Daymon Ely, Corrales lawyer and retiring state legislator, looked back at his experience in the N.M. House of Representatives with satisfaction and ahead with optimism. Although he had become an influential Democratic legislator since he won the District 23 seat in 2016, he declined to seek another term, keeping a promise to bow out after three two-year terms. Ely had been elected to the Sandoval County Commission in 2000, but got out of electoral politics in 2004 while his wife, Cynthia Fry was a judge on the N.M. Court of Appeals. She retired at the end of 2015, motivating him to run for the House District 23 seat.
“I said at the very beginning that I was only going to serve six years, and nobody believed me. But I kept that promise. I kept that promise to Cynthia and I kept it to my constituents.”
“I really feel I ran for the office for the right reasons,” Ely recalled during a Corrales Comment interview in February. After first-hand observations of how the legislature functions, he is convinced that most of the other legislators also serve for the right reasons.
He feels he is leaving the House in good hands, that the chamber has a new, invigorating collegial spirit —largely due to the fact that now a majority of its members are women.
Ely continues to practice law full time; his specialty is suing other lawyers.
He acknowledged that Corrales may feel the lack of his influence in the N.M. Legislature in the sessions just ahead, “but on the other hand, there are new people, mostly women, particularly in the House, who are wonderful. I say that genuinely. So I am very comfortable about leaving. The House is in good hands.”
He praised the prospective Speaker of the House, Xavier Martinez, for his capacity to take on that responsibility. “He has the best set of skills I’ve seen in a political leader in a long time. A real quality guy, smart, good heart, charming —but tough. That’s kind of a rare combination.
“If anything, I would miss being his lieutenant… that’s what I tell people.”
The person who takes his place in the legislature “is going to find a very collegial body in the House. So do I think Corrales will miss out a bunch? No, I don’t. We all like to think we’ll be missed, but realistically in two to four years from now, few people will remember that I was even there. And that’s okay.”
He said it was not difficult, during his six years in the Round House, to avoid ethical compromises. “I wanted to avoid getting caught up in a scandal, nobody would accuse me of conflicts. I would just try to do the right thing. And it turned out to be surprisingly easy.
“You hear all this talk about corruption and conflicts of interest, but if you think about it, you see that a majority of legislators never get caught up in that stuff. My view was always that if you have to take a tough vote, take the vote and do the right thing. If it’s worth voting for, then your problem is to figure out how to explain that tough vote to your constituency.
“Marijuana is a good example of that. That’s a tough vote. But I would make that vote [in favor of legalization] every time. My job then was to come to the community and talk about why I voted for it. I can tell you that I never regretted any vote I took.”
But that’s not say he had no regrets about what happened. “I can tell you that I regret not making sure that the mayor had the funds requested for a pathway project. I’m upset with myself for that.… sometimes I have brain farts.”
Ely feels that both Democrats and Republicans elected to the legislature “get involved for sound, public policy reasons. Having said that, I do think there is more polarization than when I went in. I’d be naive to say otherwise.
“It’s worse now. The other side, particularly, is caught in that Trump loop that they can’t get out of. That’s just the way it is.”
The Comment asked El why he thinks that has come about.
Ely: “Because if they don’t do it, they don’t get re-elected. It’s just that simple. There are these rural districts that are conservative.”
Comment: And it’s got nothing to do with Trump?
Ely: Oh no, it’s got everything to do with Trump.”
Comment: But is Trump driving this, or is he riding this?
Ely: I don’t know. It’s an interesting question. But it is uncommon for a basically moderate liberal Democrat, which is where I would put myself, to be working with Republicans. But if you look at what happened, I had major legislation with a guy from Roswell. We had developed a relationship early on, so we worked together to get guardianship reform and commission and, believe it or not, criminal justice because we saw eye-to-eye on so much of that.
“So you can still do bipartisan things but there is this rural-urban divide.”
Ely said the divisiveness makes it hard to move bipartisan legislation in Santa Fe. “The Republicans in the rural parts of the state have to go back to their constituents, many of whom have Trump bumper stickers and Trump flags, who tell them ‘Don’t get along with Democrats. Fight, fight, fight!’
“So it’s hard for them. because if they don’t toe that line, they’re not coming back. That’s a real deal. My attitude would be, then don’t come back. That’s easy to say, but people are influenced by that.”
He is aware that Corrales’ recent municipal election was far more partisan than at any time in the village’s history as a municipality, and that it seems to be a spill-over from the polarization of national politics. “I would guess that it’s not just Corrales where this is happening. There’s a lot of money coming into these local races, particularly on the Republican side, that Democrats are not focused on and should be.”
Ely said he would like to see all facets of the electorate taking a more active role in local politics. “I would like a vibrant two-party system. A hundred percent I would like to see that. The problem is that a lot of folks on the other side are going down the road of not believing that anything the government is doing is good. That, for me, makes them not be a viable party in the abstract. But with individual legislators on the other side, I have been able to appeal to their sense of ‘Then what are you doing here? If you’re not here to do something constructive and do something positive, why are you here in government?’
“Even for Republicans on the other side of the aisle, that has some logic to it.”
But some reply they just don’t believe in government and “throw up roadblocks every chance they get and say ‘I’m here to stop everything you’re doing.’
“But in my mind, that’s not a constructive view of how government should function. There has to be a balance. I do want a vibrant Republican Party. I want somebody on the other side who can philosophically debate why lower taxes are good. Why you should start with people who have a lot of income getting tax breaks rather than people with lower income. Although I disagree with that, that’s a healthy debate to have.
“Legalizing marijuana? That’s a healthy debate to have. Energy policy. Tax policy. Criminal justice policy. All of those are issues we could be having real debates about, but on very few of those issues do we even start from the position that government has a role to play on those.”
Ely said he is concerned about what he sees as an increasing tolerance for authoritarian politics that combines with anti-government sentiments. “We need people to be skeptical about government, but it’s not healthy for people to hate government. I put that right on Trump.”
He thinks it’s time for New Mexico to move to a paid legislature because “you want to draw people in with the widest net possible” which can’t happen if the only citizens who can afford to serve in the Round House are those who can afford to leave work for one to two months every year.