Representative apologizes to governor for 'Mexican' remark

"I lost it, ladies and gentlemen. I expect more of myself. This is not my character." Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton

Steve Terrell A contrite state House Democratic Whip Sheryl Williams Stapleton made an apology Thursday to Gov. Susana Martinez for an outburst at the Capitol this week in which she accused a Republican lawmaker of "carrying the Mexican's water on the fourth floor."

"I lost it, ladies and gentlemen," Stapleton, D-Albuquerque, told reporters at a news conference Thursday. Stapleton, whose demeanor normally is spirited, spoke softly. At times during the conference, her voice sounded as if it were about to break. "I expect more of myself," she said. "This is not my character."

Stapleton, the first black woman elected to the Legislature, was surrounded at the conference by several supporters, all Hispanic, some of whom told reporters Stapleton is no racist.

The incident occurred Wednesday during a break of the Legislative Education Study Committee. Stapleton confronted Rep. Nora Espinoza, R-Roswell, who recently had been interviewed on a KRQE-TV investigative report about Stapleton, a school administrator, being paid by Albuquerque Public Schools while she was in Santa Fe at legislative sessions, which at the time was a violation of the district's policy.

Stapleton said she's written a letter of apology to Martinez and has requested a meeting with her to "clear the air."

"I'm a Latina, just like her," Stapleton said. Martinez is of Mexican American heritage. Stapleton's roots are in the Caribbean — the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

Stapleton said she wasn't aware until later that sometimes in New Mexico, calling someone a "Mexican" can be taken as a pejorative. Many Hispanics in Northern New Mexico, especially older people and those who can trace their ancestry to Spain, refer to themselves as "Spanish."

"I didn't think the word 'Mexican' was a racial slur," Stapleton said.

Though she apologized to Martinez and most assumed she was talking about the governor as the "Mexican" on the fourth floor (where the Governor's Office is located in the state Capitol), when asked to verify that, Stapleton wouldn't admit she was talking about Martinez.

At one point she said, "I wasn't thinking about anyone in particular." She also said that there are other "Mexicans" who work on the fourth floor besides Martinez.

However, not long after the incident on Wednesday, Stapleton told a reporter from Texas-New Mexico Newspapers that Martinez and her chief of staff were responsible for drumming up criticism of her.

Martinez, in a statement via a spokesman, responded to Stapleton's apology. "I believe Rep. Stapleton's words were sad and disappointing. In New Mexico, we pride ourselves on our diversity, and on our ability to be proud of our unique heritage, while remaining united as New Mexicans. I'm pleased that Rep. Stapleton apologized to New Mexicans because the people of our state are the ones who deserve the apology."

The governor said she would be happy to meet with Stapleton. "I'm certainly not going to allow this unfortunate incident to distract me from accomplishing what the people of New Mexico have elected all of us to achieve on their behalf."

Earlier in the day, state Republican Party Chairman Monty Newman called upon Stapleton to resign her post as majority whip. "That kind of behavior is beyond the pale and has no place in the New Mexico House of Representatives," Newman said in a news release. "Representative Stapleton's rhetoric yesterday was completely unacceptable."

Stapleton said she would not resign from the position.

After the news conference, at a meeting of the education panel, Stapleton apologized to Espinoza.

Stapleton told reporters at the news conference that she first became upset Wednesday when she arrived at the meeting and a Republican senator chided her for not being at her job.

She said she has been "personally attacked" by Republicans and has been under stress since the KRQE report. But she said she takes responsibility for the outburst.

Contact Steve Terrell at 986-3037 or sterrell@sfnewmexican.com. Read his political blog at roundhouseroundup.com.

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