Freshman Sen. Leo Jaramillo Chats About Highs And Lows Of Recent Legislative Session

Sen. Leo Jaramillo


District 5 Sen. Leo Jaramillo made his mark at the Roundhouse during this year’s session as a freshman legislator in multiple ways, endearing himself not only to his fellow legislators but to staff at all levels and in all positions, and making sure his district comprised of Rio Arriba, Santa Fe and Los Alamos Counties had a loud voice.

The Los Alamos Reporter sat down with Jaramillo last week to get his take on the highs and lows of the session and his overall experience at the Roundhouse.

“The highlight of the session was getting the joint resolution passed to try to tap into the permanent Land Grant Fund for early childhood education.  As a former teacher, I know how important it is to invest in New Mexicans at an early age. As somebody who came from humble beginnings, to know that the state cares enough that we can help build a solid foundation where New Mexicans can have a better education and can eventually break out of the cycle of poverty, was a powerful moment for me,” he said  

Jaramillo said one of the most amazing experiences for him was going into the session with six other freshman senators who definitely wanted what is best for New Mexico.

“These are people who ran for office talking about diversifying the economy, about stepping up for human rights. It was awesome to have a cohort who met each other virtually, working together for the greater good of the state,” he said. “As cheesy as it might sound, those people were the best friends I’ve met over the pandemic and we still talk to each other once a day on a text thread to check in on each other.”

He also mentioned being able to stand up and let the legislature know about the Chama mayor who had passed away and the contributions he made to New Mexico.

“I was delighted to stand up and declare Los Alamos National Laboratory Craft Workers Day in the legislature, and to know the kind of work they do because I’m a staff operations manager, and to stand with my head held high to appreciate them and the hard work that they do, and to tell my story on the Senate floor,” Jaramillo said.

He recalled hearing a Republican senator say that farming in Northern New Mexico was dead, that people don’t do it anymore.

“It was nice to stand up and talk about farms including one in Abiquiu that teaches kids about agriculture and what it does is and how when it’s time to harvest, the bounty goes back to every single family in the community. No money is made off this. It teaches kids about the land and nutrition and what it means to be a community. So times when I could speak specifically on behalf of District 5 were some of my favorites,” Jaramillo said.

Jaramillo appreciated being contacted by constituents about issues that were important to them because it helped him to realize how different legislation could positively benefit them or hurt them.

When time were a little tougher during the session, Jaramillo said it was nice to hear the leadership team in caucus tell him that they appreciated his “can-do attitude” and his positivity.

“Even when there were times when it felt like we had hit a low, I was able to bring that coach and teacher in me who felt like I could rally the troops again and get them refocused and ready to move on – that we didn’t have to dwell on one issue, that we could move past it because we had a job to do,” he said.

Jaramillo serves as vice chair of the Senate Indian, Rural & Cultural Affairs Committee and also sits on the Tax, Business & Transportation Committee. He said his previous experience as Rio County Commission Chair meant he was able to take over as chair of a committee at times when Zoom was not working for a chairman or if a chairwoman was unable to attend.

He was also pleased to have had the ability to bring representatives of Ohkay Owingeh into the Senate to talk about an issue with a grant for their wastewater treatment facility which had been pulled. Their visit ended with the Senate Indian, Rural & Cultural Affairs Committee Chair asking to draft a letter to the congressional delegation on behalf of the committee.

“That was amazing to me to see how we can come together as senators from different areas of the state to help communities in my district that definitely need the help,” he said.

Jaramillo noted that he had a valuable ally in House District 43 Rep. Christine Chandler who represents, Los Alamos County as well as parts of Rio Arriba, Santa Fe and Sandoval Counties.

“To know that I had Rep. Chris Chandler just a text message or phone call away was nice. To know that I had her as a safety net and as a mentor, and that although we might be in different chambers, knowing that she was with me, literally with me just a text message away, made things easier. She was somebody that I could vent to, laugh with and get counsel from,” he said. “I found a true friend in Chris Chandler. She and I will work strong together for New Mexico and for those areas she represents in Rio Arriba County. It’s nice to know that she’s a representative with the heart of the people and does such amazing things as just a second term representative.”

Jaramillo voiced disappointment about a bill he worked on that was unsuccessful this go-around related to a bond issue that was floated in Rio Arriba County for a nursing and rehabilitation hospital. He recalled that three years ago the only nursing home in the area closed. There was a non-compete clause on the facility which meant that no other nursing home agency could take over.

“The Rio Arriba County Commission rallied and asked the community to bond for a new nursing home to be built because people who needed the facility were having to go as far as Albuquerque to be admitted into a home and their disconnect from their community caused them in some cases to pass away,” he said.

If the bill had passed, state statute would have been amended and Rio Arriba County would have been able to have the bond monies supported by 80 percent of the voters released to construct a nursing home.

“Unfortunately it never made it out of the Judiciary Committee. What happened is that Valencia County had the same issue. They got theirs passed on the Senate floor, so I made sure to go to each senator on the Judiciary Committee and tell them the bill they just heard and passed was the bill that I was fighting for Rio Arriba County. The only difference was their bill involved mil levy money, mine was bond money. But I’m not done with that bill – I’m going to keep fighting for that one,” he said.

