The time limitations mean every session is a sprint to the finish, with hundreds of bills dying a quiet death when the clock strikes noon on the final day. And yet, during each day of the session official business is temporarily set aside to make time for dancers, musicians, poets and others paying homage to our culture.
Nobody helped me understand the Legislature more than Sen. Mary Jane Garcia, who had already been serving there for 16 years when I arrived in 2004. Probably the biggest lesson I learned from her was the importance of persistence.
It took 18 years for Sen. Garcia to convince her colleagues to join with the rest of the civilized world and ban cockfighting. Her earliest efforts were openly mocked on the Senate floor with sophomoric jokes referencing the first syllable in the word “cockfighting.” That was back when the New Mexico Senate was still a good ol’ boys club.
She kept coming back with the bill year after year. Her deep roots in the village of Dona Ana made Garcia the perfect advocate to counter those who claimed this was all being pushed by outsiders who didn’t understand our culture.
In the end, it took a joke by Jay Leno during his nightly monologue to get Gov. Bill Richardson off the fence, and we narrowly beat Louisiana into the 21st century.
That was just one example of how Garcia’s persistence paid off. Others include legislation to protect children from abuse, stand up for the rights of farmworkers and other laborers, preserve our history and support both Las Cruces and New Mexico State University.
It took Garcia two years to pass what was commonly referred to as Baby Brianna’s bill in 2005, in honor of Brianna Lopez, a five-month old infant whose horrific death at the hands of her caretakers shocked and saddened our community. At that time, the penalties for child abuse resulting in death were much lower than for killing an adult.
I’ll remember Sen. Garcia most for the genuine passion and enthusiasm she brought to the job of legislating. She was unrestrained in demonstrating her love for our state and its people.
Sen. Garcia died last week at the age of 87, but her impact will live on.
The New Mexico Legislature is a much different place now than it was when Garcia was first elected. The Senate is led this year by President Pro Tem. Mimi Stewart, and three of its committees are chaired by women. In the House, more districts are now represented by women than by men.
It is because of leaders like Mary Jane Garcia, who served as majority whip, and Sen. Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces, who served as president pro tem., that we have such a diverse Legislature today.
I still get frustrated at the end of every session with how much is left undone. But at least now I understand the value of patience and persistence.
Walter Rubel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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