The calm when the Roundhouse goes silent
When I was a kid, on the late afternoon of every Christmas Eve, my grandmother, who was not a religious woman, would get all mystical and in a soft but intense voice tell me, “Just before twilight on Christmas Eve, there’s a feeling of calm in the air. Can you feel it?”
And sure enough, I always did.
Now I realize this is the middle of March, so this week’s column is not a Christmas story. Not even a St. Patrick’s Day story.
But in the 17 years I covered the Legislature on a daily basis — 18 if you count last year when I was called in to cover the final two weeks of that session — on the last day after the session, I would think of my grandmother’s words every year about an hour or two after the House and Senate said their final “sine dies.” (For the uninitiated, “sine die” is Latin for “We’re outta here!”)
That’s because after all the closing news conferences where the governor and legislative leaders talk about what a success the session was (at least that’s the usual tone, though there have been exceptions), after all the frantic scurrying about by reporters trying to find individual lawmakers for their comments on various last-day-of-the-session stories, after the last weary legislator carries out his or her last cardboard box for that trip home, I always found a feeling of calm in the air at the Roundhouse.
Though normally at that point, a reporter still has a few hours of work left before he or she can go home, it always seems like the entire building has decompressed.
I’ve never asked my fellow Capitol reporters whether they notice that feeling. Maybe it’s just in my head, a sweet seed planted decades ago by my grandmother. Either way, I’m grateful.
Anyone who has ever worked a session — legislators, staff, lobbyists, reporters — knows that the halfway point doesn’t actually come after 30 days in a 60-day session or 15 days in a 30-day. The real halfway point comes around or just before the last week. The hours get longer, the floor sessions start going late into the night and often into the early morning, the ceremonial stuff and other time-wasters I love to complain about are minimized.
I’ve often said that the Legislature is like a bunch of college kids — partying and having a great time for most of the semester, then pulling a series of all-nighters the week before finals. Except these people are not in their late teens or early 20s. A big portion of them are in their 70s and 80s, and at least one is in his 90s. Frankly, I don’t know how they do it.
So by the final day, nearly everyone, no matter what age, is red-eyed and babbling.
And tempers sometimes are short by that last day.
Back in 2009, Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith was on the Senate floor talking with a bunch of reporters right after that year’s session had ended. Into the chamber stalked then-House Speaker Ben Luján, who was loaded for bear. The late speaker was upset because Smith had said, in a House-Senate committee meeting to hash out differences in a public projects bill, that an amendment Luján had placed on the bill had a “cloud of suspicion” over it.
Confronting the senator from Deming, Luján basically cussed him out, calling him a “racist SOB,” among other things. (The House had worked until 3 a.m. that day, then went back into session just a few hours later.)
Another special memory from the last day of a session was in 2015, the first year since the 1950s that Republicans had gained control of the House. At the House GOP’s post-session news conference, then-Speaker Don Tripp, an affable old-school Socorro Republican, gave a short, positive talk about what he felt were the biggest accomplishments of the session.
But when House Majority Leader Nate Gentry of Albuquerque took the podium, the tone changed completely.
“I think this session can be summed up in five words,” he said, “and those words are ‘Michael Sanchez failed New Mexico.’ ” He was referring to then-Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, who Gentry blamed for the Senate killing several Republican bills.
That was pretty harsh, but a lot more exciting for reporters than the usual happy talk.
Ah, precious memories. I’m writing this a couple of days before this year’s session ends. I just hope my comrades in journalism who have been covering the bulk of this year’s Legislature enjoyed a little bit of excitement Saturday, followed by a well-deserved feeling of calm.