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.