During questioning of the first Black female nominated to lead New Mexico’s Department of Veteran Services, the Republican leader in the State Senate questioned whether the nominee’s “culture” would allow her to lead a state cabinet agency and serve non-Black residents of the state.
Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s nominee for secretary of the Department of Veterans Services, Sonya Smith, had a confirmation hearing in the Senate Rules Committee on Feb. 12. Secretary-Designate Smith is the first Black woman to be nominated for the position. She is a veteran of Desert Storm and most recently served in the New Mexico Department of Health helping to direct the state’s COVID pandemic response.
Notably, the hearing and questioning came in the middle of Black History Month.
As Republican Senate leader, Greg Baca (R-Valencia) is a member of the Rules Committee, which hears nominees for top-level state government posts. During Friday morning questioning, Baca began asking Smith about about “minority” outreach for “COVID testing and that sort of thing.” Smith had previously served as a COVID project manager in the state’s Department of Health after a successful nonprofit healthcare career.
Baca continued by asking Smith if she, as a Black woman, could “adequately serve” the needs of non-Blacks, like himself, and whether she “felt comfortable with them” (meaning Hispanics). Baca did not ask the same questions of other nominees before his committee previous to Smith.
“Do you expect after your time here in seven years, that you’ve been immersed in this culture enough in this state? That you feel comfortable entering a position where we’re a state with 2.6 percent of the population is African American in this state. And 48 percent is Hispanic or Hispanic mix?
Do you feel like, like you can, like you are comfortable adequately representing both, both cultures of white, Native, Hispanics. … We have a significant amount of Hispanics here. And, of course, African American. Do you feel comfortable with them?”Sen. Greg Baca, (R-Valencia)
Smith paused to confirm the question, asking, “Are you asking do I feel comfortable representing the Department of Veterans Services as a Black woman? Is that what you’re asking?”
Senator Baca was unable, in the moment, to clarify his question. While the senator fumbled, Sec.-Designate Smith continued with her smackdown, saying, in full:
“Yes, you’re right, it is immutable. I am who I am, and I don’t think that when the governor tapped me for this position, she was concerned about my color. I think she was looking at my skill set and my ability. That’s first and foremost. Being a veteran is something that I really feel that, regardless if you are Democrat, Republican or Independent, that typically people can get behind, because of the commitment and service that they’ve been able to perform. And so, that being the first Black person to be appointed to this position was something that somebody else pointed out to me. I was interested because there are opportunities within this state to make the lives better for our veterans and their families.
Yes, being a Black woman, I’m sure it’s going to come up from time to time, because I am a proud Black woman, and living here in this state for the past seven years hasn’t been a hindrance for me. Everything that I’ve done has been the next step up, the next level up. And I would like to think that I have made those steps, not because I’m black, but because I am highly qualified to do what I do. And you know, I just feel that there’s so much opportunity. If you want to get specific with within the race, within the Black race: When I first moved here, I was told that we were approximately 3 percent of the population. That didn’t deter me again at all. If anything, I find that to be a benefit, because that tells me that we have strength in small numbers.
So I hope that answers your question, because I so much appreciate it.”
House Majority Floor Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton, the Legislature’s only Black member of legislative leadership (D-Albuquerque), issued the following statement in response:
“I find this line of questioning by Sen. Baca to be borderline racism and completely disrespectful. Questioning a qualified professional because of her race has no place in this Legislature. Secretary-Designee Smith served as a medical technician in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. She has served New Mexicans with distinction and excellence for more than seven years, coordinating health care services in our state and is extremely qualified to lead our Department of Veterans Services. All Americans have the right to pursue their dreams and accomplish their goals regardless of race or ethnicity. Senator Baca should immediately apologize for his words today, and Senate leadership should note the detrimental impact that statements like these have on our body politic.”
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