One caller needed to talk with his lawmaker, but didn’t know who that was.
Another was calling about a bill, but didn’t have the number.
The two inquiries that came to the telephone switchboard were just a sampling of the 500 or so answered every day by Martha Canon and the other operators whose voices greet callers during the legislative session.
“Eight out of 10 of them don’t know who their representative or their senator is,” Canon said.
Canon is the longest-serving employee for the Legislative Council Service, the office that employs hundreds of people to operate the Roundhouse and keep the Legislature running smoothly during the annual session. A Texas native, Canon started in 1984 and is now working her 32nd regular session and was called in for 20 special sessions, one just three hours long.
She remembers the slew of calls that came in during a particularly contentious debate on abortion rights and said the volume of calls during the first week of the current session about the issue of immigrant driver’s licenses was on par with that. It especially peaks with the broadcast of statewide television ads that urge voters to contact lawmakers — without stating names or phone numbers.
All those calls come into the switchboard, located on the first floor of the Capitol.
But Canon said it is still nowhere near the pitch and fever that boiled over during a session in the mid-1990s on a bill that dealt with gay rights by increasing penalties for hate crimes and banning discrimination in housing. Even today, the switchboard operators remember SB 80, a measure backed by former Senate Majority Leader Tom Rutherford, an Albuquerque Democrat.
Canon said they had to bring in another telephone operator to answer the calls, and Rutherford was provided with an extra receptionist to log the comments.
“We really get some ugly calls,” Canon said. “Sometimes they get irate with us. You don’t have to take that.”
During one of her first sessions in 1985 or ’86, she recalled working through a filibuster. That’s when one or several lawmakers are opposed to a bill and stop its passage by continuous talking on the floor of the Senate, not ceding time to others.
“We were here all night, ” she said. “They brought in cots and blankets and pizza. A Republican got up and started talking and that was it. It lasted all night. “As long as they’re on the floor of the House or the Senate, we’re here,” she said.
One policy is that the operators don’t take messages. The caller is transferred to the appropriate office, and if that office doesn’t pick up or have voice mail, they have to call back.
The small room does not have a computer. So while those outside can look up a bill or a telephone extension on the Legislature’s website, the operators have to forage through the paper-bound bill finder, a legislative guide to filings that is published daily during the session. But bills that are introduced one day can sometimes take 48 hours to be entered into the publication.
She and her colleagues are also the ones whose voices issue the pages that echo around the Roundhouse to start a committee or floor session.
She said it has been typical that lawmakers don’t stay over during the first week for committee hearings. But since the Republicans took over the House of Representatives, there has been more activity.
“This is the first time in my 31 years the House stayed over [to Friday] the first week,” she said.
When she started, Toney Anaya was governor. Current Gov. Susana Martinez was finishing law school in Oklahoma. Current House Majority Leader Nate Gentry was in elementary school.
Born in Texas, Canon moved to Santa Fe when she married her husband, who was then an electrician at Los Alamos National Laboratory. The two built a home on Rodeo Road, which was then a gravel and dirt road, and raised three daughters and a son. The family hunted, fished and traveled all over the state. Her husband, Willie, died in 2011, but when she’s not at the Legislature, she keeps busy with her 16 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
One of her favorite hobbies is going to garage sales and flea markets.
The session job appealed to her because Canon worked for the telephone company in Lubbock and then in Santa Fe. When a neighbor mentioned the position was open, she figured it would be good for her to get out.
Canon turns 86 on Feb. 3 — just another day at the Legislature, when she plans to be answering telephone calls and transferring them to the offices of the governor, secretary of state, senators and representatives.
“I’ve been here 31 years, and I’ve loved every day of it. I’ve made a lot of friends,” she said. “It’s been an adorable 31 years.”
Contact Bruce Krasnow at 986-3034 or [email protected].