In honor of Women’s History Month, it’s worth noting that this is the first time in the state’s history that there are ferocious female leaders taking the helm in so many branches of government. It is the first time that there is a female governor, chair of Bernalillo County Commission and president of the Albuquerque City Council. The Paper. spoke with Council President Cynthia Borrego and City Councilor Lan Sena about being on a woman-majority council and breaking barriers for women, especially for women of color.
The Paper. : The Council is made up of six women and three men. How does that change the dynamic of the council, and how you work together?
Council President Borrego: I think women bring a different perspective to the council. We have had different life experiences, and I think we bring a more rounded thoughtful review of bills. Not that it didn’t happen before, but women tend to think about things differently and have less linear thinking. I think we try to listen to and respect each other’s viewpoints, and I think we work well with each other and the men on the council. I think there is more cooperation and bipartisan support for bills, and we’ve worked together to get economic support during COVID out to families who need help and with small businesses, especially restaurants.
Lan Sena: It’s interesting because technically we’re non-partisan, and we have a different and unique experience in a virtual working setting. It means we have to create a working relationship and bond in different ways. I think we try and make an effort to hear each other out, especially if it’s a hot-button issue.
How did you get involved in politics?
Borrego: I worked for the city for 28 years in the planning department. I saw the city grow and change so much in that time, and I felt there were certain issues that needed to be addressed, like crime and economic development. I also have a master’s degree in public administration and budgeting.
Sena: I intended on going to medical school, and I was diagnosed with Stage Four Hodgkins Lymphoma, so I took time off from school and realized that I could make a bigger impact as a policymaker than as a physician. My grandfather died of liver cancer, and it was because he couldn’t afford the medical payments. I realized I needed to help change the policies in place. A decision-maker can save thousands with a mark of a pen. The pandemic has highlighted what it means to be healthy. If one community member is sick, it impacts us all. We have to discuss what public safety means to us with food security, rent security and healthcare. So many factors determine public health beyond just your access to healthcare.
Where do you see areas of improvement needed for women in government, especially for women of color?
Borrego: I was overlooked many times for promotions when I worked for the city, even though I had more education and experience. I think there’s movement in the right direction, as we’re starting to see more women in leadership roles. I think pay equity is still an issue that needs improvement. I think politics can still be a good ‘ol boys club, and you see that playing out in places like the State Legislature and what happened with Sen. Mimi Stewart. I think we’re still not being taken as seriously as men are, and I don’t know why that is. I think it’s extremely important to have diversity in government, both men and women from all backgrounds. I think that diversity is what makes our city stronger.
Sena: The legislative session certainly highlighted the issue. Sick leave is near and dear to my heart as someone who was sick. So watching the late-night debate and seeing sexism play it out shows that sexism still exists; whether it is among our peers or in public, it definitely plays out in the political space. We need to do better. I don’t know if it’s more training or classes, but we need to be seen as peers and understanding each other. But I think overall, it’s a societal issue about treating women better. We still have to fight for equal pay so many years later.
We don’t have equal pay. On top of that, especially of color who have to have a second job or have their family to take care of, dedicating the time and expense to be in politics. There’s a greater lens on women and women of color too, and there’s a heightened lens on you and scrutiny. I’ve encountered this as a councilor; if someone disagrees with you as a councilor, suddenly I’m up to no good, rather than talking about the policy. We have to be on top of our game all of the time and dedicate time to our family. We are the role models, and if we treat those that are decisions makers like this, then what do women who are not in these positions think? It’s discouraging. We need to do better in welcoming them, which fosters a situation that encourages women to be in politics. If we don’t do that, the community doesn’t benefit overall.
As an Asian-American woman, and being the first Asian American on City Council, the recent shootings in Atlanta and seeing an increase of violence against Asian women and Asian people in general. We need to address the violence and the hate against Asians in this country. There is a lot of misogyny that plays out, and I’ve seen that play out even on Council. I think there’s room for us to come together as men and women and foster more understanding and less hate.