Egolf’s chief of staff Szczepanski stepping into Legislature’s limelight after winning his House seat

Rep.-elect Reena Szczepanski, D-Santa Fe, was selected as the next Democratic majority whip in the Legislature. She is chief of staff to outgoing House Speaker Brian Egolf. Matt Dahlseid/The New Mexican

Reena Szczepanski has stood in the shadow of one of New Mexico’s most powerful politicians for the past eight years.

As chief of staff to outgoing House Speaker Brian Egolf — a Santa Fe attorney whose influence has turned him into a prominent public figure — Szczepanski has been a relatively unknown but highly effective force behind the scenes at the Roundhouse.

No more.

Come January, Szczepanski is stepping into the spotlight.

After Egolf announced in February he would not seek reelection, Szczepanski made a bid for the House District 47 seat her boss held with a firm grip since 2009. She coasted to victory without opposition in either the June primary or the midterm election earlier this month.

Her only would-be challenger in the Democratic primary didn’t even make the ballot when the validity of his signatures was successfully challenged in court.

When Szczepanski, 46, joins the 70-member chamber, she won’t be just another face in the crowd. She is immediately taking on a leadership role after being selected majority whip by the House Democratic caucus — a meteoric rise for a freshman legislator who hasn’t yet taken office.

Szczepanski, however, is no newbie.

The experience she brings to the Roundhouse is unparalleled, Egolf said.

“I believe it is completely unprecedented for a person to be elected whip in either chamber in their first term,” he said. “I think that’s a recognition of the fact that Reena is ready to do that important job, to play that role in the House, because of all the work that she’s done in the House for the last eight years, even before that.”

Asked whether his influence factored in the caucus’ selection, Egolf said he “very consciously” stayed out of the process.

“It’s all Reena,” he said. “I didn’t want anyone to think that I was overstepping or that I was somehow pushing anybody in any direction. … I didn’t advocate for her or anyone else in this leadership race because I thought it was important that everybody who’s entering the new leadership team do it on their own.”

Szczepanski, the first Asian American to hold a leadership position in the Legislature, said she didn’t rely on anyone to secure the leadership post.

“I saw the opportunity to serve and continue what I love to do, which is support the members, help them succeed, help them shine, and I did all the hard work of calling every member and talking with them,” she said.

Szczepanski also supported almost half of them financially during this year’s election cycle.

Campaign finance reports show she contributed nearly $29,000 altogether to 18 Democratic House candidates running for election or reelection using her campaign funds. Szczepanski also contributed $2,500 to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s successful reelection campaign, records show.

‘Making people’s lives better’

The daughter of parents who immigrated from India, Szczepanski grew up in Decatur, Ga., just outside Atlanta.

“That’s definitely a very important foundational piece of my childhood,” she said. “My parents moved here to make a better life for my sister and I, and it was really up to us to seek out that better life.”

Her mother worked as a nurse and her father as a mechanic.

Though no longer a practicing Catholic herself, Szczepanski said her family is Catholic and she attended Catholic school.

“Probably one thing that really changed my life was going off to college, leaving home for the first time,” she said, adding she grew up in a close-knit community of Indian immigrants and was among the few who left to go to college.

Szczepanski said she met her now-husband, Michael, a pilot, at Brown University, where she developed a passion for community health.

“I did AmeriCorps for a year, so that also was a very foundational experience for me,” she said. “I did a lot of home visiting and worked in a health clinic that served mostly immigrants and just really was passionate about making people’s lives better.”

Asked where that passion came from, she said she was raised with a “deep sense” of feeling responsibility not just for her own family but the community at large.

“I also grew up doing community service, so I think that was a wonderful thing that the [Catholic] school I attended required,” Szczepanski said. “And I loved it. … I think that really instilled in me this idea that part of your time should be spent helping other people be healthier, happier and have more success. As long as I can remember, that’s always been something I have really cared about.”

Szczpanski said she moved to Taos 22 years ago and worked at a family practice clinic before getting a job with the state Department of Health, first as the hepatitis health educator and then as the state’s hepatitis program manager. “I became one of the youngest program managers at the Department of Health,” said Szczepanski, who was 25 or 26 at the time.

After getting married, she and her husband moved to Santa Fe about two years after moving to Taos.

“I’ve been in Santa Fe ever since,” she said.

After working for the state for about three years, she became the state director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “My charge was legislative policy,” she said, adding it was unfamiliar territory.

