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Almost all modern politicians are smart enough to avoid linking skin color to competence. They are even more careful about it when publicly interviewing someone for a job. Republican state Sen. Greg Baca is an exception. A lawyer from Belen, Baca is either the state’s clumsiest interrogator or a politician in 2021 with an approach from 1951.

This story also appeared in Santa Fe New Mexican

Baca talked his way into trouble last week while questioning Sonya Smith, secretary-designate of the state Department of Veterans Services.

Smith is a native of Virginia and an Air Force veteran. She served as a medical technician in Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm. She also is Black. I mention this only because Smith’s race became central to Baca’s peculiar performance during her Senate confirmation hearing.

Baca to Smith: “Do you expect that in 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? We’re a state with 2.6 percent of the population is African American in the state and 48 percent is Hispanic or a Hispanic mix.

“Do you feel like you are comfortable adequately representing both cultures, white, Native, Hispanics? We have a significant amount of Hispanics here and of course African Americans. Do you feel comfortable with that?”

After listening to Baca’s compound statement and confusing question with racial overtones, Smith did what any good candidate would do. She asked Baca for clarity. “Are you asking do I feel comfortable representing the Department of Veterans Services as a Black woman? Is that what you’re asking?”

Baca said it wasn’t. He babbled some more, clarified nothing and finally stopped himself.

It’s hard to cast a voice vote with two feet in one’s mouth, but Baca did it. He tried to defuse any controversy he started by joining other members of the Rules Committee in recommending the full Senate confirm Smith.

Several Democrats in the Legislature have criticized Baca for his questioning of Smith. Republicans have kept quiet about it. Republican senators have every reason to hide. They should be as embarrassed as Baca.

The Republicans recently elected Baca as their floor leader. Part of Baca’s pitch was that he would be a more aggressive partisan than his predecessor, gentlemanly Sen. Stuart Ingle.

Ingle, a slow-talking, easygoing farmer from Portales, has been in the Senate since 1985. He is as conservative as the region he represents.

But Ingle worked well with Democrats. He knew minority Republicans couldn’t pass their bills without support from the other side. Ingle cultivated relationships to advance Republican legislation. He also calmed the Capitol when fury might have taken over.

It was Ingle who worked with then-Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, to write a compromise bill that ended years of bitter infighting on driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. The licensing system remained in place with certain modifications.

Baca was sure to be more combative than Ingle. After all, Baca arrived as a giant killer. He defeated Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, in the 2016 election. Sanchez was the archenemy of then-Republican Gov. Susana Martinez and a faction of GOP senators.

Political action committees friendly to Martinez pounded Sanchez with misleading and false campaign advertising. In the worst of the ads, the PAC Advance New Mexico Now falsely claimed Sanchez had gone on a taxpayer-funded junket to Hawaii.

The deceptive ads worked. Baca defeated Sanchez in the state’s dirtiest campaign of 2016. Sanchez left office, but his friendship with Ingle and several other Republican senators remained intact. Republicans took two steps backward by installing Baca as their leader. He won’t get any breaks from majority Democrats after his treatment of Smith.

Baca, a veteran of the Gulf War, knows better than most that skin color doesn’t count when the fighting is heavy and fierce. Yet Baca didn’t connect with Smith, a fellow veteran. He chose to make much of what he called vast “cultural differences” in New Mexico.

Smith emerged from her confirmation hearing stronger than ever. Baca promised to vote for her when the full Senate takes up her confirmation Wednesday. She will sail through unanimously. As for Baca, he had a tough act to follow in Ingle, a master politician.

If Baca is the kind of leader Republicans want, they will find life will only get harder for them.

Democrats control the Senate 27-15. That’s 54 cold shoulders for Baca and his way of doing business.