Jaramillo was a cosponsor of a bill that prohibits the gay or trans “panic” defense.

“What happens now is that if somebody feels threatened that somebody tried to proposition them or pick up on them sexually of the same gender, they could hurt this individual in a court of law. They can then say they panicked and the gay panic defense typically helps them out of any trouble they would have had. That’s one that I was passionate about as a member of the LGBTQ community. It was powerful when Sen. Candelaria stood up during the session to read the names of every American who died from an act of violence due to their sexual orientation and that was my second bill that was high priority,” he said. “Unfortunately that bill never made it past the House floor.”

A third priority for Jaramillo was a bill that would have made $80,000 in reoccurring funds available to the Local Government Division of the Department of Finance Administration for the North Central New Mexico Economic Development District to hire staff to provide planning, economic development and project administration assistance to Rio Arriba, Los Alamos, Santa Fe, Sandoval,Taos, Colfax, Mora and San Miguel Counties. The staff person could have helped with issues related to broadband as well as affordable and workforce housing and other issues critical to District 5. That bill never made it past committee.

Jaramillo sponsored SB 73 which provided that some $3 million in fees from motor carriers operating in the state can now go directly into Department of Transportation funds instead of having to be filtered to the Public Regulation Commission. He said the success of the bill means that DOT officials are meeting with folks in District 5 to discuss roads in the La Madera and Chamita areas, cleanup of the streets in Espanola and SR 76 from Espanola to Truchas.

“Northern New Mexico has felt neglected when it comes to state roads so I’m working closely with the Cabinet and the members of their staff on how they can better help in repairing roads in District 5 and coming up with projects we feel are beneficial for the area,” he said.

Jaramillo took some heat in parts of District 5 for voting against trapping and poisoning on public lands. He said when he met with a number of ranchers in Northern New Mexico, they told him there are three major threats to their livestock – drought, which means they don’t have feed for their animals; big game that is coming in and eating the feed they have for them and predators that that come and get them on the public land they lease.

“They’re already seeing a decrease in the number of cattle they have which means that it’s affecting them financially. That was one of the hardest votes I had to take in this session because I totally understand the effects and dangers of the trapping but there’s a whole other story of ranchers that are looking to keep earning their money and by not allowing them to trap on public land. They are saddened by the fact that fact that Roxy was hurt by a trap but they need trapping so that their livestock can survive. That was the hardest vote that I took,” he said. 

Jaramillo is proud that as a former teacher he got to defend HB 266 relating to licensure for special education teachers which was the last bill of the session.

“This bill would allow a special education mentee to be mentored by a senior special educator for 15 weeks before they’re turned over to their own class. I debated that bill for almost an hour and during the closing, the last senator to speak was Republican Sen. Joshua Sanchez from Belen. He said Sen. Jaramillo has talked about Tier 2 and Tier 3 teaching. He said, ‘I want to let the Senate know that Sen. Jaramillo is a 10 when it comes to senators’,” Jaramillo said. “To have the whole Senate stand up on both sides and start clapping as the vote passed unanimously was amazing. That was how I ended that session and I felt so proud.”

He said people have people in his district have told him since the session that they were proud to have a senator who represented them with pride and that they could truly feel the passion he has for community when he spoke.

“I have had people reach out and thank me for bills that were passed or my voting record. I only missed one vote in the entire session and people have thanked me for that, but people also thanked me for taking on the responsibility of being their voice in Santa Fe because a lot of them have said that they felt their voice was never heard before,” Jaramillo said.

He chuckled as he recalled Lt. Gov. Howie Morales calling him up to his desk to see what mask he was wearing on a particular day.

‘He would ask, “Who are we representing today, Senator Jaramillo?’, and I would respond, ‘the mighty Lobos of Escalante High School, or the Hilltoppers of Los Alamos High School’, and throw in some facts about each school I mentioned,” Jaramillo said.

He said he loved getting letters and email from young people in District 5 including Los Alamos Middle School GSA student  who contacted him about their “Edu- gat-ional ” event in March.

“I sent them a video for the event. As an openly gay senator, I was proud to stand with them and I let them know I was working on legislation that would protect the LGBTQ community. I let them know how proud I was that they were interested in protecting me and protecting members of the LGBTQ community, educating Los Alamos on what it meant to be a gay man or anyone in the LGBTQ community,” he said.

And finally, the Los Alamos Reporter asked Jaramillo about reports that he went to the Roundhouse every day 30 minutes before he needed to be there and met with custodians, attendants, proofreaders, secretaries and others. He reluctantly admitted that he just wanted to get to know the staff ad what they did to help at the Roundhouse. He would take treats to them such as homemade salsa and items from the Lovin’ Oven Bakery in Espanola to express his appreciation.

“My dad was a custodian and my mom was a school cook so I know hard work they do and things couldn’t get done without them,” Jaramillo said.

As one staff member told him. “I haven’t seen a senator with a heart like yours in a long time”.