This story appears in both The Paper and the Santa Fe New Mexican through a partnership to bring our readers the best in reporting from the legislature.
Leaders of Black communities and organizations in New Mexico are asking for public apologies and stronger condemnation of recent remarks and actions by Republican lawmakers that dozens of African Americans say represent long-standing systemic racism in the Roundhouse.
Earlier this month during a confirmation hearing, Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca, R-Belen, questioned Cabinet nominee Sonya Smith’s ability to represent New Mexicans while leading the Department of Veterans Services as a Black woman.
“Do you expect after your time here over the 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?” Baca asked. “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?”
Also earlier this month, Rep. Stefani Lord, R-Sandia Park, called to consult law enforcement during a committee hearing in response to Alexandria Taylor’s description of her research into House Bill 156, which prescribes felony charges for police officers accused of sexually assaulting people in custody.
Lord asked Taylor, deputy director of the New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs, if she had spoken with law enforcement about the bill.
“I have had conversations with law enforcement officers about this bill and those who I spoke with who are not harming members of the public did not have an issue with this bill because they are not raping members of the community,” Taylor said.
Lord said she had spoken to law enforcement officers who opposed the bill without being guilty of sexual assault. While explaining her vote against the bill, Lord called an unnamed law enforcement officer.
“When you call the sheriff during a committee hearing because you don’t like the all-too-real narrative of misconduct among law enforcement officers, you’re not making a stand with law enforcement,” New Mexico Black Leadership Council member Mason Graham said at a news conference organized by the nonprofit Saturday morning.
“You’re weaponizing them against us because you understand the dangerous dynamic between the police and African Americans,” Graham continued. “When you question the experience of a Black woman appointed to her position by the governor, you are upholding your belief that Black women do not deserve to be in positions of power.”
Lord defended the phone call as standard procedure. “I sought outside counsel and asked them, ‘Is this already a law?’ The phone call was nothing more,” Lord said in a telephone interview Saturday.
In a statement, a coalition of “60 individuals representing organizations from within the Black community” called for Baca and Lord to be removed from their committee assignments.
“Without a swift, direct, and official public denouncement of any and every racially targeted action or speech from New Mexico’s Legislative leadership, the state’s leadership will instead signal tolerance and even support of these white supremacist attitudes and actions,” the statement reads.
New Mexico Black Leadership Council spokeswoman Cathryn McGill said the organization emailed its statement to Baca and Lord, requesting a response the organization has not received. “We don’t feel like we’ve heard enough from leadership, and we haven’t heard enough from the individuals related to those particular two incidents,” McGill said. “Sen. Baca did issue what he characterized as an apology directly to Secretary Smith. We don’t feel as though that is enough.”
In a statement released by the Republican Party of New Mexico, two state GOP officials who are African American, Stephanie Kennedy and Jane Powdrell-Culbert, said the organization that organized Saturday’s news conference “doesn’t speak for all Black New Mexicans.”
Baca did not respond to requests for comment Saturday.
Watch the full press conference on Facebook (event begins at about 16:00)