How well do you know the Roundhouse?
Do you trust who you’re around?
Where’s the closest exit?
Are you alone?
Do you feel safe?
These are questions some lobbyists in New Mexico ask themselves to ensure their own safety while working during the state’s legislative session.
Last year, a lobbyist filed a complaint against Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto (D-Albuquerque) for sexual misconduct, followed by other women coming forward with similar allegations. That spurred the Legislative Council Service to contract a private investigation into Ivey-Soto’s actions. The matter didn’t move forward because of a tie vote by a panel of four state senators. Eventually, Ivey-Soto resigned or was removed from multiple prominent committees.
Ivey-Soto walked into this year’s 60-day Legislation without those committee responsibilities but is still finishing his term through the end of 2024 as a senator from northeast Albuquerque.
This year, the Center for Civic Policy created a safety plan for the 2023 Legislature and shared it with other lobbying organizations around the state. It lays out measures such as staying with colleagues, understanding who to confide in, knowing the surroundings and taking notes of any incidents that happen.
The group also held safety training sessions before and midway through the legislative session with other advocacy organizations.
How many more members of the public have to be harassed and assaulted in order for this to actually be taken seriously?
– Lan Sena, policy director of the Center for Civic Policy
Lan Sena is the policy director for the Center for Civic Policy. She said the Roundhouse is an unsafe work environment for many people working with advocacy and nonprofit organizations. She said lobbyists across the board have experienced unsafe or uncomfortable situations in Santa Fe.
“This is 2023. And yet we still have folks who have to constantly watch their backs, can’t be alone in the Roundhouse, having to sit alongside someone as they are facing their perpetrators,” she said.
She said her organization made this template “out of necessity and also out of experience.” She declined to name specific lawmakers due to safety and retaliation concerns but said she thought about the steps she took to ensure her own safety and get help after incidents she dealt with at the Roundhouse.
Marshall Martinez is the executive director of Equality New Mexico. He said he’s never felt safe in the decades he’s worked as a lobbyist at the Roundhouse. His level of safety, he said, depends on the type of legislation and how close he is to certain lawmakers.
He said he has young, queer staff in the Roundhouse for the first time this year, some working their first legislative session. He’s told them about issues that could arise in the Roundhouse, and he said he makes sure they aren’t alone and checks in on them during the day.
I know how quickly and easily especially young, queer men can become the victim of harassment or predatory behavior.
– Marshall Martinez, executive director of Equality New Mexico
He recalled one group of young, gay men who are people of color. They were so excited to get involved in the session, he said. He cautioned them that it can also be scary and dangerous “and here are the people you have to stay away from and here are the places you don’t go.”
Martinez didn’t get that kind of heads up when he was young and “was emotionally stunned and shocked when I had a particularly uncomfortable and dangerous feeling, interaction with a legislator,” he said.
Martinez said safety plans or trainings are, unfortunately, part of work as a lobbyist.
“We have enough work to do in this building and we shouldn’t have to dedicate time and energy every day to safety considerations,” he said.
A need to change the policies and the culture
Research shows that a majority of sexual assault victims don’t come forward. Martinez and Sena both said there are more issues happening in the Roundhouse than are being reported.
Martinez said he thinks the process of reporting an issue puts the person filing the report in vulnerable and dangerous positions. He said people will always be reluctant to report as long as the process stays like that.
Sena agreed. She said others have asked her questions about where to seek justice, “and it’s hard for me to answer that.”
“When there’s no actions being taken by the Roundhouse and we continue to see people that perpetuate the violence not be held accountable and still remain within the Roundhouse, of course we will always see folks reluctant to come forward,” she said.
There’s legislation in Santa Fe attempting to address ongoing issues, like House Bill 169 that would lift a confidentiality clause on people that submit complaints during the interim session or House Bill 5 that lays out professional conduct standards.
The Legislature also amended the anti-harassment policy in December 2022 following the allegations and investigation into Ivey-Soto’s behavior. Although the policy now pulls more non-legislative experts into the process, it’s still largely in the hands of House and Senate leadership.
Sena said there needs to be an independent process that doesn’t give so much power to lawmakers. “We cannot have the fox guarding the henhouse any longer,” she said. “This has been going on for way too long.”
Martinez reiterated that.
“It can be really hard to build motivation, energy, momentum towards changing policy when that policy impacts who has power,” he said. “And I think that if we can’t change the policy, then we can’t change the culture.”
Martinez said there needs to be an anti-harassment policy that is equitable, trauma-informed, justice-oriented and accessible. “Until then, as long as the people who have power know they can get away with these things, they have no impetus to change,” he said.
“It will always stay the same unless real change is done so that it is independent, that folks actually have a process that’s transparent for survivors to actually look to and understand, to be able to have someone guide them through such a traumatic process,” Sena said.
Sena said it’ll take the entire Roundhouse to change the culture and policies. She added that public pressure will “continue to really put a light on this culture where a certain senator can openly harass and attack members of their own chamber on the floor and still have no real repercussions for it.”
“How many more members of the public have to be harassed and assaulted in order for this to actually be taken seriously?” she asked.
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