When Joe Skeen first went to Congress, he told my husband, it was the most humbling experience of his life. He had never felt like such a nobody.
The United States House of Representatives has 435 members. As Skeen told it, freshman members got no respect at all.
My husband told me that story several years later.
Skeen wasn’t exactly wet behind the ears when he went to Congress. He had served 10 years in the New Mexico State Senate and run for both lieutenant governor and governor.
Old-timers will remember that Skeen, a Republican, first won his seat in Congress as a write-in candidate. His predecessor, Democrat Harold Runnels, had been so popular that the GOP didn’t put up a candidate against him in 1978 or 1980. On August 5, 1980, Runnels died, too late in the campaign season for the Republican Party to put up an official candidate.
Skeen served 11 terms. He rose in the ranks, serving as chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on the Interior, which sets the budget for national parks, federal land agencies and government Indian programs.
I mention this point as we approach the primary election and voters are choosing their candidates.
(You, reader, are planning to vote, I hope – that is, if you are registered as a Democrat or Republican. In our closed primary elections you can only vote in the party in which you are registered. If you’re an independent, or as New Mexico calls you a “DTS” or “decline to state,” you don’t vote until November. The Libertarian Party also has candidates on the ballot, but no primary contests between Libertarian candidates.)
In two of our three congressional districts, incumbents Michelle Lujan Grisham and Steve Pearce have vacated their seats to run for governor, so the contests to replace them are crowded. Whoever wins will be a freshman member of Congress.
In District 1, six Democrats are still running after others dropped out. There’s only one Republican in that race.
In District 2, there are four Republicans and two Democrats. This is a particularly competitive race because the pundits think Democrats have a chance to win in a traditionally Republican district.
In District 3, incumbent Democrat Ben Ray Lujan is running to retain his seat. He will be opposed in November by a Republican and a Libertarian. There is no primary contest in that race.
So what does my Joe Skeen story have to do with how you decide to vote this year?
The most important thing a member of Congress does is vote on legislation. The newest members of Congress don’t get to initiate much. They’ll mostly be voting in favor of bills initiated and vetted by their leadership or against bills their leaders oppose.
Whatever they say their priorities are, it may not matter much, at least for their first term. Democratic members of Congress will vote the same on major issues like healthcare and the environment. Republican members will vote in favor of stronger immigration restrictions and border protection. That’s all predictable.
If you are a passionate partisan and have already selected your favorite candidate on the basis of issues or personality, you are ahead of most voters. But if you are still wondering how to decide, here’s a suggestion: consider experience, and especially experience that will be appreciated by other Congress members and allow that member to jump to the head of the class. Before you go to vote, check out the biographies on the candidates’ websites.
Some of these candidates are fine people with excellent backgrounds. So was Joe Skeen. Because we only have three members of the U.S. House, New Mexico treats its Congress members as celebrities. In Washington, it will require a different set of talents to become more important than a nobody.
Triple Spaced Again, © New Mexico News Services 2018