New Mexico State Senate Shifts Left, Opening Door To Progressive Policies

Nov 6, 2020

This week, New Mexico voters blew past turnout records of years past, and pushed the state Senate further to the left. That means that in the next legislative session, some policies and plans might be on the table that weren’t before. KUNM's Megan Kamerick spoke with Marjorie Childress, who wrote about the progressive shift for New Mexico In Depth.

KUNM: The legislature has had a Democratic majority in recent years. When you write that it's more progressive after Tuesday's election, what do you mean?

MARJORIE CHILDRESS: I mean that in the State Senate, seven progressive Democrats have replaced more conservative senators, including three Republicans and four Democrats. Meanwhile, Republicans picked up two seats on the Democratic side, but the two seats were held by widely considered conservative Democrats. So we have a larger Democratic majority by one, but it holds more progressive lawmakers than before, significantly more.

KUNM: What do we know about these new legislators?

CHILDRESS: Well, you know, the tickets of the three Republican seats largely came in the Albuquerque metro area. But you know, we're in more rural parts of the state, which, I think people, you know, have this idea that this urban-rural divide is kind of paramount these days. But we had a pickup up north for Richard Martinez, his seat got picked up. And we also had the Silver City area got picked up as well, with Gabriel Ramos leaving his seat in the primary. So, you know, there is some rural flavor to it. And I think that during the election, all seven of these candidates professed support for certain initiatives held dear to progressives. So I think we'll see some shifts in the ability of certain key legislation moving through the Senate, getting past the House and making it to the governor.

KUNM: What kinds of policies that have failed in recent years might have a chance now that didn't have before?

CHILDRESS: Well, probably the most notorious these days is an effort to tap the Land Grant Permanent Fund by 1 percent, to fund early education programs. You know, John Arthur Smith, the powerful chair of Senate Finance, had long blocked that effort from even receiving a hearing before his committee. So it had no chance of getting a full vote by the Senate. So the House, you know, in recent years has been voting for that measure and sending it along to the Senate. And [Smith] hasn't brought it up for even when hearing in front of his own committee. And he won't be returning. So in the general, his seat was picked up by a Republican, but arguably, the objective was met.

The other kind of big example these days is the abortion law, the 1969 [law restricting abortion] that's on our books. It's long dormant, because there's the federal Roe v. Wade that permits the right of women to choose to have an abortion. And there's some fear that that might get overturned nationally. So there is an effort to sweep away this bill, this 1969 bill, and it made it to the Senate floor in 2019. And it lost 18 to 24 on the Senate floor. Against the bill were eight Democrats, most of whom are no longer in the Senate. You need 22 votes to win a simple majority in the Senate. So in order for that bill to pass in 2021, should it make it to the floor again, they just need four additional senators voting in favor for it. So the math kind of works there. All seven of the new senators – my read, just from reading various statements that they made during their campaigns, — is they have affirmatively said they would support the right of women to make that choice. So those are just two examples of kind of hot-topic initiatives right now.

KUNM: Is there a lot of pressure or expectations now in this more progressive legislature? Like if people don't see new policy changes, you know, could these new folks just end up with one term and lose their seats?

CHILDRESS: Well, I mean, one: I do think that there will be some results from it; I expect there will be. But I also think it's part of a longstanding effort to kind of push the Senate in a more progressive direction. And, you know, these contests are always there fought hard, and some of these races went down to the to the wire. They’re in these districts that are close between Republicans and Democrats, so I think they're always going to be hotly contested. But incumbents are hard to beat.

KUNM: Yeah, that's true. They have a lot of built-in power.

CHILDRESS: But the other thing to keep in mind about this is, I'm just not suggesting that they're going to be in lockstep with one another. They will be building relationships within their districts for four years on a range of issues.