SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A race for the top-ranking Senate leadership job will be decided when the Legislature convenes, and Democrats seeking the post say they don’t expect the contest to leave permanent fractures within the party during the 60-day session.
Sens. Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces and Pete Campos of Las Vegas are vying to become Senate president pro tem for the session beginning Tuesday.
It’s among the most powerful positions in the Legislature because the Senate president helps determine Senate committee assignments, including chairmen.
The race could test the unity of Democrats, but both candidates said Monday they expect any political wounds to heal quickly as lawmakers turn their attention to the issues confronting them.
“I am hoping that we will be able to come to[auth] gether and operate as a unified Senate,” said Papen.
All 42 senators — 25 Democrats and 17 Republicans — get to vote on the chamber’s top-ranking leader.
Papen, who describes herself as a moderate, said she’s confident of winning the leadership race with a coalition of Democrats and Republicans. She said she’s hasn’t bargained for support by offering committee chairmanships to senators.
Traditionally, the liberal-leaning Democratic majority has been able to elect the Senate president when its members support the party-nominated candidate. Campos received the party’s leadership nod in a closed-door caucus meeting, but Papen decided to push ahead with her bid.
Campos said he’ll try to unify Democrats regardless of who wins the leadership race.
“Throughout my lifetime, what I’ve done is work to bring people together,” said Campos.
The Senate president will succeed Democrat Tim Jennings of Roswell, who was defeated in the general election. Jennings had been openly critical of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez and led opposition to her proposal to stop New Mexico from issuing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. During the election, Jennings came under heavy fire from a political committee formed by Martinez allies.
The Senate president is a powerful position, but the majority leader exerts more day-to-day influence by largely controlling the flow of legislation. Martinez has long pointed to Michael Sanchez as a major hurdle in the Senate to much of her legislative agenda.
Sen. Carlos Cisneros, a Questa Democrat, said he hoped majority Democrats would stick together to elect a president, but he doesn’t foresee lasting problems from the contest between Campos and Papen.
“Historically we’ve gotten together and worked as best we can to address the needs of the state of New Mexico, and that’s what we need to do now,” said Cisneros, who lost the Senate president’s job in 2009 when minority Republicans joined with seven Democrats to keep Jennings.
Democrats had sought to dump Jennings after he upset the party by supporting a GOP colleague in the general election.
On Monday, members of the Legislative Council, a leadership group, praised Jennings for his bipartisanship and advocacy for children and the developmentally disabled.
“I learned a lot from you,” said Senate GOP Leader Stuart Ingle of Portales as Jennings hugged him.
Jennings urged his colleagues to work to control the influence of campaign money from political interest groups that can wage negative attacks against candidates.
“The thing about democracy,” said Jennings, “is it can’t be about hate.”
On Tuesday, the House will elect a new top leader. Majority Democrats are expected to rally behind Ken Martinez of Grants to become speaker of the House. He will succeed the late Ben Lujan, who didn’t seek re-election and died last month after a long battle with lung cancer.