Only nine women serve in the 42-member state Senate, and two of them were appointed this year.
The low percentage is one reason Taos Town Councilor Darien Fernandez just ended his candidacy for the open Senate seat in Northern New Mexico.
Fernandez, a Democrat, is backing fellow Taos resident Kristina Ortez in Senate District 6. It includes parts of Taos, Santa Fe, Rio Arriba and Los Alamos counties.
“I’m now thrilled that we can have both a Taos woman senator and a senator who supports early childhood education, the right for a woman to make her own personal decisions about reproductive health care, and policies that will protect our land and water. That’s why I’ve decided not to run for Senate and to instead support Kristina,” Fernandez said.
He had announced three months ago that he would challenge Democratic Sen. Carlos Cisneros in the 2020 Democratic primary election. But Cisneros died of a heart attack last month at age 71, touching off a scramble for the appointment to fill out the rest of his term.
Rather than competing with Ortez to be nominated by the Taos County commissioners, Fernandez stepped aside.
“I cannot in good conscience stand in the way of a candidate who shares my values, our district’s and state’s values, and will make the state Senate more inclusive and representative of New Mexico,” he said.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham will receive recommendations of all four county commissions in the Senate district and then select Cisneros’ successor. A spokesman for the governor said the appointment probably will be made in November.
Ortez, executive director of the Taos Land Trust, said she is working to line up support from her county commissioners.
The dominance of men in the Senate is one reason she wants the job.
“It is a motivation for me. Women make up more than 50 percent of the state, the nation and the world. We need to make our voices heard,” she said.
Ortez, 45, grew up outside Fresno, Calif. She holds a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Harvard College and a master’s in public administration from the University of New Mexico.
She has lived in Taos for nine years, and is raising two daughters, ages 8 and 5.
In her job, she works to conserve farms and other land. One of her organization’s recent successes was restarting an acequia that had been dormant for half a century.
Ortez’s legislative platform differs from stands Cisneros took.
He held the Senate seat for 34 years, but the liberal wing of his party believed he had fallen out of touch with his district.
Cisneros voted with Republicans in February to keep a 50-year-old anti-abortion law on the books. Cisneros also opposed using money from the state’s $18 billion land grant endowment to expand early childhood education.
Ortez takes the opposite view on those issues.
She wants to repeal the state law criminalizing abortion. It is toothless for now because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 decision that legalized abortion. But many Democrats in the Legislature fear the court will reverse itself and the old statute will become enforceable.
Cisneros once publicly promised he would vote to strike down the anti-abortion law. Then he reversed himself, saying the Catholic Church was strong in his district and he had to respect its opposition to abortion.
Fernandez called Cisneros a flip-flopper, but has softened his language since the senator’s sudden death.
“Senator Cisneros and I often disagreed on policy and the best way to move our state forward, but we always did so with civility. He was always open to sitting down and hearing different perspectives,” Fernandez said.
Jockeying for the Senate appointment will be intense. Everyone knows Lujan Grisham’s choice will become the favorite to win the seat in next year’s election.
Perhaps for that reason, Ortez would not commit to running for the office if she’s not appointed.
“I’d like to keep my options open,” she said.
But if Ortez can get the nomination of the Taos County commissioners, she would be in the pole position.
Lujan Grisham would feel some pressure to replace Cisneros with someone Taos County.
And the governor, a student of history, knows the New Mexico Senate still looks a lot like it did in 1919.
It could have passed for a social organization then. An old boys club.
Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-986-3080.