Rubel: Primaries A Needed Test For Papen And Smith

Aug 14, 2019




Commentary: During a radio interview last week, the head of a Santa Fe-based progressive advocacy group said it was “treasonous” for Democrats in the New Mexico Senate to have voted for Mary Kay Papen to be president pro tem.

So we should have them executed?


Papen has served in the Senate since 2001. She had previously been president of the board for the La Casa domestic violence shelter in Las Cruces, and continued her support for victims of domestic violence while in the Legislature.


She has also been the most dedicated and committed member of the Legislature in the fight to improve care and treatment for the mentally ill. In 2016 she and former U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici were recipients of the national Torrey Advocacy Award for their efforts to expand access to mental health services.


But, Papen ran afoul of progressives this session when she voted against the bill sponsored by Rep. Joanne Ferrary of Las Cruces that would have removed the old law still on the books criminalizing abortion. That bill passed on a 40-29 vote in the House, but was defeated in the Senate, 24-18. Papen was one of eight Democrats to vote against the bill, along with Pete Campos, Carlos Cisneros, Richard Martinez, George Munoz, Gabriel Ramos, Clemente Sanchez and John Arthur Smith.


Papen also fell into disfavor with progressives for her votes against bills to outlaw coyote killing contests, prevent local efforts to impose right-to-work laws and study the proposal for a state bank. 

And so, she’ll face a primary challenge in 2020.  Carrie Hamblen, executive director of the Las Cruces Green Chamber of Commerce, has announced that she will seek the seat. So has Tracy Perry, CEO of Direct Therapy Services. Papen has announced that she will seek re-election.


As a constituent who lives in District 38, I’m thrilled there’s going to be an actual debate this year. I respect Sen. Papen and I appreciate the good work she’s done on a number of important issues, but I’ve got some questions about some of her votes. Why keep antiquated laws on the books? Why are gruesome contests celebrating mass slaughter a good thing?


I look forward to a spirited, respectful campaign where the senator is forced to defend her position. If, as Hamblen and Terry believe, the district has become more progressive than its senator, then a change will be in order.


I feel the exact same way about the primary challenge to Sen. John Arthur Smith of Deming, for the exact same reason. Papen and Smith are both so formidable they have avoided challengers in past years. But it is possible that both are no longer in step with their districts.


We’ll find out next November. That’s what elections are for.


Along with the primary challenges, there will also be an effort to revise how the Senate picks its president. Papen was first elected on a 42-0 vote in 2013, but she wasn’t the Democrats’ first choice. Campos had the support of the caucus, but Papen had enough Republican votes to win. Progressive advocates will try to make a change from within by getting all Senate Democrats to agree to go along with whoever has the most votes in the caucus. I doubt that will be successful. Senators tend to be protective of their independence.


Reform is needed in the Senate, but it is in the committee process, where chairmen routinely kill bills without debate. The biggest problem with the Senate is its system, not its leaders. 


Walter Rubel can be reached at