Democrat Senate freshmen claim mandate for change in NM Legislature

By WALTER RUBEL/ Southern New Mexico Journalism Collaborative

LAS CRUCES, N.M.— The freshman Democrats elected to the Senate this year have been given a mandate by the voters, said Sen. Elect Carrie Hamblen of Las Cruces, and they have already started coordinating their efforts. Hamblen defeated Senate president pro-tem Mary Kay Papen in the Democratic primary for District 38.

“Within a week after the election we got together,” she said.

Hamblen is one of three new members who knocked off Democratic incumbents in the primary election. Leo Jaramillo defeated Richard Martinez in District 5 and Siah Correa Hemphill defeated Gabriel Ramos in District 28.

Democratic incumbents John Arthur Smith and Clemente Sanchez also lost their seats in the primary, with Republicans then flipping those seats in the general election

“It was clear that people were ready for change,” Hamblen said. “I always want to make sure to recognize that (the beaten incumbents) have done some incredible work, but now is not the time to go with the status quo.”

Hamblen said she believes the Democrats in her freshman class have been given a mandate to do three things right away:

* Remove the abortion law that is still on the books.

The House voted 40–29 last year to pass an abortion decriminalization bill sponsored by Rep. Joanne Ferrary, D-Las Cruces, and others. After passing through the House, the bill died on a 24–18 vote in the Senate. Papen, Martinez, Smith, Ramos and Sanchez all voted against the bill.

* Legalization of recreational cannabis

After lukewarm support her first year in office, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham gave her full backing to a legalization bill last year that narrowly passed the House on a 36–34 vote. The bill died in the Senate committee process before ever making it to a final vote. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph Cervantes said last year he was opposed to details of the bill, but open to the concept of legalization. He had previously sponsored a decriminalization bill for small amounts of marijuana that was signed into law.

* Take at least 1 percent more from the permanent fund to support early childhood education.

This has been a longstanding source of frustration for Democrats, who have been persistently blocked by one of their own. Sen. Smith, the longtime Finance Committee chair, refused to take the bill up each time it reached his committee. With Smith’s defeat in the primary, the chairman for next year is still to be determined.

“We’re very excited about the direction we’ve been given from our voters,” Hamblen said. “Just the amount of discussion around creating change, and that it was time for change. We feel that we’re going to be able to make that change.”

Hamblen said that in a strange way, the Coronavirus pandemic has given the freshmen class a unique opportunity to bond. Instead of the typical orientation in Santa Fe, they have found themselves thrown together in a series of Zoom meetings. That has given them the opportunity to start coordinating efforts and devising strategy.

“We were all on a Zoom call with the candidates for (president) pro tem. There were six of us, and we were all asking the same questions and then asking how they would help us get those priorities,” Hamblen said.

GOP wins

Crystal Diamond was one of two Republicans who benefited from the Democratic purge in the primary election. When Neomi Martinez Parra defeated Smith in the Democratic primary, that opened the door for Diamond to win in the general election, flipping a seat that has been held by Democrats for the past 64 years.

She is the first woman ever to hold the seat, and the first person from Sierra County.

Diamond said she knew the district was not as progressive as activists in Santa Fe might have believed.

“I knew that a primary election and a general election would look very different,” she said. “In the primary, progressives were able to come out in force. But in the general election, this southern New Mexico district, although in registration Democrats still had more, is a conservative, moderate district. I knew the progressive agenda was not going to resonate well. They appreciated Second Amendment rights and are grounded in religion.”

Diamond said she doesn’t think the Legislature should have a session in January if Coronavirus restrictions are still in place.

“I do not support a session that is not open to the public,” she said. “We have to have expert witnesses and we need public involvement. It’s unreasonable to think that legislators are the be-all and end-all on all bills.

“If it’s unsafe, then let’s call it off and come back in the spring.”

Democrats and Gov. Lujan Grisham have said a session in January is needed, and they are working out details as to how it can be done as safely as possible.

Other freshmen members of the Senate this year are Democrats Brenda Grace McKenna, Katy Duhigg, Martin Hickey and Harold James Pope Jr. and Republicans Joshua Sanchez, Gregg Schmedes, who is moving over from the House, and David Gallegos.

Walter Rubel can be reached at



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Diana Alba-Soular

Diana Alba-Soular


Southern NM Project Coordinator for the New Mexico Local News Fund | Freelance Writer & Journalist | Chile Lover | Dog Mom