As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which has substantial influence over the state of New Mexico’s purse strings, John Arthur Smith was often seen as the bad guy.
Like a villain in a James Bond movie, the longtime and conservative-leaning Democratic senator from Deming in far southwest New Mexico earned the nickname “Dr. No” for refusing to fund various initiatives during his tenure.
But Dr. No is no more.
Smith, along with four other more moderate Democrats, lost their reelection bids to more progressive candidates in last year’s primary. Smith’s defeat was among the most stunning, marking the end of his nearly 32 years as a state lawmaker and also creating an opening for one of the most powerful positions in the Legislature.
With only eight days left until the start of a 60-day legislative session in which New Mexico’s multibillion-dollar budget will loom large, it remains unknown who will become the next chairperson of the Senate Finance Committee. But whoever does will have to step into big shoes and an even bigger shadow cast by Smith, who served as chairman with an iron fist for more than a decade.
Criticisms pave new path forward
State Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, who has been nominated by her caucus to become president pro tempore, the Senate’s top leadership post, said she won’t name chairpeople, vice chairpeople and committee members until she is officially in that role. But once she is, committee assignments will be swift.
“It happens on opening day,” she said.
Don’t expect Stewart to replace Smith with a clone.
“Well, there’s been a lot of criticisms about the way we’ve done the Senate finance work,” Stewart said. “Many committees that meet propose funding that’s never considered by Senate finance. We’re trying to make it more accessible to members.”
Stewart also said she wants to shine a light on the committee’s work.
“That committee has been doing their work behind closed doors for many years,” she said. “I think it’s time that we try to have a little bit more transparency. So far, everyone I’ve interviewed has agreed with that, and each of them have offered a way that we could change the committee to make it more open and transparent.”
Stewart said she had requests from eight senators interested in serving as Senate Finance Committee chairperson.
“I have too many people that would be good, and there’s only one position, so it’s been a long, deliberative [process] and I’m still going through that,” she said.
Though Stewart declined to disclose names, senators who have expressed interest or are said to be under consideration include Pete Campos, Jacob Candelaria, Roberto “Bobby” J. Gonzales, George Muñoz and Nancy Rodriguez.
A Santa Fe Democrat who is a former county manager, Rodriguez, 67, said she would bring a wealth of knowledge to the position as a longtime committee member.
“Serving in the finance committee requires an enormous amount of commitment and time and knowledge about the state’s finances, the budget and the state’s needs,” she said. “And we, per the [state] constitution, have to have a balanced budget, and working to balance that budget every year for the last 25 years or so gives me quite a bit of that experience to be able to take on the helm of the chairmanship.”
Rodriguez also said she’s the only female Democrat on the committee, which she said hasn’t had a chairwoman.
“It seems like the right time that a qualified female fill the position, and if it is not me that is chosen, I still feel that we should have a female fill the chairmanship,” she said, adding that she hopes it will be her.
Rodriguez said she became interested in the position after Smith lost the primary in June. Her interest was buoyed by political blogger Joe Monahan when Monahan called Rodriguez a “budget maven” who was “emerging as a favorite in progressive circles” to replace Smith.
Monahan also wrote that Muñoz, also a conservative-leaning Democrat but who survived a challenge from a more progressive opponent in June, serves as vice chairman of the committee “and will work to be named chairman.”
Muñoz, 53, said he has, in fact, advocated on his own behalf. Before explaining why he should be selected, he noted another lawmaker was poised to take on the post.
“God bless his soul, Sen. Cisneros should have been the one that’s next in line to do that,” he said, referring to the late state Sen. Carlos Cisneros, a Questa Democrat who died in September 2019.
Muñoz, who owns a number of businesses and has served on the boards of several banks, said he has the financial background and experience to be an effective chairman after serving on the committee for eight to 10 years.
“I understand the budget,” the Gallup Democrat said. “I understand the way the process works, capital outlay, how agencies are funded, how departments are funded — you name it. I mean, you’ve got to have an understanding and you got to know where the dollars are going, who needs them the most, what’s critical in New Mexico, and it’s highly important that you have experience with that.”
Muñoz vowed to bring more transparency to the budgetary process.
