Sen. Pete Campos of Las Vegas had his first real election challenge in some time when, earlier this year, Rep. Thomas Garcia ran against him in the Democratic primary. Campos captured re-election unopposed in November.
Now, the longtime senator — he’s served continuously since 1991 — is facing a different kind of challenge. On Sunday, in a closed-door caucus meeting in Belen, Senate Democrats decided to nominate him as president pro tem of the Senate, the top spot in that chamber. If elected at the onset of the coming legislative session, Campos will weld considerable power by presiding over the selection of committee members and committee chairs, and the Senate itself in the absence of the lieutenant governor.
He will also have greater access to the governor, which may be beneficial to Gov. Susana Martinez. A Republican in her first term in office — and gaining in stature in her party as the nation’s first female Hispanic governor — getting things done needs to be a political priority for her. A better working relationship with the Senate is a great place to start, and Campos is a get-along kind of guy.
For Campos to become president pro tem, he must win a majority of votes in the Senate — not just a majority of the Democrats. Democrats hold a 25-to-17 majority in the Senate, so he’s definitely in a position of strength, but he could still have a Democratic challenger. For the caucus’ nomination, he beat out three others who’d like to have the job — Sens. Linda Lopez of Albuquerque, Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces (Martinez’s hometown) and Howie Morales of Silver City — and any of them could take him on with a mixed-party coalition. That’s how Sen. Tim Jennings of Roswell won the position four years ago.
Interestingly, Jennings lost re-election to the Senate in part because the governor, and some political action committees friendly to her, targeted him in the November election. Republican Cliff Pirtle, garnered 52 percent of the vote to unseat Jennings, a lawmaker for 34 years.
The president pro tem’s office will be officially decided by a vote of the 42 member Senate on the opening day of the session, Jan. 15. Democrats will hold a 25-17 majority in the Senate, but Campos has nothing locked up, and that’s why he said he’ll be calling all senators. That’s an excellent way for the senator to face his latest greatest challenge, and we expect it’ll put him in the driver’s seat for the Senate’s top position.