Lessons from 16 years in the New Mexico Senate

Evaluation Lab News

Posted: Feb 10, 2020 - 02:00pm

Dede Feldman was the Policy Seminar’s first guest speaker of 2020, and to start the semester off the MPP students read her book, Inside the New Mexico Senate: Boots, Suits and Citizens.

Ms. Feldman is on the MPP Community Advisory Board and served as a New Mexico State Senator from 1996 to 2012. Her book describes how laws get made in the Santa Fe Roundhouse. One thing that distinguished New Mexican lawmaking from most other states is that we have a citizens’ legislature, meaning that ordinary people serve without receiving any compensation for their time. Though this system is a bit archaic—it was established in 1912 when the majority of the residents were farmers and ranchers—it does have at least one benefit: it makes the legislators approachable. People are likely to see their representatives around town, pumping gas or walking their dogs. Constituents are able to walk right up to their legislators and speak to them about concerns or requests.

This is beneficial because, as Ms. Feldman pointed out, “New Mexico is a place where one person can make a difference, advocates and citizens have big roles and should not be underestimated.” Laws, such as medical marijuana and the death penalty, have been passed or changed because of one person’s story that was shared with the legislature.

The downside of this system is the power it gives to lobbyists and special interest groups. Because the legislators are not compensated for their time, their campaign costs, and only receive a small per-diem during the session, lobbyists have a niche to step into.  Lobbyists fund meals, entertainment, and even campaign costs. During the last legislative session, lobbyists spent over $2 million for campaign contributions, and $700,000 in food and entertainment. Ms. Feldman currently works with New Mexico Ethics Watch, a non-partisan non-profit organization that has proposed that the legislature pay for food during session in order to dampen the lobbyist power.

Ms. Feldman shared two important lessons from serving in the Senate. The first is to stand up for what you know to be right. If you have confidence in your position, do not hesitate to engage with people that might disagree with you, as working with and discussing with the other side is the only way to move things forward. The second lesson is that, as an elected representative, you have to learn to be a pragmatic. You want to leave having accomplished something, and your big ideas, like single-payer health care and publicly-funded elections, are often non-starters.  So you have to take incremental steps and win small victories.