Sen. Cliff Pirtle
By MILAN SIMONICH
State Sen. Cliff Pirtle, a 35-year-old dairy farmer, has discovered one of those golden issues that slices across party lines and bridges the rural-urban divide.
“Nobody likes changing clocks twice a year,” he likes to say.
Pirtle, R-Roswell, has made his mark in state politics by doing more than complaining about falling back and springing forward. He’s been trying for eight years to end New Mexico’s system of changing time biannually.
His bill to stop fiddling with the clock always ranks as one of the two or three most-discussed proposals of the year. Even people who have never paid attention to politicians are drawn into the debate on time change.
It’s an issue that seems endless. Like a well-worn watch, Pirtle’s proposals take a licking year after year but keep on ticking.
Pirtle was a 27-year-old freshman senator in 2013 when he introduced a bill to exempt New Mexico from daylight saving time. The proposal fizzled, but Pirtle knew he’d connected with the public.
He stuck with the idea of eliminating time changes, then rewrote his bill.
Instead of ending daylight saving time, he decided it was worth keeping. More daylight, he said, would mean more time for youth sports programs, family outings and finishing chores around the farm.
Since then, Pirtle in five different legislative sessions has introduced bills to establish “Mountain Daylight Saving Time” as the year-round system for New Mexico. The Senate three times approved his bills, but they always failed in the House of Representatives.
Pirtle has another chance. Senators voted 22-18 last week to advance his latest proposal for permanent daylight saving time.
Even if he persuades House members and the governor to back his bill, Pirtle would only be halfway to the finish line. His proposal for year-round daylight saving time also would require congressional approval.
Many state legislators are wary of Pirtle’s bill, especially the Las Cruces delegation. Its members contend permanent daylight saving time would create economic disruption when nearby El Paso was on a different schedule.
Pirtle downplays those concerns. He says his bill might help encourage Congress to terminate all manipulations of the clock and place the whole country on daylight saving time.
Seldom has a politician failed as often as Pirtle and still heightened his profile.
With the defeat last year of Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, Pirtle probably became the best-known legislator from rural New Mexico. He might also be the Republican with the best chance of winning a statewide office. Democrats now hold all those positions.
Pirtle has flashed his ambition. He was just 24 years old when he ran for an open seat in Congress in 2010. Steve Pearce, the former congressman in New Mexico’s 2nd District, trounced Pirtle in the Republican primary and went on to recapture the seat.
Pirtle surfaced again in the 2012 election for the state Senate. Some called him Landslide Cliff after he won the Republican primary by 10 votes.
Pirtle then faced Senate President Pro Tem Tim Jennings, D-Roswell, in the general election.
Jennings had been a senator for 33 years. He showed off his institutional knowledge in rambling speeches that often appealed to conservatives.
Jennings, though, was not a favorite of then-Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican. Groups friendly to Martinez pounded Jennings with negative ads. Pirtle defeated him.
In the Senate, Pirtle once grew a flowing beard rivaling that of Rutherford B. Hayes, a president in the 19th century. But his bill to end time changes gave him the most visibility.
“This is something that has gained quite a bit of popularity, and the reason is it’s such a serious issue,” Pirtle said. “Changing our clocks twice a year has a huge negative impact on quality of life. It creates a situation where people become more distracted. We have more car accidents. Heart attacks increase.”
Time’s onward march isn’t Pirtle’s only issue. He’s attracted notice with his bills to legalize recreational cannabis, but sticks mostly to conservative causes.
Some won’t play well before a statewide audience, as when Pirtle made a brief speech last week on the Senate floor.
“Texas is opening up 100 percent, removing the mask mandate. So I think we’ll see a lot of our citizens going over and enjoying Texas and the freedom they have to offer,” he said.
Pirtle’s fawning over Texas’ response to the coronavirus pandemic is a sure way to lose support in much of New Mexico.
Still, he never quits, as his clockwork demonstrates. He might be the Republican Party’s best hope for a breakthrough in 2022.
Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505.986.3080.