SANTA FE — Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca faced criticism Friday after his questioning of a cabinet nominee touched on her race and whether she felt comfortable representing other cultures in the state as a Black woman.

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Sen. Gregory A. Baca (R-District 29)

The exchange came in a Senate Rules Committee hearing on the nomination of Sonya Smith to lead the Department of Veteran Services.

Baca, R-Belen, asked Smith whether she felt comfortable entering the position in a state where just 3 percent of the population is African American but 49 percent are a “Hispanic mix.”

“Do you feel like you are comfortable adequately representing both cultures?” Baca asked.

Smith, who was nominated by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, responded with her own question: “Do I feel comfortable representing the Department of Veteran Services as a Black woman? Is that what you’re asking?”

Baca, noting that he’s a Hispanic man, said race was an immutable trait but that she could answer the question however she wished. He said Smith was the one who had brought up minority communication earlier in the hearing.

He appeared to be referring to Smith’s response to an earlier question, when she said her duties during a previous job at the Department of Health included outreach to minority groups to answer questions about COVID-19 testing.

Smith, in any case, responded to Baca’s question about representing different cultures by saying “I am who I am.”

“I don’t think when Gov. Lujan Grisham tapped me for this position, she was concerned about my color,” Smith said. “I think she was looking at my skill set and ability to lead.”

Baca apologized later in the hearing and said he must not have asked his question correctly. He ultimately joined the committee in voting 10-0 to recommend confirmation of Smith’s appointment.

Lujan Grisham followed up with a letter to legislative leaders Friday expressing her “extreme displeasure with the manner of questioning” directed at Smith.

“That Senator Baca would question Secretary-Designate Smith’s qualifications on the basis of her race is abhorrent to me and, I am sure, to all New Mexicans who understand and value not only diverse representation in leadership but the multicultural fabric of our great state,” Lujan Grisham wrote. “The senator’s line of inquiry — in which he asked the secretary-designate whether she, a black woman, would be ‘comfortable adequately representing’ New Mexicans — was inexcusable.”

House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton, an Albuquerque Democrat and first Black floor leader in the state Legislature, called Baca’s questioning “borderline racism and completely disrespectful.”

Smith, nominated last month, is a Gulf War veteran with a background in health care. She previously coordinated COVID-19 testing in the state Department of Health.

After the hearing, Baca issued a statement saying he applauded Smith’s “commitment to minority inclusion.”

He said that in his questions, “I hope I was clear that as a minority veteran myself, I view this role as one that must consider every facet of our diverse culture in New Mexico. As a lifelong New Mexican, I understand that there are unique challenges facing New Mexico’s minority veterans — challenges that may not be comparable to other states.

“Secretary-Designate Smith’s comments today underscored her qualifications to lead this important department.”

(Editor's Note: Sonya L. Smith was unanimously confirmed by the New Mexico Senate Tuesday as secretary of the New Mexico Department of Veterans’ Services. The vote was 38-0, officially naming her as the fifth DVS secretary— and first African-American to serve as head of the agency. She had been serving on an interim basis since her nomination for the position by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

“I stand here in strong support of Secretary Sonya Smith,” said Sen. and U.S. Navy veteran Greg Baca (R-Belen). “She has a kindness and the spirit to lead the department of veterans services. I’m happy to know that they will be under her guidance, and I look forward to working with her to serve our state’s veterans.”)

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