An outspoken state senator from Albuquerque who parted ways with his Democratic caucus in May lodged fervid accusations against its top two leaders Friday.
Sen. Jacob Candelaria, who has butted heads with members of his own party in the past, including Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, said Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart of Albuquerque and Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe lack the ethical or moral capacity to lead Democrats in the 42-member chamber.
“For me, this is about a movement to change the culture of the Senate,” Candelaria said in a telephone interview. “There’s a fundamental issue here about the ambivalence of elite white progressivism that claims to support the struggle and the civil rights of queer people and people of color. But, you know, in this instance it’s very hollow, and lip service is not enough.”
Stewart and Wirth did not return messages seeking comment but issued a joint statement.
“Senator Candelaria resigned from the caucus well over two months ago and while we respect his right to express his opinion, leadership is not going to respond to personal attacks,” they said in the statement.
Candelaria, who took to Twitter early Friday to expound on his decision to leave the caucus, raised two specific complaints.
First, he alleged 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.”
He pointed the finger specifically at Wirth and Sen. Joe Cervantes, a Las Cruces Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“Here’s the doublespeak hypocrisy of the Legislature on full display,” Candelaria said. “Sen. Wirth and Cervantes intentionally held that bill for a month” before passing it on to the House after it gained Senate approval. He said Wirth finally sent the bill forward at the end of the session, “with full knowledge that it would not have enough time to pass the House.”
Republican representatives already had begun to “shut down the House floor,” Candelaria said, referring to maneuvers intended to slow the process of passing legislation.
Cervantes said Candelaria was wrong.
“That’s his imagination,” Cervantes said. “There’s absolutely no basis for that criticism.”
Candelaria, however, maintains his bill was dead on arrival.
When it was considered in the Senate, members of the chamber stood up in applause after it passed unanimously. Several legislators approached Candelaria after he advocated for its passage in an emotional speech and congratulated him when it received unanimous approval; Wirth was among them.
“You know,” Candelaria said, “Judas went up to Jesus Christ in the Garden of Eden and gave him a kiss on the cheek.”
Candelaria and Wirth have clashed before. In March, also during the legislative session, Candelaria said Wirth confronted him on the Senate floor when Candelaria used a legislative maneuver to stall a bill he opposed.
“Why don’t you just [expletive] off and put an amendment on like the rest of us?” Wirth allegedly told Candelaria, who sat slouched in his chair in tears after the confrontation.
Candelaria also took aim at Stewart on Friday, tweeting that she’s protected the director of the Legislative Education Study Committee “from any accountability for racist remarks against Indigenous children and gay men.”
The director, Rachel Gudgel, has been accused of mocking Native Americans and screaming a homophobic slur in the workplace at Ian Kleats, a former analyst for the Legislative Education Study Committee.
Kleats, who now works in Denver, said Gudgel, an employee of the Legislative Finance Committee at the time, screamed a derogatory term at him as he was leaving her office following a disagreement about educational spending around the time of the 2013 legislative session.
“It affected me, but I just tried not to engage with her,” he said.
Kleats, who disclosed that he competed against Gudgel for the director job, said he didn’t want his decision to speak out to be perceived as “sour grapes.” He said he had nothing to gain by sharing the information except to shine a light on Gudgel’s workplace behavior.
“Rachel hasn’t had any management experience prior to being put into the directorship,” he said.
“They made a choice, and we can just see what’s happened with it now,” he added.
Gudgel did not return a message seeking comment.
Candelaria said the Legislative Education Study Committee was aware of the homophobic slur when it was considering hiring Gudgel as director.
“Mimi had just joined the Senate, and she was vehemently opposed to hiring Rachel and was one of the members on LESC that was actively campaigning against her appointment” because of the derogatory remark, he said.
“There were many of us on the committee at that time who did not want to hire Ms. Gudgel because of that, but unfortunately, the instance of very clear discrimination against gay men didn’t disqualify her, so she was hired,” added Candelaria, who is openly gay.
He said he finds it ironic that Gudgel now “enjoys all of Mimi’s political protection.”
Candelaria said he doesn’t believe Stewart and Wirth “are living their Democratic values” and that New Mexico needs people of color in the state Senate’s leadership posts.
“I will continue to work to make that happen until it does happen,” he said, adding he has “no ambition” to be president pro tem or majority leader.
“I’ve also committed to putting significant funds behind this effort,” Candelaria said. “In my campaign account, we have about a quarter-million dollars at this point, and I am willing to put all of that money on the table to make sure that we’re able to get leadership in the Senate that actually respects people of color.”
He said, “The actions of Senator Wirth and Senator Stewart have proven to me that they, in my view as a senator, should no longer be trusted with leadership of the institution.”