“People need to see exactly what’s in the budget,” he said. “They say that it’s like sausage-making. It’s more like chorizo-making. You don’t really want to know the ingredients. You just want to know what it tastes like.”
Candelaria, a 34-year-old Albuquerque attorney who has served in the Senate for eight years, contends he’s the “strongest candidate.”
“I am the only candidate on the committee with actual financial training,” he said. “I have my degree in economics and public policy from Princeton [University]. I’ve lived this and worked this for eight years. I was a staff member at LFC [Legislative Finance Committee] prior to joining the [Senate Finance Committee], so from a technical expertise on finance and budgeting, I’m the only one with actual experience and actual professional training.”
Candelaria said he’s made his case to Stewart but that he’s unlikely to be chosen.
“In the Senate, seniority matters, and you have some members of that committee who have been in the Senate almost as long as I’ve been alive, so I may not be first in line to get this job this time,” he said.
If seniority was the biggest factor, Campos would have an advantage over other candidates.
Campos, of Las Vegas, N.M., has served in the Senate for almost three decades. Campos did not return messages seeking comment.
Candelaria, who has been critical of Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, also contends the fourth floor of the Roundhouse doesn’t want him in that position either.
“I know for a fact that members of the governor’s staff have weighed in heavily against me becoming chairman,” he said.
Candelaria declined to explain how he had firsthand knowledge, saying he wouldn’t “divulge confidences.”
Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokeswoman for the governor, denied Candelaria’s allegation, calling it not only untrue but “unfortunate and unappreciated.”
“The governor’s office does not play any role in how the legislative branch arranges its committees,” she wrote Friday in an email. “We greatly look forward to a collaborative and safe session with all lawmakers.”
A legislator on much friendlier terms with the governor is Gonzales, who also said he has the experience to serve as chairman.
The longtime lawmaker from Ranchos de Taos, however, is relatively new to the Senate. Gonzales, who served in the state House of Representatives for about 25 years, was appointed in 2019 and then elected to the state Senate seat that had been occupied by Cisneros.
“They can’t take experience away from anyone — it doesn’t matter where it happens,” said Gonzales, a 70-year-old retired educator who has served as vice chairman of the House Appropriations and the Taxation and Revenue committees, among other positions on legislative panels. “I feel very definitely that I would meet the qualifications for being the chairman. I’m very familiar with the process.”
Gonzales said his experience and relationships in the House would also be an advantage.
“It doesn’t matter how you work on this, 50 percent is the House and 50 percent is the Senate,” he said. “Eventually, they have to come together to come up with one budget. If offered, I would be very, very thankful and very humble about it.”
Gonzales said the Senate Finance Committee chairman takes a lot of heat. He called Smith “an excellent shepherd of the budget” and a “good guardian for the state.”
“Someone has to say ‘no,’ ” he said. “Of course, he can say ‘yes’ 10 times and one ‘no’ and it makes you an unpopular person.”
Smith was considered the biggest obstacle to an effort to tap into the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund for spending on early education, an idea that lawmakers are once again pursuing.
Appetite for spending
In a telephone interview Friday, Smith said delivering a balanced budget is the chairman’s main responsibility.
“I guess the challenge for the next chair, regardless of whatever they agree, is going to be the spending level. He’s going to have to be the backstop to make certain they don’t exceed that spending level,” he said. “I can assure you, you don’t make a lot of friends when you tell them ‘no.’ ”
Asked whether he would recommend anyone to serve as chairperson, Smith said that wouldn’t be a good idea.
“The fact is that the people that resented me saying ‘no’ all the time may take exception to my endorsement of anybody in that area,” he said. “I don’t want to put a kiss of death on a potential person that I think would be very, very competent and do a great job.”
But Smith said he hopes whoever is in the running to replace him as chairperson also has the ability to keep legislators in check.
“The appetite for spending is going to be just phenomenal, and an element out there is saying, ‘Now that Smith is gone, we can spend more money,’ ” he said.
Smith said he has no plans to raise any objections.
“Contrary, when people call me and tell me about the difficulties they think they’re going to be faced with in the Legislature, I say, ‘It’s not my problem. It’s not my problem. Work it out.’ ”