Saying farewell to an unusual senator

She is a politician whose mantra could have been, Speak quietly and carry a small stick. “I don’t like political ugliness,” she asserts time and again. A calm, nonaggressive, civilized, nonpartisan, centrist state Senate Republican, she reserves her deepest praise for colleagues she perceives as fair, considerate, polite, respectful and “appreciative of each other’s values.”

Yet when I ask her what she would do about Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, the most vituperative, bombastic, demagogic, abusive and bullying national politician since Joe McCarthy and Huey Long, she responds tartly, “Vote for him. … People want a strong President.”

Go figure.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

forum mtn musing Beffort photo low resSue Wilson Beffort, a Republican who is retiring at the end of this year after representing the Tricounty area in the state Senate for 20 years—“It’s good to go out on a high note,” she says—is not an easy person to categorize. I have known her since she first won her Senate seat in 1996, and despite numerous policy disagreements we have maintained a fond and respectful relationship. When I knocked on her door last week, she greeted me with a hug.

That doesn’t mean I find her an easy woman to understand. I nearly fell out of my chair in her elegant dining room when she told me she supported Trump. In fact, almost any statement about her has to be balanced with a diametrically contradictory assessment. Some people’s lives fit together as neatly as the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. In the case of others, like Wilson Beffort, you feel the pieces were mixed up from several different puzzles and nothing quite fits.

Wilson Beffort is a gregarious, affectionate woman who loves to entertain but lives alone in a large house in a remote area with no family within a thousand miles.

She is a small, slight woman with a winning smile and a soft voice, but underneath the gentle exterior is a layer of steel hardened by a life of struggle and challenges, including raising two sons as a single parent, creating a successful employment agency and last year watching her beloved second husband Steve Beffort die of illness.

She is a tennis player who focuses on golf, a Republican whose trademark is collaborating with Democrats (a legislative necessity since Republicans were always in the minority), a law-and-order type who voted for medical marijuana, a cut-taxes-and-reduce-government conservative who believes strongly in using the power and wealth of government to help the needy, be they rural residents without access to medical care or the children of families who cannot afford daycare.

Her principal legislative role has been as a member of the powerful (some would say all-powerful) Senate Finance Committee (where she is currently the senior Republican), but on this numbers-first panel of spreadsheet experts her forte has been to bring to the table the social needs of New Mexicans. The highest compliment she received she attributes to former Sen. Joseph Fidel, who said, “She’d plug in issues that the rest of us don’t appreciate the importance of and then she’d educate us about them.”

A successful businesswoman who still thinks of herself as a political outsider, her focus for two decades has been on politics. A successful legislator by almost any definition, she nevertheless speaks regretfully of her career as serving on the “B team” with the “A team” of power and prominence having eluded her. Her only statewide race, for lieutenant governor, was a losing one.

I asked for the interview last Wednesday to give Wilson Beffort, who had just announced her pending retirement, an opportunity for a bit of personal and political introspection, as well as a look back at her career and forward to her new life after the Senate. For two hours we moved from one subject to another across a vast gamut of private and public topics, and throughout she repeatedly surprised me.

She has been probably the most influential policy maker and power broker in the Tricounty region. A good example of her effectiveness was the unusual financing of the building which serves as a combination gym and theater for both the East Mountain High School and Bernalillo County. Wilson Beffort says it is the only facility in the United States jointly sponsored by a school and a local government. During the state’s formerly plush times, she was able to get capital outlay funds in three consecutive years for the building, something she says would be impossible now.

An interesting example of her flexibility is the issue of medical marijuana. The first time she was confronted with the proposal, she voted against it. Then her son, at the age of 29, came down with cancer and had to endure extensive and painful chemotherapy. He told his mother he didn’t want to use medical marijuana, which was legal in his home state of California, because he needed to keep his mind clear for his work. But he added that he knew many cancer patients who desperately needed to take medical marijuana to manage their pain. The next year, his mother bucked her party and joined Democrats in voting in favor of medical marijuana.

She describes her two greatest successes as helping to get medical care for underserved rural areas via remote consultations by UNM doctors and making free day care available for the children of poor families. She also sponsored legislation for full-day kindergarten. (Her college degree was in education, and her father was a physician.) She strongly supports a federal program, Federally Qualified Primary Health Care, that subsidizes medical care for the poor, including an estimated 100,000 illegal residents. These are hardly the types of programs that most Republican legislators would brag about.

Her greatest regret, her most substantial failure, she says, was her inability to get the Senate to pass laws reforming how the state dealt with water issues and preparing for the inevitable shortages. She introduced a controversial water banking bill during her first session. Late one night she got word that her bill was finally coming up for a committee vote. At midnight, she rushed to the committee room and was flattered that at such a late hour the room was jammed with spectators. The chairman asked members of the audience to raise their hands if they opposed the bill. Everybody in the room raised a hand. “They were all there to kill the bill and I hand’t realized it,” Wilson Beffort says. The committee killed her bill.

She did have one success with a water bill, getting a law enacted to prohibit export of water from the Estancia Basin to Santa Fe and Albuquerque. After several other failures, however, she gave up on water issues and switched to committees dealing with other subjects. The failure, however, still rankles.

In general, Wilson Beffort is neither a critic of the Legislature nor a committed reformer. She likes the often criticized process of individual legislators sponsoring capital outlay projects for their districts, although she adds that they should not claim credit for the projects. “That’s not their money, it belongs to the taxpayers.”

Nor does she have any interest in ethics reform. She thinks the current level of transparency is an adequate guarantee against corruption.

She doesn’t like public financing of elections. “They should have to work for their jobs,” she maintains. During her first election campaign, the only really competitive race she ever had, she received 600 contributions. Since then, she says, she has not even had to ask for money; it just comes in the door.

She also agrees with most of her Senate colleagues (and disagrees with a large majority of the House) that an independent ethics commission would be more of a problem than a solution.

The one reform she does strongly support is ending the Public Service’s Commission status as an elected body that supervises all forms of regulation. “It’s terrible,” she pronounces.

Wilson Beffort is already turning her attention to her future. She is definite about what she won’t do. She won’t move to the city and sell her house, although it seems large and lonely for one person, because of the beauty of the East Mountain site and the friends she has made in the community. She won’t engage in politics, support candidates, run for office, work as a lobbyist, sit on boards or raise money.

So what will this still healthy, intelligent and lively woman do with the next stage of her life? She has hung a still life she painted on her dining room wall and says she plans to focus on her art. Playing the piano remains a serious avocation. She may study a foreign language, French or Spanish. She is talking about writing a memoir, a book that would be not just the usual political autobiography but an examination of the challenges that have shaped her life. She will spend more time with her sons and their families on the two coasts. Whatever she does, however, I suspect there will be more surprises. The jigsaw puzzle of her life is far from complete.