By MILAN SIMONICH
The New Mexican
House Speaker Brian Egolf should know better than to mix standup comedy with his weekly news conference.
Legislators are funny enough without ad-libbing a punchline or making sport of a colleague. But Egolf, D-Santa Fe, couldn’t resist temptation.
He and all the regulars at the state Capitol have been buzzing about Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, ejecting reporter Rachel Knapp from a public meeting of the Senate Conservation Committee.
Knapp, of television station KRQE, walked into Egolf’s news briefing Tuesday with the controversy still fresh as an open wound.
“I was in touch with Antoinette. She said it was fine for you to be here,” Egolf said.
No one laughed. Egolf, no longer trying to be funny, hoped to keep his comment out of the newspapers.
Like Sedillo Lopez, he regretted what he’d said.
Sedillo Lopez wrote me two notes after I criticized her in a column this week. She expressed remorse for her decision to oust Knapp.
Knapp had her camera rolling during a dull-as-dishwater committee hearing. Sedillo Lopez decided the young reporter had violated Senate rules by failing to get permission from the committee to film a meeting that was open to everyone.
Part of Sedillo Lopez’s motivation to kick out a reporter was that Sen. Pat Woods, R-Broadview, objected to Knapp’s presence. Woods said her film of the hearing could be doctored to make senators look bad.
The Senate instituted a rule to control photography of committee hearings when Republican Susana Martinez was governor. She deployed camera crews to legislative hearings in hopes of gathering footage that could be used against her political enemies.
Martinez wanted to obtain gotcha gaffes of Democrats and certain Republicans. For example, Martinez was no fan of Woods. She had campaigned for his opponent in a Republican primary, and Martinez’s political adviser had hit Woods with a series of attack ads.
Sedillo Lopez said she had not known any of this background.
“Thank you for the history of the rule,” she wrote. “It actually makes a little more sense to me now. And, given his past experience, I better understand the ranking minority member’s decision to invoke the rule.
“Nonetheless, it is a stupid rule, especially now that all hearings are webcast and archived. Unlike the President, I do not believe in ignoring legislative rules. The proper approach is to change them (or challenge them in court). I support Senator [Jeff] Steinborn’s proposed rule change and I eagerly await the opportunity to vote for it. There is no reason the media should be barred from any Senate Hearing.”
I wrote back to Sedillo Lopez with my assessment: “Ejecting a reporter — or any observer — from a public hearing is a drastic step and an unnecessary one.”
At this point, Sedillo Lopez stated that she regretted forcing out Knapp.
“It was a drastic measure and I wish I had had the presence of mind to have handled it better,” she wrote.
Sedillo Lopez, a retired law professor, is new to the fast pace and pitfalls of state politics. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham appointed Sedillo Lopez last year to fill a vacancy in the Senate.
Sedillo Lopez is the least experienced member of the Conservation Committee. But she holds the title of committee vice chairwoman, and she was in charge of the panel when Woods objected to Knapp filming the hearing.
None of the more seasoned senators on the committee stood up for Knapp in the public meeting. Only after she had lugged away her camera did a couple of them offer condolences.
Now, awash in criticism, the Senate will do the right thing. Most members will get behind Senate Resolution 2, the reform measure by Steinborn, D-Las Cruces.
It would allow photography, video or audio recording or transmission of committee hearings without the permission of the chairwoman or ranking minority member.
Egolf said he never understood how a legislative rule could overtake the First Amendment.
He wasn’t trying to be funny, but it’s no mystery. In the pressure cooker of a legislative session, outrageous decisions are almost as common as good ideas.
That’s the only explanation for otherwise rational senators forcing a reporter to leave a public meeting.
Having felt a backlash, they won’t do it again.
If nothing else, state lawmakers have an instinct for survival and an aversion to political suicide.