(Deming Headlight - Online April 19, 2017)
Algernon D'Ammassa, For the Headlight 3:27 p.m. MT April 19, 2017
First time in Legislative Session in the books for local state representative
DEMING – As the freshman legislator for New Mexico’s 32nd district and a first-time office holder, Candie Sweetser (D-Deming) wrote down her core values on a piece of paper and brought it with her to Santa Fe. Back home after an historic and contentious session, Sweetser said that leaf of paper was more important than she realized.
Some of those reminders included:
• “Dignity for all people.”
• “Rights and responsibilities of individuals.”
• “An education system that fosters individuality and creative thinking.”
• “Government transparency.”
•“Service above self.”
In particular, one that Sweetser used to keep her district in mind while in Santa Fe was: “Stewardship — responsible management and use of resources.”
Last year, Sweetser, a managing partner of radio stations KDEM-FM and KOTS-AM, won the seat in the New Mexico house that had been held by Rep. Dona Irwin since 1999. Incoming legislators needed to learn the ropes amid a budget crisis.
“It was a baptism by fire,” Sweetser told the Headlight. “We were meeting well into the evening every single day from the beginning, to get a solvency bill by the end of the first week.”
A Democrat, Sweetser entered the House as part of the majority, but the work was not easy. The 2017 legislative session was marked by clashes with Governor Susana Martinez on taxation, budget cuts, and spending. The Governor’s line-item vetoes and rejection of the entire higher education budget led the Legislative Council to sue the Governor. Meanwhile, Governor Martinez has promised to call a special session to resume work on a budget for the next fiscal year.
Sweetser was the sole sponsor for two bills that made it to the Governor’s desk. One, HB 305, allows FDA inspections of New Mexico farms pertaining to food safety to be carried out by the state Department of Agriculture rather than federal inspectors. This bill was signed into law while the other was not. HB 512, which came to be known as the “Tiny House bill,” would have defined standards for the increasingly popular small dwellings, seen as an affordable and more sustainable housing option, and authorized assessors to review those properties.
This bill succumbed to the “pocket veto,” by which a bill expires without being signed into law or being expressly vetoed by the Governor. “This is a bill I worked hard on,” Sweetser recalls, “And it was pocket-vetoed with no message or complaint about it.”
Asked what lessons came as a surprise to her, Sweetser named three.
First, “the divide between rural and urban representatives is as great as the divide between parties. People want to blame partisan politics for everything that happens, but I found that everybody I worked with genuinely asks, ‘What is the best way to propel New Mexico forward?’ and everybody has a good, solid argument; but not everybody has the whole story. That’s my journalism background – I want to know the whole story.” The constant activity of lobbyists added to the challenge. “They are all salesmen, and they are really good.”
The politics of the veto provided another rough lesson. “[Governor Martinez’s] people were with us at every step of the process telling us things like, ‘She will veto that but go ahead and put it in to ease the package along.’ It was used as a negotiating tool.” Sweetser learned the hard way, however, that individual lawmakers bear political costs for going along to get along: “I went forward saying ‘this is how the process is done,’ but some of that is hard to justify when you go home.” She described driving back from Santa Fe after the session closed in March, “listening to the radio and hearing her belittling us, vetoing bills that had bipartisan support, sometimes with no explanation.”
Sweetser was also caught off-guard by the swift reaction when HB 45, known as the “Baby Brianna bill,” was tabled in the House Appropriations and Finance Committee in February. Sweetser was reported as having left the room before the vote and reaction on social media was immediate and unforgiving. “I was prepared to defend votes I took,” she said, “but I wasn’t expecting to defend my reasons for being out of the room. This was the harshest criticism I have received.” On a single evening, Sweetser said she spent three hours logged into Facebook responding to angry messages, explaining that she had been called away to present at another committee and arguing that her ‘yes’ vote would not have altered the outcome. “There was a kind of mob mentality. No matter what I wrote, it didn’t help.”
Although not every moment was enjoyable, Sweetser frequently came back to saying she felt excited and honored by the opportunity to serve. “It’s never as easy inside as it is when you’re outside looking in. You have to maintain the clarity of the campaign in the muck of the process, and not get distracted by the politics. That’s why I actually wrote down my core values before I went up there.”