One of New Mexico’s longest-serving state senators, Carlos Cisneros, a Democrat from Questa, died Tuesday. He was 71.
A spokesman for the Democratic Senate majority caucus, Chris Nordstrum, told the Associated Press that Cisneros had a heart attack.
His sudden passing drew words of praise from both sides of the political aisle for the legislator, who played a leading role in annual budget negotiations about state government spending as well as legislation on tax policy. For the past several years he was vice chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee and chaired the interim Revenue Stabilization Committee at the time of his passing.
“We’re just all in shock,” Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, told The New Mexican. “He was smart, and was a valued member of the Senate. We depended on him a lot. His institutional knowledge will be hard to replace.”
Besides his native Taos County, Cisneros’ District 6 included parts of Santa Fe, Los Alamos and Rio Arriba counties, stretching from the Colorado state line to the outskirts of Los Alamos, including the communities of Taos, Peñasco, Truchas and Pojoaque Pueblo.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham also expressed shock and sadness, saying Cisneros “strove for impartiality and fairness, and he was as good a listener as he was a talker. When I took office, Sen. Cisneros stepped up and offered to draft our first priority bill, a piece of legislation that ultimately doubled the state’s investment in small businesses. He was a solid partner.”
The governor added that Cisneros “played an instrumental role in delivering infrastructure projects all across the state for many decades.”
Senate Finance Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, said in a statement, “He was committed to the responsible stewardship of the taxpayers’ dollar and quick to reach across the aisle. In addition to taking on the thankless task of pulling together the capital outlay package, Carlos took on issues ranging from election reform to protections for those who help overdose victims.”
Lobbyist J.D. Bullington became emotional Tuesday when talking about Cisneros, saying the senator was the first person he befriended in the Legislature when he began lobbying 24 years ago. Bullington recalled when Cisneros, a former miner who became a union leader, gave him a tour of the Molycorp molybdenum mine in Questa.
“He was a very unique individual,” Bullington said of Cisneros, who more recently sold insurance. “This is a guy who represented the heart and soul of New Mexico. Everybody loved him, no matter what their political views. We need more people like him in the Legislature.”
Lending credence to Bullington’s statement that even political opponents admired the late senator, Senate Republicans released a statement Tuesday saying, “Sen. Cisneros was a dedicated public servant whose sincere desire was to improve the condition of the state so all New Mexicans could flourish and thrive. While his voice is silenced now, we will remember all he accomplished. … Thank you dear colleague for caring so much about the people of New Mexico. We are all hurting and sad that we have lost you too soon. You were a true gentleman, statesman and a real good guy.”
Cisneros, a former Taos County commissioner, was appointed to fill a vacancy in the state Senate in July 1985, making his longevity in that chamber second to Republican Senate Leader Stuart Ingle of Portales, who was elected in 1984 and began serving in January 1985.
“He seemed to be in really good health,” Papen said Tuesday. “He’d been going to the gym and doing all those things you’re supposed to do to stay healthy.”
The Taos News quoted former Questa mayor Esther Garcia, who worked closely with Cisneros on several projects, saying, “He was to go on a hike with some of the land grant people today, but said he wasn’t feeling well.”
In November 2008, Senate Democrats voted to nominate Cisneros for the position of Senate president pro tem.
“As far as I remember, there has never been a president pro tem from Northern New Mexico,” Cisneros told The New Mexican at the time. “At least it hasn’t happened in the 24 years I’ve been in the Senate.”
However, when the full Senate voted in January 2009, Cisneros lost to fellow Democrat Tim Jennings of Roswell, who was supported by a coalition of conservative Democrats and Senate Republicans.
Cisneros is the second long-time state senator to die this year. In May, Sen. John Pinto, D-Gallup, who had been in the Senate since 1977, died at the age of 94.
Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, called Cisneros “a champion for Northern New Mexico who loved serving our state, while another colleague, Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, declared “This is a loss to Northern New Mexico and the entire state.”
House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said, “Just last week I had the pleasure of being with Sen. Cisneros in Taos for a community meeting, where he was open and receptive to the concerns of his constituents and eager to keep moving New Mexico forward. … We lost a great statesman.”
Funeral arrangements are pending.