For 109 years since the Legislature was founded, New Mexico has not had an African American State Senator. In 2021, that changed when Harold Pope Jr. of Albuquerque took his seat representing the 23rd District. KUNM caught up with the freshman Senator and Air Force veteran to ask about what motivated a life of service and where he sees New Mexico's future.
HAROLD POPE JR.: You know, when I graduated high school, I didn't have the motivation to go to college, I really didn't see myself going. I didn't see much as far as African American males. I didn't have that mentorship. And I didn't see people that looked like me who were successful in my community. I got pushed by uncles that were married into the family who were actually in the military in the army, they pushed me to go in the Air Force. I didn't want to go. But when I did, it was the best decision I ever made in my life. Because I saw people that look like me, I had good mentors pushing me to try things that I would not have normally done. And once I did that, it helped me build a lot of confidence, take a lot of pride in the work that I did, and generally really just representing the country in public service.
Once I retired, and even while I was [still serving], I got involved in a little bit of nonprofit work, serving on some boards. I worked at the capacity of trying to get other folks elected in holding our legislative officials accountable to the needs of the community. There was a point where I said, why don't I just step up and run?
Where do your family values fit? Did your time in the Air Force fortify what you learned at home?
POPE: I would say yes, it fortified and I guess it added to them. So we struggled. I was the oldest of five, my mother worked as a waitress. She worked in the food area of a bowling alley. So we'd come home from school, and she'd be headed off to work. So we were kind of left to ourselves to kind of cook dinner and take care of each other. And that's a struggle you see everywhere, right? And even worse, right now with COVID.
So I just learned the importance of family, I learned the importance of my mom just having to work and hard work. Going in the military just kind of fortified that selflessness. Putting something else above you. I really kind of take that now as service as a state senator, you know, it's about serving your community. And that's not to say that every decision I make is going to make everyone happy. But I'm just always going to vote my conscience. And then my conscience is going to come from my background and how I was raised, but also listening to my community. That's what leadership is about. It's really taking a stand and making a decision and doing the best you can. So that's what I try to do.
This is a session unlike any other in the middle of a pandemic, kind of a wild one to be your first to tell the truth. How has your experience been so far?
POPE: I was lucky, you know, in my election that there are seven new freshmen democratic senators. So the benefit to that is that we're all sharing information. The negatives have been because of COVID because of the pandemic, working in a virtual setting, not being able to interact as much. That's something that we're all dealing with, and we're all facing as new folks. I think that's where it's been an issue is just, it's just hard to develop relationships over zoom. And over email.
Yes, it is. How can we increase the voices of representation across the state, not only in the legislature, but for all of New Mexico?
POPE: For me, it's my role to reach out, talk to folks, but also get other folks to participate and be part of the process. As an elected official, it's also my role to like, do my job and make people feel that we can actually do good in our communities, right?
I would say from the constituent side and voter side, we need them to get more engaged. I like when I'm seeing the marches, the protests and getting involved, that's one way. But another way to get involved is to call your house rep, to call your legislator, call your county commissioner, city councilor, show up to those meetings. Let them know where you stand, because I will tell you as an elected official, that's what moves people. If I'm thinking about voting one way, it's not going to be some lobbyists. It's not going to be some pressure from some higher government official. What's going to move me off my position is my community and what they care about.
Give me a scorecard. Where are we getting it right, and where do we have to improve?
POPE: I would say it's about a six. And that's not to criticize, but that's just to say that I think there was huge turnout in this last election, but I still think there needs to be better engagement. To be fair, I'd also like to see what happens when we're out of the pandemic and COVID. To me, we've been kind of playing with the edges, right? Little things here. We're going to do this. To me, we just have not done enough.
The Black Education Act is a bill that you sponsored along with majority Floor Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton. We have an understanding of why we need it. Tell me about what it would do, how it would be implemented?
POPE: Within the PED, we just don't have a person that's really going to just help us with those policies and programs. Members of the Black community, all over the state have not really had a direction from the state, kind of at the PED level that really addresses providing the Black education that’s needed in our community. And for me, it's not just about Black education for Black students. Black education is American education. You should all be learning that. You know?
In what ways can we increase avenues of economic opportunity for New Mexicans? We've been facing a poverty epidemic and the COVID-19 shutdown has just exacerbated the plight of many people in the state. What needs to be done to not only help people get back on their feet, but to ensure that they remain standing on solid financial ground?
POPE: There's a few bills that we passed in the session, grants to businesses, doubling working families tax credit, you know, they're going to get an additional $600, which I know in the long term isn't much. We're going to be coming up on folks that could be losing where they live, rent, or mortgage. We are working on a bill there as well. But what's going to happen after that? When they're going to owe all this money, we're going to need help from the federal government, help our families and folks help the small businesses stay afloat, to get out of the economic hole.
Long term is this oil and gas money that we've been so tied to boom and bust. This extra money and this revenue that we have, this is what needs to be used to invest in other industries, renewable energy, outdoor recreation, the space industry, manufacturing for renewable energy components, right? We can truly have a diverse economy where it's not boom or bust. These jobs and industries that create will actually be high paying jobs for New Mexicans.
What do you see coming up in New Mexico's future? How can we as citizens help build this new future for New Mexico?
POPE: I believe we could be destined to be a renewable energy capital in the United States. I want us building transmission lines, like they do oil pipelines, we should be doing that with clean energy. And I believe we could have that future. And that future would provide great paying jobs, help our environment, and really just help our communities. When you think about it, we're talking about a state with 2.1, 2.2 million people. We really don't have to do much to move the needle when you think about it.
That was State Senator Harold Pope Jr., who is the first African American State Senator in New Mexico history.
Your New Mexico Government is a collaboration between KUNM, New Mexico PBS, and the Santa Fe Reporter. Funding for our coverage comes from the Kellogg Foundation and KUNM listeners like you, with support for public media provided by the Thornburg Foundation.