possibilities.

Marci Mel

Chances are if one dug deep enough they'd find a very close tie such as a family member with a lot of money and sway over the politicians in this state or other associates who made a few calls. There was too much invested in keeping this quiet.

Richard Reinders

She resigned why the payout, I could kind of see it if she was fired but she volunteered to leave.

Khal Spencer

I've seen that play out at a certain large institution near Santa Fe. Easier to agree on a severance that lets the person leave with a few bucks in the paycheck plan rather than going to court on a termination.

Mike Johnson

True Khal, and by sealing the record, so to speak, with a big payoff, none of any incriminating things about the Senate leadership will come out that she was being rewarded keeping qiet about. Why is the leader of the Senate, the man in charge, Wirth, staying so silent?

Mike Johnson

Still a secret process within a corrupt system. Follow the money, something will be paid off here.

Gay Marie

Why disparage an entire race of people? Unless you’re a racist and that’s what they do….not someone would should be in education in any form. Indigenous people have been mistreated for much too long.

Chris Mechels

So our "Republic" is reduced to this. We won't terminate an employee for incompetence, so incompetence is far too common, and seems to be encouraged.

We terminate them for making politically incorrect comments... which has become unforgivable., thanks to Milan, and others who created this furor.

No wonder NM government is utterly incompetent. We need only look to the Public Records Commission, incompetent from top to bottom, and refusing to enforce the Rules Act, which happens to be their job. We will just have to get them to utter a racial slur, and for Milan to hear of it. BTW, former City Council Member Matt Ortiz is part of the PRC mess now, even though he's been disbarred.

Jim Klukkert

Chris Mechels- Rachel Gudgel was ousted not for making ‘politically incorrect comments.’ Gudgel was taken down for a series of racist comments.

It was not Milan Simonich who made politically incorrect comments in inappropriate to work place settings, and more importantly, it was not Milan Simonich who made racist comments inappropriate anywhere.

It is the efforts of millions of common folks, struggling for justice of all sorts, who have accomplished these new standards for ethical behaviour.

These efforts have also included for ethical behaviour in regards to other groups that suffer from less privilege than White Males, and include Women, Children, Old Folks, Folks of numerous Disabilities and Challenges.

So sorry that you obviously did not get the memo; seems you richly deserve that notification.

Finally Mr. Mechels, this is not a case in which “our ‘Republic’ is reduced to this.” Rather, this is case where the People of our ‘Republic’ have demanded that speech and behavior standards are ELEVATED to this.”

Thanks. Now you might fill in any gaps with some reading of on the last 50 years of democratic change in the world.

Mike Johnson

True Jim, and of course all these "efforts" have been against a left wing D state Senate "leadership" who has been resisting all of them for many months and perhaps years. A pyrrhic victory, as it were......

Jim Klukkert

Hey Mike, I often find myself with serious differences with Democratic Party leadership and their positions. That is one of the reasons I am quite out front identifying as a Democratic Socialist, and very definitely don't want to be throw in the same basket as the "Progressive" mayor downstream from the two of us.

For example, it is an ouch for me when Republicans or others describe Obama care as a socialist program. No Democratic Socialist program would be lining the pockets of Big, whether that is Big Pharma, Big Med, Big Insurance or Big Litigation. Or when folks try to hang me on Clinton's 'Welfare to Work' or Obama's 'Cash for Clunkers;" two programs that did infinitely more harm than good. But such is life these days.

What is Mimi Stewart up to, and does she not have any idea how we might better spend $60k in Indian Country or for our schools or..........?

Anyway, I talk too much. I am thankful for the rain.

Mike Johnson

Well said Jim, I appreciate your honesty and integrity to your values.

Jerry Appel

Progress! Keep up the good work. Keep shining that light on the shenanigans of politicians who all too often behave like spoiled brats seeing what they can get away with.

Andrew Lucero

As much as I hate to say this, only having to pay her for 6 months is a relative bargain. Especially considering how much time and effort has already been wasted on her. I don’t even want to think how much more it would end up costing us to remove her via other means. We don’t need any more distractions. Pay her off so we can go on with our lives and get back to the business at hand... Goodbye to her and good riddance.

Emily Hartigan

Seems about right, Andrew. As long as she doesn't interfere with someone else who can do the job without failing to see the value of all persons in NM. You can't educate if you're that ignorant.

Mike Johnson

Oh, not a waste at all. This episode has exposed left wing hypocrisy, corruption, and secret coverup deals for all to see. For a conservative, this was money well spent.

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