On Feb. 12, Senate Minority Leader Gregory A. Baca, R-Belen, posed racially targeted questions towards Sonya L. Smith, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s nominee for the head of Department of Veterans Services, during her confirmation hearing in the Senate Rules Committee.
Baca, a member of the Senate Rules Committee, asked if Smith, in her seven years in New Mexico, had immersed herself enough in the culture of a state that is “2.6% African American and 48% Hispanic” to be able to adequately represent the interests of its veterans.
Smith, who served in the Gulf War, replied, “Are you asking if I feel comfortable representing the Department of Veterans Services as a Black woman?”
“That really isn’t what I’m — I mean, that is an immutable trait, as I’m a Hispanic man, so I guess what we do in our everyday life we do as that,” Baca said.
Smith stated that she would be the first Black woman to be appointed to this position and that the reason she wanted to take on the role was to help improve lives for veterans in the state.
“Yes, you’re right: it is immutable,” Smith said. “I am who I am. And I don’t think that when Gov. Lujan Grisham tapped me for this position she was concerned about my color. I think she was looking at my skill set and my ability to be the best person foremost.”
Smith said she is proud to be a member of the Black community in Albuquerque and continued to outline her qualifications for the role, not seeing a negative correlation between the two.
After the meeting, Lujan Grisham wrote a letter to committee chairman Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, condemning Baca’s line of questioning.
“That Senator Baca would question secretary-designate Smith’s qualifications on the basis of her race is abhorrent to me and, I am sure, to all New Mexicans who understand and value not only diverse representation in leadership but the multicultural fabric of our great state,” Lujan Grisham wrote. She went on to call for the rules committee or the Senate as a whole to take action to prevent this type of situation from happening again.
Ivey-Soto didn’t respond to the Daily Lobo’s request for comment by press time. However, Baca addressed his questions from Friday’s committee meeting on Monday morning, apologizing to both secretary-designate Smith and everyone in the committee.
“I spoke to her and did apologize to her for that insensitive line of questioning,” Baca said.
Pamelya Herndon, the first vice president of the New Mexico NAACP chapter, spoke on the racist undertones in Baca’s question and on the importance of representation in state politics.
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“Among Black women, these comments do not go unnoticed. She was the only Black woman secretary appointed,” Herndon said, wishing Baca had instead asked Smith about plans for “outreach” to Hispanic communities.
Assata Zerai, a professor of sociology at the University of New Mexico, said Smith’s qualifications “speak for (themselves).” Hiring diverse, qualified individuals goes beyond representation and is “exceedingly beneficial” for the workplace, Zerai said.
“The combination of diversity plus inclusion results in a strategic advantage because decision-making improves when teams embrace different points of view, independence of thought and the sharing of specialized knowledge,” Zerai said. “Leadership from diverse groups enables this process.”
Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero, D-Albuquerque and vice chair of the House Labor, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, also condemned Baca’s questions and said Smith’s ethnicity will widen her perspective and allow her to better serve the state’s veteran community.
“Secretary Smith is even more qualified to lead because she has faced the challenges of a woman of color in the military and understands what military service persons of color face, which strengthens her skill sets, abilities to operate and lead within the traditionally male and white dominated military and service agencies,” Roybal Caballero said.
The Senate Rules Committee gave Smith a “do pass” recommendation. Her nomination is scheduled to be heard on the Senate floor on Wednesday, Feb. 17.
Madeline Pukite is a beat reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @madelinepukite