Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify a lobbyist affiliation.
SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – 112 elected politicians are gathering at the Roundhouse in Santa Fe to advocate for the needs of voters. But who else are they advocating for?
While New Mexico’s lawmakers are elected to represent the people of New Mexico, some of the decisions they make are also influenced by people representing companies, industries and other entities. That influence is called lobbying.
In this case, lobbyists are the people who are often paid to do the work of influencing and informing lawmakers through meetings, committee testimony, even passing hallway conversations. While their influence might not be a surprise, you might not know just how deep lobbyists’ influence can run.
“I think that there is a line,” says former Senator Jacob Candelaria, “where you do begin to wonder: Who is the policy maker? The legislator or the lobbyist?”
Former Senator Dede Feldman (D) represented parts of Albuquerque from 1997 through 2013. She puts it this way: “The role of lobbyists is an outsized one in a citizen’s legislature.”
Note: To report this story, KRQE News 13 reached out to several registered lobbyists. Some declined comment. Others did not return our calls.
Who are the lobbyists?
You might already have an idea of what a “lobbyist” is. You might think about back-alley deals and payments to pass legislation. But the truth is New Mexico’s lobbyists are a far more diverse crowd.
Each lobbyist has to register with the New Mexico Secretary of State. And this year, there are over 600 people registered in the profession.
They come from a wide range of backgrounds and represent a huge range of interests, both public and private. For example, you’re probably not surprised to learn that there’s a lobbyist registered to represent the National Rifle Association of America. But did you know there’s a lobbyist registered in New Mexico representing Airbnb? Or a lobbyist representing Waymo, a self-driving car company?
There are dozens of lobbyists representing corporate interests. Some are massive, multinational companies, like Exxon Mobile. Others are smaller, like the cannabis company, PurLife.
On top of corporate lobbyists, there are nonprofit lobbyists as well. For example, NMVC Action Fund has a registered lobbyist. That’s a group that Michelle Lujan Grisham’s campaign referenced in an election ad last year. Groups such as the Rio Grande chapter of the Sierra Club have registered lobbyists in New Mexico.
There are larger nonprofits too: The Environmental Defense Fund registered a lobbyist here in New Mexico. The nationwide group founded by Charles Koch and the late David Koch, Americans For Prosperity, also has registered lobbyists here.
“We’re a small state and people know one another,” Feldman says. “So, the lobbyists become, in a way, part of the [political] family. Quite often, the lobbyists are former legislators, or even married or part of the family of legislators.”
That inside familiarity can make lobbyists even more powerful, Feldman says. KRQE News 13 compiled a full list of registered lobbyists. You can find it at the end of the story.
How do they influence politicians?
At the most basic level, lobbyists try to get certain legislation passed or try to stop certain bills. For a hypothetical example, someone lobbying for an electric vehicle company might try to persuade New Mexico legislators to pass a bill offering tax credits to people who buy electric vehicles. While such a hypothetical bill might not directly hurt most New Mexicans, it probably would help the electric vehicle company sell more cars.
This sort of lobbying is often done by getting in front of New Mexico’s legislators and explaining why they should support, or oppose, a bill. This could be done via a quick note handed to them or through an expensive dinner the lobbyist pays for. Different lobbyists take different strategies.
Traditional wining and dining
“The lobbyist’s goal is to build a relationship with the legislature so that the legislature will have confidence in that person to give them information and to be swayed by the arguments and information being provided to them,” former Senator Jacob Candelaria says, “So how do those relationships start? Dinners, buying drinks, taking people on vacations, taking people to Lobo games.”
It’s basically like dating someone, he adds. That traditional model of lobbying is a long-term game. But Candelaria says there’s also a new form of lobbying that has arisen in recent years.
“The other kind,” he says, “is really the sort of issue-driven, quote unquote, ‘nonprofit’ lobbyists. Now, these people like to call themselves ‘advocates’, because maybe they think ‘lobbyists’ was a dirty word. But they are still Lobbyists.”
Candelaria says that rather than simply rely on wining and dining, some of this new type of lobbying is based more on broad political pressure. “It’s really about force and control,” he says.
“There is this tendency for these groups to claim that they are the gatekeepers, or rather they define what it means to be a Progressive, or to mean to be a Democrat,” he says, having served from 2013 through 2021 as a Democrat. “And so, if you are not one hundred percent behind what this special interest group is supporting, you are no longer a legitimate Progressive, a legitimate Democrat.” Candelaria shifted his party affiliation to decline to state in 2021, then resigned from the Senate in late 2022.
Helpful or harmful?
Besides trying to influence New Mexico’s senators and representatives to pass certain bills, lobbyists also act as interpreters for New Mexico’s legislators. Those lawmakers have to make decisions on a wide range of bills, so lobbyists often help them make sense of the technicalities.
“Lobbyists have a very legitimate role in the system as providing information to lawmakers about the laws that they are about to pass,” Feldman explains. “So, lobbyists do have a very valid role to play. But in Mexico, you see, they’re much more powerful than they would be if legislators had research staff.”
Candelaria agrees that the lawmakers are limited in what they can do without lobbyists: “You have a legislature that is volunteer and unpaid, which means that legislators typically only have the capacity to really fully dive into and understand a very narrow subset of issues,” Candelaria says. “Legislators rely upon lobbyists a great deal, both in terms of learning about new issues [and] identifying new issues and bills.”
Candelaria says that’s all well and good in some cases. But in others, he says he felt like he’s seen legislators rely too heavily on insight from lobbyists.
“One of the things that I always found concerning in the legislature,” Candelaria says, “is oftentimes, sitting in committee, it was clear to me that the legislator had never even read the bill that they were proposing. It simply was handed to them lock, stock, and barrel, you know, all wrapped up in a little bow by whatever special interest group is proposing it.”
To some extent, it seems inevitable that New Mexico’s politicians are going to be tied up with lobbyists. Feldman explains that if a politician refuses to play the lobbying game, they will probably have a hard time getting legislation passed.
“It’s hard to be pure about those kinds of things,” Feldman says. “You don’t want to be seen as like, too much of a goody two shoes. You will be left out.”
Searchable list of registered lobbyists
*Editor’s Note: This list represents the most complete data available. At the time the list was compiled, not all of the lobbyists had complete information on their employers or funding.