House GOP notes reconciliation after lack of mid-term gains and leadership changes

Nov. 23 – Republicans in the state House of Representatives are trying to forge closer ties with their Democratic counterparts after an election in which the GOP has failed to gain new political ground.

They may have little choice in a chamber where they have been outnumbered by Democrats by about 20 in recent years and most of their legislative initiatives have stalled or been scuttled.

“We have an opportunity to set a new tone in the chamber,” said Rep. Ryan Lane, R-Aztec, whose caucus selected him as the new minority leader on Saturday. “New Mexicans are tired of fighting both left and right.”

Lane succeeds Rep. Jim Townsend, R-Aztec, who surprised some in his caucus by announcing that he would not seek leadership again this year. No other Republican in the House of Representatives ran for the post.

House Republicans also elected Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, as Minority Whip and Rep. Gail Armstrong, R-Magdalena, as Minority Caucus Chairwoman. The caucus elected Harper over Rep. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, who is currently serving as minority whip. One of the roles of the whip is to generate support for legislation.

Armstrong will succeed Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, who did not seek re-election. Townsend and Armstrong said they have no competition from other House Republicans.

Harper and Armstrong slammed reconciliation notes Tuesday, saying they want to do more to pull independents and Democrats behind Republican initiatives affecting New Mexicans.

Harper said the trio may have been chosen in part because of the poor performance of Republican candidates fielded in this year’s House of Representatives races. Before the election, some House Republicans, including Townsend, said they expected to win some seats this year.

Many Republican candidates, particularly in the Albuquerque area, ran on a “tough on crime” platform, often to no avail.

With two close house races lined up for a possible recount, it’s likely House Democrats will retain a 45-25 lead over Republicans next January.

“I think we’re all disappointed with how things turned out,” Harper said of the election results. “We can’t just win our races with Republican votes. We need to have independents, we need to have Democrats voting for us. So we have to learn to speak this language and understand this world.”

He said he hopes to help move the House of Representatives from “continuous fighting” to “finding common ground.”

Armstrong, whose new role includes chairing caucus meetings and training new Republican members of the House of Representatives — at least eight in the coming year — said although she’s registered as a Republican, she’s “somewhere in the middle” on some issues party and the Democrats.

She said she was known in her family as a peacekeeper and “I thought I could add some of that to the caucus by being the peacekeeper.”

Townsend said as his caucus prepared to vote on the issue Saturday, he made the decision not to seek minority leadership.

In an interview Tuesday, he said he told the group, “I think you need another leader; I don’t think I want to do it again.”

He said Lane was “a capable guy; I have high expectations.”

Republicans and Democrats in the House of Representatives are already discussing some of the key issues likely to be discussed during the upcoming session: crime, public education, tax reform and economic initiatives.

Common ground may not be found on some issues, such as abortion. Most state Republican legislators have staunchly opposed abortion rights, while most Democrats have supported them. Democrats plan to introduce a bill in this upcoming session that would codify abortion rights after a US Supreme Court ruling overturning the Roe v. Wade canceled in 1973.

Even when both major political parties agree that something needs to be done to improve public education or stem rising crime rates, they often fight exhausting battles. Townsend and Montoya often clashed bitterly with outgoing House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, who chose not to run for re-election.

With Egolf’s departure, House Democrats nominated Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, as their choice for next year’s Speaker of the House.

Lane said he and Martínez share a mutual respect and plan to meet “continuously throughout the session to try and foster the kind of open dialogue” that is required to work together.

Martínez said Tuesday that the leadership changes present an opportunity for a fresh start, adding, “As we go into this next session, we know there are big issues facing the New Mexicans that we need to address together . I look forward to working with our leadership team and their leadership team.”

Martínez said that while there will inevitably be disagreements over policy, “we don’t have to be awkward.”

Albuquerque pollster Brian Sanderoff wrote in an email Tuesday: “Tensions between Democratic and Republican leaders in the New Mexico State House have been running high in recent years over their respective leadership positions.

“It’s an opportunity for a fresh start if they’re looking for it.”

Lane said he plans to rely heavily on senior members of the House of Representatives, including Townsend and Montoya, as he moves into his new role.

“It’s a huge lift and there’s no way I can do it alone,” he said.