Journal Gives Susana Martinez a Pass After Stealing Tribal Spotlight

February 13th, 2015 · 1 Comment · Education, journalism, NM Legislature, Uncategorized

By Denise Tessier

Sometimes an editorial opinion topic practically writes itself; it’s there for an editorial writer’s taking.

Gov. Susana Martinez’s decision to appear as the sole speaker during the New Mexico Legislature’s American Indian Day session last Friday (Feb. 6) was just such a topic.

In serving as sole speaker, she took the spotlight away from New Mexico’s Indian legislators on their day – a day historically set aside every other year (during 60-day sessions) in order for tribes to address a joint session of the Legislature and outline their priorities and needs.

Journal Capital Bureau reporter Deborah Baker’s story about Indian legislators being sidelined – the story on which an editorial could have been based – ran with the headline “A departure from tradition: Gov. sole speaker at American Indian Day in the Legislature,” and was published inside the paper on A4.

The story noted that:

House Democrats who are Native American – and who were not publicly acknowledged by Martinez – later complained that the format put politics first and said they were not given the opportunity to introduce their tribal guests.

During the speech, Baker wrote, Martinez “focused on education issues and advances by Native American students” and honored some Indian legislators, “including ex-Rep. Sandra Jeff of Crownpoint, a maverick Democrat who sometimes supported Martinez’s agenda.”

She quoted Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, as later saying, “Many believe the departure from (tradition) to be disrespectful and unprecedented. … After all, this day was established to honor them and their culture.”

Baker got an explanation for the change in a statement from Republican Rep. Sharon Clahchischilliage, a Navajo from Kirtland, who said she personally asked Martinez to speak and that “it was an honor to have her address our tribes, and celebrate our rich culture and heritage. That anyone would suggest otherwise is outlandish and nothing more than a political stunt with the shameful goal of dividing us.”

It’s interesting that the representative’s statement called the backlash divisive, rather than Clahchischilliage’s decision to turn the day over to the governor, apparently without consensus from other tribal legislators.

Journal readers were universally critical of the break from tradition in the comment stream below the story on the Journal’s web site. Among them was Debra Haaland, Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor in the last election and chairwoman of the Laguna Development Corporation board of directors, who wrote:

Tribal leaders should have been given the opportunity to speak. It is “Indian Day.” . . . It’s unfortunate also that in the House Indian Day Certificate the Republican leadership excluded Ft. Sill Apache Nation from the “honor and salute” they supposedly bestowed on the Indian Tribes that day. Moreover, I wonder what excuse could be given by the Republican Leadership for sticking Honorable Tribal Leaders at the back of the room? Tribal Leaders are heads of state. They belong at the front. There is no excuse for this disrespect. There seriously is no excuse.

A few days later, the Senate organized a session to provide the forum that had been taken away the week before. Baker covered that session and reported the leaders’ requests: approval of new gambling agreements, additional funding for tribal infrastructure and disapproval of attempts to transfer federal lands to the state. The Journal buried the story, running it Thursday (Feb. 12) in the very bottom corner of C2.

The story, “Tribes outline priorities,” explained that the day was organized “after complaints about the format of last week’s American Indian Day,” noting that the previous week’s format had been organized “by the GOP-controlled House.”

The Journal writers of the editorials that serve as the official position of the newspaper have been silent on this entire sequence of events.

In contrast, the Santa Fe New Mexican stepped up this morning with an editorial, “Tribal Leaders Deserved Chance To Speak:”

Caught in the crossfire are the issues that matter to tribes. Education, economic development and gambling compacts involve both Democrats and Republicans. It is important for legislators to hear directly from the people affected by the laws they pass, and it’s a shame that — for whatever reason — the traditional addresses by Native leaders were excluded this year.

The editorial, based on that paper’s reporting, noted that the decision to give the podium to Martinez rather than tribal leaders not only broke tradition, but caused dissent, and quoted Rep. James Roger Madalena, D-Jemez Pueblo, the state’s longest-serving Native American legislator, who said in a news release after the governor’s speech that:

The New Mexico Legislature has always honored and treated the Native American community with respect — today that was violated.

The New Mexican got in a jab at Sanchez, saying, “Never one to miss an opportunity, Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, turned around and invited Native leaders to address the Senate, and asked the entire House of Representatives to show up on Wednesday.”

Still, the editorial noted:

Bringing leaders back — even if the move was made to make political points — was the right thing to do.

Yet, tribal leaders did not have the full attention they might have had on traditional American Indian Day. From the editorial:

In what is turning into an increasingly partisan session, Sanchez said only a handful of Republicans attended. Most House Democrats, though, left their chamber and came to the Senate to hear the speeches.

In his story about that Senate session, the New Mexican’s Steve Terrell said Sanchez told him only three Republicans availed themselves of the chance to hear the tribal leaders.

One of the Democrats who attended, freshman legislator, Rep. Patricio Ruiloba, D-Albuquerque, told Terrell, “In my orientation, it was emphasized that I am a representative not just of my district, but of the whole state. I wanted to hear what their issues were.”

Terrell added that:

Privately, some Indian leaders say they are concerned about their tribes’ issues getting caught up in the kind of hyperpartisan crossfire that has characterized this Legislature so far.

This series of events, in a nutshell, illustrated how partisanship and divisiveness can make it even harder for legislators to gather information and get their work done. Surely the governor was well aware of tradition and how her appearance could be viewed as inappropriate, as did the GOP legislators who facilitated the break from tradition that justifiably came across as disrespectful.

Sadly, it appears that the Journal would rather sit this one out than hold the governor accountable for stealing the spotlight and playing politics.

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One Comment so far ↓

  • Amy

    The Journal basically defends everything Martinez ever says and does. If she ate children or robbed banks, the Journal would editorialize that these were great deeds

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