Opening day in the NM Senate is always filled with high drama. This year was no exception. The tension centers on who will be elected President Pro Tem, a position elected by both Republicans and Democrats to lead, to appoint committees and their important chairs.
Every two years friends and families wait on the Senate floor all decked out in their finery, to find out whether the Democrats stick together to put their own leader in command of the Upper House, which has only once since 1933 had a Republican majority. Will a few dissident Dems vote with the Republicans to form a coalition? And what kind of a coalition? Will Republicans get committee chairs? Or the Blue Dog Democrats who cross the line? Will there be consequences for dissenters?
Last week, we had our answer-- and true to recent form, the NM Senate will be led by a coalition--a de-facto one-- led by Mary Kay Papen, a conservative Las Cruces Democrat, and a woman for a change. It’s a de facto coalition because Papen was elected by acclamation on opening day, after the Democrats decided not to parade their divisions in public. But clearly, Papen had the votes—17 of them from Republicans, with at least five Democrats willing to cross the partisan line.
Coalitions are nothing new at the Roundhouse. The most famous was the Cowboy Coalition that ruled the House for six years in the 70s. The rural Democrats made the switch then. In the Senate, Richard Romero, Tim Jennings, even Manny Aragon were Pro Tems elected by coalitions, but discord and disarray often followed. The rural Blue Dog Dems still call the shots here, and get the goods. It’s a bitter pill for those in the majority who campaigned on a Democratic agenda more in tune with Barak Obama that Susanna Martinez.
But the word “coalition” shouldn’t be a dirty one. Aren’t the voters crying for bi-partisan cooperation and conciliation? Well, yes, but the real question is whether the coalition represents a “moderate middle” or an alliance of convenience, whose members are aimed more at power, position and pork than principle or policy. If that’s the case, the result will be chaos and betrayal. But if not, there may be an opportunity to break the gridlock and take a few baby steps forward. We’ll see whether those baby steps lead to the Governor’s office, or in another direction.
Dede Feldman is a veteran of the New Mexico Senate, where she represented the North Valley of Albuquerque for 16 years before retiring this year.