“I always tell everyone, especially like our new legislators, ‘You can ask me any question you want. No question is a dumb question to me because if you’re asking it, I probably asked it,’ ” she said. “I knew nothing.”

But she was a quick study.

Under her leadership, the Drug Policy Alliance successfully championed the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act, the state’s medical cannabis law, as well as the Good Samaritan Law, which provides legal protection to people who call 911 seeking help for overdoses.

“We were the first state in the nation to pass that bill, and that is basically putting people’s lives first,” she said.

After spending six years at the Drug Policy Alliance, Szczepanski in 2010 became the executive director of Emerge New Mexico, which works to increase the number of Democratic women in public office.

“I had had my first kid in 2009,” said Szczepanski, a mother of two boys, now ages 13 and 11. “The legislative session, policy work, all of that, is a very intense schedule. I just realized that I wanted to just slow down a little bit and do something that had a more predictable schedule and just worked better with having children.”

‘Co-speaker of the House’

In 2014, Szczepanski said she received a call from Egolf, who had recently been elected minority leader after Democrats lost majority control of the House.

Egolf said he asked a few people he trusted for recommendations for a chief of staff. They all named Szczepanski.

“I think she walked into the meeting expecting to kind of let me down easy and give me the names of some other people,” he said. “I sort of laid out the vision for how I was looking for a partner to set up the office and to tell the people in the state how Democrats would do things differently if we were in the majority, and we talked about very conscious efforts to make the House of Representatives look like the people it represents.”

Though reluctant to work another legislative session, Szczepanski took the job with some encouragement from her husband, who told her she would be a perfect fit.

Egolf, who was elected House speaker two years later when Democrats won back control of the chamber, said Szczepanski is “wonderful at helping people find common ground” and “see things from a different perspective.”

“Sometimes things could get a little testy, and she would always find a way to turn down the temperature,” he said.

Szczepanski has been more than a chief of staff, said Egolf, who hosted Szczepanski and her family at his home for Thanksgiving. “It has been truly a complete partnership from the very beginning,” he said. “I’ve described Reena as the ‘co-speaker of the House’ because all of the decisions that were made, especially in the last six years that I’ve been speaker, have been made with Reena’s advice and participation.”

When Egolf announced his retirement, Szczepanski said her first thought was to recruit a candidate to run for the seat. She said she pushed off the idea of running when others suggested she make a bid.

“There’s a lot of research about women and why they don’t run for office at the same rate as men, and one is they don’t see themselves as qualified. They worry about work, family obligations. They put those other considerations first,” she said. “I’ve asked so many women to run for office, and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m doing what I have counseled all the other women not to do.’ ”

After talking to her family about the possibility of running for public office, Szczepanski said she decided to jump in.

“They were very, very supportive, although one of my kids said in a very canny way, ‘So you’re going to do the same thing but not get paid?’ ” she recalled, laughing.

‘Compassionate to the core’

Karen Heldmeyer, a former Santa Fe city councilor, said she and several other women had encouraged Szczepanski to run for office for years.

“I knew her through Emerge mainly, and I saw the kind of strategic advice she was giving other women, and she just really had a good grasp of what it took to run and win a campaign,” she said.

Heldmeyer said she and the others who had urged Szczepanski to seek elective office were “thrilled” when the House District 47 seat opened up, allowing Szczepanski to make a bid.

Bernadette Vadurro, chairwoman of the Santa Fe County Democratic Party, called Szczepanski the “perfect epitome” of a modern-day Democratic woman.

“Reena is compassionate to the core, savvy and willing to do whatever it takes to make things right and get things done,” she wrote in an email.

State Rep. Andrea Romero, D-Santa Fe, also called Szczepanski compassionate and also said she is brilliant, generous and a “giant” in policy.

“I’m so excited and proud of her to be in this position that she is because she’s supported so many women, so many people in our community for so long to do this kind of work, and now she gets to be in the seat,” Romero said. “She’s earned every second, every minute, every hour of this moment.”

Asked whether her association with Egolf is a blessing or a bit of a curse, Szczepanski laughed.

“It’s definitely a blessing, although I tell everyone I’ve got some big boots to fill,” she said.

“But I think he also had that real focus and vision of seeing his role as one to help the entire state and be a champion for Santa Fe, and so that’s a great role model for me to follow,” Szczepanski added. “I’ve watched him do it every closely over the years, and I think those are powerful lessons for me.”