Women to outnumber men for first time in New Mexico House
By WALTER RUBEL / Southern New Mexico Journalism Collaborative
LAS CRUCES, N.M. — The results of the 2020 election flip the New Mexico House of Representatives from blue to pink for the first time in our state’s history.
Female candidates defeated or replaced male officeholders in four districts, giving women a 37–33 numerical advantage. It will be a first for a body that has long been dominated by men. To this day, the House has never had a female speaker.
“They say this is going to be the year of the woman,” said Rep. Doreen Gallegos, D-Las Cruces, who will return to her role as majority whip this session.
While Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, is expected to retain the speakership, all three of the other leadership positions among Democrats will be held by women. Majority Floor Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque, is African-American; Gallegos is Hispanic; and Caucus Leader D. Wonda Johnson, D-Rehoboth, is Native American.
Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, will become the Republican caucus leader, which is third in the line of GOP House leadership.
Only five House committees this year are chaired by women, but they include two of the most important, Judiciary, led by Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, and Appropriations and Finance, led by Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup.
Gallegos said she has seen the Legislature change since her first election in 2012.
“When I first got here, I remember going to meetings, and I would be one of the very few women there,” she said. “It’s exciting to see that starting to evolve. For young girls coming up, it is very different. They can look around and see people who look like them.”
She said the change has influenced the way the Legislature looks at the state and responds to its problems.
“It’s not only exciting, but there are certain views that women have a different perspective on when it comes to childcare and home care,” Gallegos said. “It’s kind of nice to have a majority. We can have a woman’s agenda. That’s exciting, and, in my opinion, a little overdue.”
More women run
The main reason why women claimed more seats this year is because they ran in more races. There were 61 female candidates vying for the 70 House seats. And, while Democrats had a solid majority with 34 female candidates, there were also 23 Republican women on the ballot.
In Doña Ana County, Republicans ran female candidates in every House race except districts 52 and 53, which are in the south county.
Dow said she would try to recruit more women to run in the future.
“Republican women are often the ideal candidate,” she said, arguing that they care about many of the same issues as their female Democratic colleagues, but often have a better understanding of business and budget issues.
In the Senate races, there were 15 Republican female candidates on the ballot last fall, compared to just 12 for the Democrats.
Crystal Diamond was the only female challenger to break through on the Republican side when she claimed a seat that John Arthur Smith has held for 32 years. Smith lost to Neomi Martinez Parra in the Democratic primary, clearing the way for Diamond to become both the first Republican and the first woman to hold the seat.
Diamond said she and Rep. Kelly Fajardo, R-Los Lunas, have started a new group called New Mexico Rise to recruit, train and support women with a pro-business background from both parties who want to run for office.
She said female officeholders often share similar priorities, such as health, education and family issues, and are more willing to work across party lines. She and fellow incoming Sen. Siah Correa Hemphill, a Silver City Democrat, are working together on legislation to improve health care in rural parts of the state.
“I don’t believe that we are more qualified than men, but I do believe we are equal to men,” Diamond said. “I do think women are influenced by other women. I hope they look at this new Legislature and are empowered to run for office in any capacity that they want.”
Along with Hemphill and Diamond, other new women elected to the Senate are Carrie Hamblen, Brenda Grace McKenna and Katy Duhigg.
Hamblen defeated President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, both of Las Cruces, in the Democratic Primary Election, then went on to claim the seat with a win in the General Election.
She becomes the first openly lesbian senator from southern New Mexico.
“For quite a long time, Senators Jacob Candelaria and Liz Stefanics were the only representatives for the LGBTQ community,” she said. “Now, we have four more out LGBTQ legislators bringing that voice to state government.
“To have an actual LGBTQ Caucus is a big deal.”
Hamblen said she moved from Texas to Las Cruces years ago, and went to work at KRWG Radio on the NMSU campus because she knew the environment would be supportive, at a time when hostility and discrimination toward the LGBTQ community were more common.
She said her sexual orientation was never an issue this year in her race in the general election against Republican Charles Wendler. Her work in the community, first with KRWG and then as president and CEO of the Las Cruces Green Chamber of Commerce, made the election easier, she said.
“People knew me in the community, so me being a lesbian was never going to be an issue,” she said.
Hamblen said she wants to both advocate for and inspire young LGBTQ New Mexicans.
“It would have made a huge impact on my life had I seen somebody like me doing the things I wanted to do. Representation matters,” she said. “For me to be able to bring policy and law that protects them, and also recognizes them, that is a priority I take very seriously, and I know my colleagues do as well.”
Walter Rubel can be reached at email@example.com.