COMMENTARY: When Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson shouted “You lie!” during President Barack Obama’s health-care speech in 2009, Democrats were rightly upset and passed a resolution formally admonishing him.
Wilson apologized for his “lack of civility.” He called his outburst “inappropriate and regrettable.”
Contrast that with the situation in the Roundhouse at the start of New Mexico’s 30-day legislative session. “Shame on you!” state Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque, shouted during Gov. Susana Martinez’s State of the State Address on Tuesday.
“I said, ‘Shame on you!’ because I think she was antagonistic. It made me very angry,” Trujillo said. “… I don’t regret that; you know, I take full responsibility for what I said. I regret that I probably didn’t say something sooner.”
Couple Trujillo’s outburst with many Senate Democrats wearing aqua-colored socks decorated with pizza slices and soda cups during Martinez’s speech, and the level of disrespect too many members of the opposing party showed the governor, a Republican, was outrageous. Offenders included Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, who later defended the socks as appropriate, and Senate Majority Whip Michael Padilla.
The context for the socks: Martinez can be heard on several law enforcement recordings inappropriately pressuring police to drop an investigation into a noise complaint after her Christmas party in December. She said the people in the hotel room that was the subject of the complaint were only eating pizza and drinking soda.
Martinez has admitted to drinking 1-1.5 cocktails earlier in the evening but says she wasn’t intoxicated. The governor has apologized for her actions. The pizza-and-soda joke has become a way to mock Martinez’s claim that she wasn’t drunk and a protest of her inappropriate actions.
I realize the Democrats’ protests during Martinez’s speech don’t exist in a vacuum. There is a long history of escalating disrespect, in our overly polarized times, that has led us to the point where many Democrats think it’s appropriate to ridicule the governor during her State of the State Address.
For senators, it’s partly about asserting themselves because of a belief that the past two governors have been bullies. Former Gov. Bill Richardson was grossly disrespectful at times.
And there have been several high-profile instances of back-and-forth disrespect during Martinez’s tenure. Some examples:
- Audio recordings of private conversations from early in Martinez’s tenure revealed a staffer mocking former House Speaker Ben Lujan, saying he sounded like a “retard” when speaking English. Martinez refused to apologize for the staffer’s comments.
- Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton, the Democratic whip, apologized in 2011 after calling Martinez “the Mexican on the Fourth Floor” — which is where the governor’s office is located in the Roundhouse.
- And last session, House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, a Republican, refused to apologize after allegedly teasing Rep. Paul Pacheco, another Republican, by writing on a photo of then-Democratic Rep. Stephanie Maez to imply that Pachecho’s vote for a Maez-sponsored bill was about something personal between Pacheco and Maez, not for policy reasons.
It’s even fine for people who aren’t elected officials to infiltrate the State of the State Address and disrupt it. America has a long history of such protest. It ends with an individual being silenced and maybe arrested, and it’s acceptable conduct if the protester is willing to face the consequences.
But the floor of the House of Representatives, during the State of the State Address, isn’t the place for elected lawmakers to disrupt or disrespect the governor. When you’re sitting in that chamber, your job is to work together — with each other and the governor — to improve New Mexico. That’s what we elected you to do.
When you disrespect Martinez during her speech, you also disrespect the office of the governor, the legislative process, the voters who gave Martinez the right to give the speech, and your own constituents who sent you there to work.
Democrats knew this when U.S. Rep. Wilson disrespected the president in 2009. It wasn’t appropriate when Wilson did it to Obama. It isn’t appropriate for Democrats to do it to Martinez now.
When I first expressed outrage about the pizza socks on Twitter during Martinez’s speech, former Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, the Democrat Martinez defeated to become governor in 2010, responded that this isn’t the time “to be pious.” She said we should “have a little fun” and asked me to “admit the pizzzzza socks were clever.”
When I told her I thought the sock protest was disrespectful and mean, Denish responded by comparing it to how Martinez treated the hotel staffers and police officers during her Christmas party. Denish told me Martinez bears some responsibility for the disrespectful tone in the Roundhouse.
Denish is absolutely right.
I’m not defending Martinez. I’m saying, if you feel like Martinez is dragging down the level of discourse — and the state as a whole — don’t stoop to that level. Be better than that. Be the ones working to lift our state out of poverty.
As our leaders, you’re teaching us — and our children — how to treat each other. To call the behavior you’re modeling disappointing would be an understatement.
This isn’t the way to solve New Mexico’s problems. As long as our elected policymakers continue acting like this, our state will keep sinking.