The fear factor at the state Capitol isn’t limited to COVID-19.
“Time is the enemy of all good legislation,” says Rep. Daymon Ely.
He should know. Ely is co-sponsoring one of the better bills of the session, but he’s afraid the clock will run out before he has a reasonable opportunity to pass it.
Senate Bill 254 would end the clubby system in which a few hundred political insiders appoint major-party candidates to run for a vacant seat in Congress.
The bill by Ely, D-Corrales, and Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, instead would empower voters to choose congressional nominees in a primary election. Then the winners would compete in a special election.
Ely says SB 254 has legs if it can get out of the starting gate. The Senate Rules Committee recessed Monday without hearing the proposal.
“To say I was unhappy is a fair statement,” Ely said. “I want to get this moving, and I have some hyper-ness about it.”
Moores, a member of the Rules Committee, might be positioned to push for action on the bill when the panel meets again Wednesday.
The proposal by Moores and Ely is time sensitive. President Joe Biden has nominated Democratic U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland of the Albuquerque-based 1st Congressional District to be secretary of the Interior Department.
With Democrats in control of the U.S. Senate, Haaland is well positioned to be confirmed. Prospective candidates to replace her have been courting supporters and raising money for weeks.
Under current law, about 135 Republicans and 175 Democrats on the parties’ central committees would choose the congressional nominees.
Moores said large fields of candidates mean a Republican could be designated as the nominee with perhaps only 30 votes from the central committee. A Democrat might need 45 votes.
“My wife and I actually serve on the Republican Central Committee, but I don’t want to be part of appointing a congressional candidate,” Moores said in an interview. “I want a system that’s more forged and honed in the battle of the primary.”
Ely also has done the math, and it’s an indictment of the appointment system.
“About 133,000 — that’s how many people voted in the last congressional primary. Three hundred is the number of central committee members who would appoint the candidates for a special election,” Ely said.
In all, some 700,000 people live in the 1st Congressional District.
The reform bill contains an emergency clause. This would allow their new election system to be implemented as soon as the bill became law.
But the bar to passing it is high. At least two-thirds of the Senate and House of Representatives would have to vote for the bill. Then the governor would have to sign it.
Moores admits his bill is imperfect.
He said junking appointments by political insiders in favor of a primary election would add 30 days to filling the seat.
“It’s not as efficient, but democracy is not efficient. Holding elections is worth it to have a democratic system — small d on democratic,” Moores said.
Another reason he wants to reform the process of filling vacancies is the volatility of the 1st Congressional District.
“The seat has been a pipeline to higher office,” Moores said.
Martin Heinrich served two terms as the congressman in the 1st District before winning election to the U.S. Senate in 2012.
Michelle Lujan Grisham succeeded Heinrich in the U.S. House of Representatives. She surrendered the seat in 2018 and won election as governor.
Voters then elected Haaland as their congresswoman. She was nearing the end of her first two-year term when Biden nominated her for interior secretary.
With Haaland awaiting her confirmation hearing in Washington, four state legislators and a former aide to Lujan Grisham in the Governor’s Office are among those jockeying to replace her.
I usually say voters get the politicians and the government they deserve. This time is different.
A small group of insiders calling the shots obliterates that theory — and maybe the will of the people.
If ever an election bill should become law, it’s this one by Moores and Ely.