New Mexico Republicans choose Townsend as House minority leader

November 20, 2018

Republicans in the New Mexico House of Representatives on Sunday elected Rep. James Townsend of Artesia to serve as minority leader.

With Republicans relegated to as few as 24 seats in the 70-member chamber after a bruising election earlier this month, the retired oil industry executive will become the public face of the party’s smallest House caucus since 1996.

As Democrats maintain a majority in the Senate and Republican Gov. Susana Martinez prepares to hand power to Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham, Townsend will have the job of maintaining the GOP’s relevance in the House at a time when the party is particularly outmatched and rebuilding his caucus’ ranks heading into the 2020 election.

Townsend succeeds Rep. Nate Gentry of Albuquerque, who did not run for re-election to the House this year.

In some ways, Townsend’s selection as the top House Republican represents the state’s shifting political geography.

Elected in 2014, Townsend represents a district that stretches from Cloudcroft south to the Texas state line and as far east as Artesia.

With Republicans losing nearly every House district they had held in the Albuquerque area this year, districts like Townsend’s are the party’s real stronghold.

Townsend faced competition for the post from Rep. Jason Harper of Rio Rancho.

A scientist at Sandia National Laboratories and former chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Harper was elected in 2012 and has been particularly outspoken on tax policy.

House Republicans were faced with a choice between a younger, more moderate leader from the Albuquerque metropolitan area and a lawmaker representing a section of the party’s heartland. In a Capitol often divided between urbanites and everyone else, Townsend promised to bring a sort of geographic balance to the ranks of the Legislature’s leadership.

Townsend has taken on House leaders in the past. He voted against this year’s budget, for example, arguing the Legislature should have restored reserve funds it took from school districts during a past budget crisis and contending more broadly that political insiders have too much control over the budget process.

Meeting in Albuquerque, House Republicans kept Rep. Rod Montoya of Farmington as whip, and Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell of Roswell as caucus chair.

Senate Democrats met Saturday and re-elected their leadership — picking Sen. Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces for president pro tempore and re-electing Sen. Peter Wirth of Santa Fe as majority leader as well as Sen. Mimi Stewart of Albuquerque as whip.

The party chose Sen. Pete Campos of Las Vegas to serve as caucus chair.

Sen. Jacob Candelaria of Albuquerque resigned from that post earlier this year amid a disagreement with Wirth over the majority leader’s opposition to a high-profile piece of legislation pushed by the Public Service Company of New Mexico.

House Democrats selected their leadership earlier this month, nominating Rep. Brian Egolf of Santa Fe to continue serving as speaker.

Lawmakers will reconvene at the Roundhouse on Jan. 15 for a 60-day session with what likely will be a packed agenda featuring a budget, gun control, marijuana legalization and the fate of a coal-fired power plant near Farmington.

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