FARMINGTON – A group of nearly a dozen protesters gathered Wednesday outside the office of state Rep. T. Ryan Lane in Aztec to protest keeping Rachel Gudgel as director of the Legislative Education Study Committee.
Protesters want Gudgel out of office because of her alleged “derogatory” remarks and behavior toward Native American communities, “people of color, women, those with children and those with ‘different backgrounds,’” according to an official statement from the Native American Democratic Caucus of New Mexico.
Bekah Davis, with the 4 Corners Coalition for Justice, who helped organize the protest, said she learned of Gudgel’s remarks from the Democratic Caucus of New Mexico and the All Pueblo Council of Governors.
The exact statements Gudgel is accused of making have not yet been made public. But Davis said an investigation was done by private investigator Thomas Hnasko, and when completed in 2019, confirmed that complaints were made about Gudgel’s remarks and that initial complaints dated back to 2017.
Davis said only two of the 10 executive members of the LESC, who are in control of the director’s position, were given the results of the report.
The LESC is bipartisan, bicameral committee of the New Mexico Legislature that studies education in New Mexico, the laws governing such education, and the policies and costs of the New Mexico educational system, according to an overview page. It also recommends funding levels for public education and changes in laws related to education.
“Gudgel had a two-week suspension and had to have a life coach of sorts for a while, but the results still were never shared with the rest of the group, who is directly in charge of her position and should have been informed,” Davis said. “It took until just last week, and lots of pressure from the media and other concerned groups, for the rest of the legislators to hear the report from Hnasko himself.”
That is when the committee took to a vote to determine the fate of Gudgel’s position.
The vote came out a tie, 5-5, with Sens. Bill Soules and Miami Stewart voting to keep her in her position, which Davis said “frustrated me as a progressive.”
The protest attracted passersby and honks of support from vehicles that passed through the intersection. The protest happened in front of Lane’s legal office on Main Street. Originally, the protest was scheduled to take place in Shiprock, the site slated for LESC meetings, however, at the last minute Tuesday, Soules postponed the meetings citing a public health order on the Navajo Nation.
The last public health order listed on the Navajo Nation Department of Health website was updated July 7 and detailed school framework and color coding status.
“I looked at all the health orders and couldn’t find anything about that being a new health order so he should have already known about this at the time of scheduling the meetings if this was his real concern,” Davis said.
Songtree Pioche, who is the interim chairperson for the Aztec Indian Education Committee, vice chairperson of the Native American Democratic Caucus and holds other positions, said she was there with people from her organization to protest against the LESC’s vote to retain Gudgel as the executive director.
“She has been reprimanded for making racial slurs and also creating a toxic and harassing work environment and this is a pattern of behavior over three years,” Pioche said. “As an Indigenous woman and mother who represents special needs children, we need to make sure that our Legislature is held accountable.”
Pioche said the group was there to protest in front of Lane’s office because he is one of the voting members who has the decision to keep her in or vote her out of office.
“He voted to keep her in, and to me that says he stands for institutional racism and we need to stop it at all levels, local, state and federal,” Pioche said.
She added that she met with Lane and gave him a copy of the organization’s official statement, and even with that information, Pioche said Lane still voted to keep Gudgel in office.
In the statement from the Native American Democratic Caucus of New Mexico, it states “the suggestion by Senate President Pro Tempore Mimi Stewart and LESC Chair Senator William Soules that Gudgel’s comments are nothing more than a ‘personnel matter’ are a slap in the face to our Native communities and all people of color.”
The statement also outlines what the group wants beyond Gudgel’s resignation.
“In addition to Gudgel’s dismissal, we ask for:
- A transparent release of all personnel files in relation to this case
- An apology to our Native communities from Legislators who have refused to take this matter seriously
- Clear and direct action in tackling the key tenets of the Yazzie Martinez case
- Hire of a minority LESC director
- Restore all financial decisions and budgets concerning education to the LESC.”
Lane was not immediately available for comment, with his office answering machine citing the recent death of a family member.
Gudgel was also not available for comment and did not return request for comment.