By Jennie Lusk
As people gather to march in commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., some politicians will quote the famous advocate for peace and racial justice. Sen. Harold Pope, Jr., is likely to echo their sentiments, but not for a single day or a single weekend. “I celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” he said, “but we also have to hold politicians accountable. I have to ask myself, ‘What are you doing to make the dream a reality?’”
Sen. Pope has been accountable since Day One, hitting the ground running during his first legislative session. He weathered not only the regular 60-day legislative session but also the special sessions for cannabis and redistricting.
The one and only African American Senator in New Mexico history, he sponsored the successful Crown Act protecting against discrimination on the basis of hairstyles, the Black Education Act, and carried bills advocating justice for veterans and military families–all in his first session.
He serves as vice-chair of the senate education committee and a member of its conservation committee during session. In the interim, he co-chaired the Military and Veterans Affairs committee and was a member of the Legislative Education Study Committee, Revenue Stabilization and Tax Policy Committee, and the Science, Technology and Telecommunications Committees. In addition, he is an advisory member of the Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee and designee for the Legislative Finance Committee.
Being elected to serve and represent in New Mexico’s legislature was not a likely future for Sen. Pope growing up among five siblings raised largely by a single mother. His mother worked nights, so supervision and attention were lacking. “I didn’t see [successful] people who looked like me,” he said. His high school counselor helped others apply for college and scholarships, but told him she only hoped he’d make it out of high school. After he did earn his diploma, he accepted the mentorship of his uncles and, on their advice, joined the military, where he spent the next decades. Through his years in the Air Force, he became a chemist, acquisition officer, and project manager in California and Florida after attaining his biochemistry degree from UNM. Now retired and receiving his military pension, he said he still can’t believe he holds elected office. It wasn’t even part of his dream.
As a true Democrat, Sen. Pope keeps the well-being of his constituents foremost in his concerns. He ticks off priorities: “We have to fix education and support educators, improve the environment and stop climate change. We need to diversify the economy and get out of the boom-and-bust cycle where we rely on high oil and gas prices for our state economy. We need affordable health care and we need to get health care professionals into our rural areas.”
But Sen. Pope’s primary focus is to give voice to concerns of his constituents, being mindful of the magnitude of the public trust the African American community places in him. “As a person of color, if I mess up, the whole community suffers,” he said. That pitfall is balanced, though, by the promise of representing the needs of BIPOC people well.
The senator has had to stand between policymakers and people of color when community concerns were in danger of being overlooked, even when it would have been more convenient to remain silent in the face of controversy. He didn’t worry too much, however, when he disagreed with some of his colleagues, noting that, “We need to be honest with each other when it comes to fighting for our communities.”
Sen. Pope sees speaking on behalf of communities of color as a moral duty–as well as an opportunity to speak for their interests, problems, and concerns. “The African American community may be small here,” the Senator said, “but it is not insignificant. Our community contributes so much. African Americans are leaders. We’re family business owners, law enforcement officers, firemen. We’re part of the community.” Unlike too many people believe, he noted, African Americans are not just athletes, not just military people. “We’re a diverse community, but that fact is not highlighted,” he continued.
“My race is inspirational to people throughout the state,” the Senator continued. “I hear from people in Hobbs, in Las Cruces–all over–who say no one at the legislature before has listened to their needs. I’m there now. I can speak for people who have not had a voice in government. It’s my role to step up and say something. I’m in a position to help, and I will help.”
Senator Pope has found and is realizing a dream: service through elected office. In the brief months he’s been a senator, he’s already giving voice to a community of color that’s been unheard for far too long.