Letter from Santa Fe
Square Pegs in the Roundhouse
The legislature's 60-day theater of the absurd.
by Jeff Berg
One of the most exciting and important things that happened on my four visits to this year's meeting of New Mexico legislators was being able to find a parking place each time that didn't require hitchhiking back to Santa Fe from Socorro.
That didn't happen when I last wrote about capitol doings for Desert Exposure, in March 2007 ("Capitol Punishment")
It might not have been a legal parking place, although it looked it.
And I also noted other things that some folks may think of interest:
- There remains no security check of any kind when entering the Roundhouse. AND you can carry a gun in the Roundhouse, but not in the Senate or House chambers, since, you know, we don't want any duels or shootouts between Whigs and Federalists.
- There are state police present at entrances and walking through the hallways and chambers, but it is all quite casual. Officers are in committee meeting rooms when the public has comment on "hot button" issues, such as well, government intrusion into women's bodies and shootin' irons, as keen-eyed readers will read about later.
- I was able to go in the House chamber during a recess during the session. No one challenged me; no one really looked at me. Many legislators and others were also milling about. Later I was denied access to a room because I didn't have a press pass. Once I got that, I was later denied because I didn't have a camera, even though it was announced the previous day that there were no cameras allowed.
- At the doorway that I used to enter the House chamber, there was a small passel of older Hispanic men gathered around a table. These gentlemen, dressed in suits and ties, had badges indicating that they were "Security." They were more like foot traffic directors who made up their own rules. But they were all pleasant and efficient.
They were, to me, so "old school" New Mexico that I wanted to sit with them and chat. But when I thought of that, they had introduced their own "chat" session, which including having a crockpot of green chile stew or some such treat along with fresh tortillas and dessert. All of this right outside the chamber. They spoke Spanish among themselves and I wasn't sure if I thought of them as a throwback cultural icon or something that made me wonder about "security." Since I didn't see any guns, the best they could have done would have been to throw the crockpot at a bad guy. One would think that the Roundhouse, home to all of our statewide elected officials, might be a bit more leery of the idea that some displeased citizen would come in and leave some lead calling cards scattered about.
Be that as it may, I got an immediate and warm reception as soon as I walked into the Roundhouse from Mike Beckett, proprietor of COAS Books in Las Cruces. No longer living in Las Cruces myself, I decided that my first visit to this year's "theater of the absurd" (as the legislative session was described by Rep. Jeff Steinborn) should be on Las Cruces Day. Las Cruces is one of the few cities in the state that has its own day, actually a weekend, where a contingent of Las Cruces boosters heads north to have their say. After all, the city can be considered the "capital" of the "other" New Mexico, meaning any population spot south of an imaginary line centered in Belen, just south of Albuquerque.
Beckett was in attendance — one of, as I was told, 300 Las Cruces folks who came up for schmoozing and promoting. Although the rotunda was busy with foot traffic, it was not so busy this year as in 2007 with booths or displays from businesses and firms operating in Las Cruces. Positive Energy, a now-statewide solar energy firm, had a booth, as did NMSU, the Las Cruces Bulletin and my favorite New Mexico folly, the Spaceport.
Beckett introduced me to Stacie Allen, the 2013 head of the Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce Conquistadors, a group of fearless cheerleaders for the city in the desert. Relentlessly charming and upbeat, Allen explained, "This is a collaborative effort between the Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce and over 200 business leaders. They come here to talk about issues that matter to southern New Mexico, such as education, the Spaceport, and capital outlay."
The city of Las Cruces, Doña Ana County and the Bulletin all work to make this happen, said Allen, who is the CEO of Las Cruces' Big Brothers and Big Sisters in her "normal" routine. She added, "We're also here to support Mary Kay Papen (D-Las Cruces), who was just elected state Senate president."
Papen is the first woman to be selected for that spot since Louise Coe held a Senate seat from 1925-1940. Coe, an educator, was then the last woman to be in the New Mexico Senate, which is normally overrun by "good old boys," until 1965.
I ran the gauntlet of other Las Cruces attendees, some of whom I know, including folks from Positive Energy who will be mounting solar panels on our Santa Fe home this month, and many others I don't. I had a long, interesting talk with a Las Cruces city councilman, Miguel Silva. I stopped by various legislators' offices before heading for the galleries that overlook the House and Senate chambers.
Things have changed somewhat since the 1850 version of the state constitution of New Mexico was approved. (As the Office of State Historian explains, "New Mexico in 1850 was not yet an organized political Territory. It had a military governor. In May 1850, this first constitution was drafted, then adopted by a vote of 8,371 to 39. A governor was elected and a US senator named. Then the uproar began: Texas claimed half of New Mexico and threatened to occupy Santa Fe. Washington refused to seat the senator or recognize the governor.)
That slightly antiquated document includes such language as, "Every male person of the age of twenty-one years, or upwards (Africans, or the descendants of Africans, and uncivilized Indians excepted,) belonging to either of the following classes, and who shall have resided in this State for six months next preceding any election, shall be a qualified elector at such election." (Those two classes are US citizens and Mexican citizens who took an oath renouncing their allegiance to Mexico — wording is spotty here.)
And this: "No divorce from the bonds of matrimony shall ever be granted, except by special act of the Legislature." (Good thing I shed myself of previous wives in different states!)
But it might offer some sense of security that a lot of the other rights and laws provided for back then are still in effect, although many are altered through various amendments of some sort.