Every New Mexico legislative session since 1998, Paula Garcia counted on two things – that Sen. Carlos Cisneros would let her stash her coat in his office and that he had her back when it came to the acequias.
“He was an acequia champion,” said Garcia, executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association, becoming emotional as she talked about her friend.
Cisneros – a Questa-born former miner who rose through the ranks of the New Mexico Senate in his 34 years there to become the ranking Democrat – died suddenly Tuesday (Sept. 17) of a heart attack. He was 71.
His was the office of la plebe, a place where the common people felt comfortable hanging out and ribbing each other, she said.
“Carlos was a very down-to-earth person,” Garcia said. “He had deep roots in his community. I always felt a special solidarity with him not just as a person from Northern New Mexico but as someone from a land-based community and his working-class roots.”
His loss took many who had just seen him at recent interim committees and listening sessions by surprise and leaves a hole for north-cental New Mexico in a Roundhouse leader who will represent them in the Senate. He had recently announced his intention to run for reelection in 2020 and was facing an opponent for the first time in years.
Former Questa mayor Esther Garcia, who worked with the senator on funding for a variety of municipal projects including the Questa Public Library, said Cisneros was “wonderful for Questa. It is going to be a big loss for us.”
Cisneros had helped Taos County obtain millions of dollars in capital outlay funding for critical infrastructure projects over the years during his long tenure. He recently helped the county win appropriations to build a veterans cemetery in Taos County.
The sprawling District 6 he represented encompassed all of Taos County and portions of Mora, Río Arriba and Los Alamos. County commissions from those counties will each recommend to the governor one person to fill out Cisneros’ term. Lujan Grisham will appoint his replacement.
State officials expressed their condolences and honored the senator.
“I had the privilege of working with Senator Cisneros in representing Taos County for 25 years,” said Representative Robert "Bobby" Gonzales, D-Taos. “We worked extremely well together on capital outlay as well as co-sponsoring key legislation such as the gross receipts tax that has greatly benefited the district. He will be missed across the state.”
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham ordered flags to be flown at half-staff until sundown on Friday (Sept. 20).
“I am completely shocked and deeply saddened to learn of the unexpected death of Carlos Cisneros," said Lujan Grisham in a statement. "The senator faithfully served Northern New Mexico and our state for more than three decades.
“The Senate was made a better place by his wealth of institutional knowledge," Lujan Grisham continued. "He played an instrumental role in delivering infrastructure projects all across the state for many decades. The senator strove for impartiality and fairness, and he was as good a listener as he was a talker."
Speaker of the House Brian Egolf said the state had lost a "great statesman."
In a time of deep political divisions, Cisneros was known for reaching across the aisle to get legislation passed.
The Republican Caucus issued a statement saying, it was "in mourning over the sudden passing of Senator Carlos Cisneros today. We grieve the loss for his family and friends, his Senate district in Northern New Mexico and we grieve for the entire state. Senator Cisneros was a dedicated public servant."
Cisneros was born in Questa and was orphaned at a young age, according to former Questa mayor Esther Garcia. He was raised by his grandparents.
He attended the University of Montana and New Mexico Highlands University. He worked as an insurance agent with Union Oil Company of California. Cisneros was union leader and a miner at the Molycorp molybdenum mine in Questa. He became a lawmaker during Questa's prime years as an economically vibrant mining town. And he remained a lawmaker through its hard fall as Molycorp folded and residents left seeking jobs elsewhere.
Cisneros was vice chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee and chair of the Revenue Stabilization Committee. Like Sen. John Arthur Smith, the committee’s chair, and the late Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, Cisneros tended to be financially conservative. It put him at odds sometimes with more progressive Democrats, including Garcia, who disagreed with his stands sometimes, such as his early reluctance to put more funds toward early childhood education.
Still, Cisneros also was among 16 lawmakers on the Legislative Council who sued former Gov. Susana Martinez in 2017 over her moves to veto some legislation and defund the legislature.
Luis Reyes, chief executive officer of Kit Carson Electric Cooperative, said Cisneros backed the co-op's move toward more solar and breaking away from Tri-State Generation and Transmission. “He championed a lot of co-op issues,” said Reyes of Cisneros, who served eight years as a trustee for the cooperative.
By far, one of Cisneros’ biggest legacies though will be the legislation he helped usher through the Roundhouse that fundamentally changed the power of acequias and the parciantes who manage the irrigation ditches, Paula Garcia said.
Between 2003 and 2018, he sponsored and won approval of several bills for acequias that were significant, Garcia said.
One gave acequia associations a say over water transfers off of irrigation ditches. “That really gave acequias a lot more leverage and a lot more clout in the state,” Garcia said. “It really changed all of the institutional dynamics and power dynamics around water in the state.”
Another bill extended the time acequias had to protest a water transfer and required those proposed transfers to be posted online.
More recently, Cisneros helped create a $2.5 million recurring fund to help acequias and the NMAA in the operation and maintenance of the hundreds of miles of irrigation ditches across the state. “It didn’t just benefit his district. It has helped over 500 acequias,” she said.
His death, she said, “is an immeasurable loss for Northern New Mexico. I feel like he was looking out for the little guy.”
Memorial services are pending.
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