"This Changes Everything," Former Sen. Feldman tells UNM Masters in Public. Policy Grads


I had the great honor of giving the first graduation address ever to the now-well prepared graduates from UNM Masters Program in Public Policy. Many of these fine folks are already serving as analysts for the NM Legislative Finance Service, the NM Tax and Rev. Dept., NM Voices for Children and other non-profits,  This was their first live event in over a year!   Here's what I told 'em.


This Changes Everything

May 13, 2021

Thank you Melissa Binder for the opportunity to share a few thoughts with you on this special day, which comes as we emerge from one of the most difficult and tumultuous years in our country’s history. It is a year that, very likely, will change everything we know about government, about work, public health, elections, and even daily life.

I am particularly honored, and humbled to be with you today, because I know that many of you are already applying what are learning from this program out in the community.  You are addressing big problems facing non-profits, you are analyzing data from state agencies, and evaluating the effectiveness of various approaches to child poverty or homelessness. 

Congratulations to each of you—not only graduates but families, faculty, friends and the constellation of people in the community who support you.  Today is a day when I hope you will see just how many people there are out here in the community who are pulling for you, who are proud of you and who believe in you.

I am one of those.

When I obtained a Master’s Degree in political science from the University of Pennsylvania in 1969 – out of the same ratty building in the Wharton School where Donald Trump and I earned bachelors degrees the year before— no, I didn’t know him-- I didn’t even know there was such a field as public policy or public administration.  I just knew that I was interested in politics, so I majored in Political Science.   The events of the 1960s convinced me politics was fast moving, dramatic, chancy, dependent on human quirks and ---above all importantin determining almost everything about our lives from war and peace to death and taxes. I became obsessed—a news junkie, a groupie for my heroes in the civil rights movement like John Lewis and Martin Luther King.

But I had no earthy idea of how I would earn a living with my degree.  I veered off into journalism, teaching, public relations and then—almost  30 years later—I found myself running for office, walking door-to-door, losing, winning, then serving 16 years in the New Mexico Senate. I was just following my interest, with no end in sight, no burning ambition. And things happened, just like they will happen to you.  Except, I think you have a  far firmer foundation.  You are developing an understanding of budgets and statistics, how to evaluate the performance of a policy or a program at the state, local or national level.

That’s what elected officials need, especially here in New Mexico, where we have an unpaid, largely unstaffed citizen legislature, and a personal style of politics that is still based in  regional, ethnic or personal loyalties.  And now, with national issues invading state campaigns and  the partisan divide ensuring gridlock,  the solutions offered to problems are sure to become more divisive, more oppositional more “all or nothing”--- Like either defund the police or crackdown hard on crime and protestors; like either continue to subsidize the oil and gas industry or replace it entirely with alternative fuels; or maybe either place early childhood education in private hands or get the teachers unions involved. 

As long as solutions are limited to campaign promises, the  decision makers who want to make real progress will turn to staff and to non-partisan sources to find the evidence, to frame the questions and chart the directions.  Politicians are too busy fighting their own wars.

And that’s where youcome in.

Your group comes into professional life on the heels of the greatest health crisis in a century. …A pandemic that has killed 582,000 in the US…  A new civil rights movement that was spurred by the murder of George Floyd … It’s a movement that has brought hundreds of thousands to the streets and spurred a racial reckoning …And 2020 was the hottest year on record, with intense hurricanes, apocalyptic fires and droughts which have made climate change all but undeniable.

But that’s not all. Most important, for those who depend on a functioning democracy. There was the attempt to overturn the 2020 Presidential election with misinformation about fraud and rigged voting machines. The campaign brought with it over 40 lawsuits, the bullying of state officials… and finally, an armed insurrection at the Capitol Jan. 6  to prevent the counting of electoral votes. This last-ditch attack was fueled by lies. They were spurned by the courts and local Republican officials, and the lie was repeated and used  by a sitting president to incite insurrection, on live TV, for everyone to see.  It left behind a scaffold to be used to hang Vice President Pence and blood on the floor of the US Capitol. Five people lost their lives. Senators and Congresspeople hid under their desks.

There has not been another watershed year like this since the civil war. And we are not out of the woods yet. The very foundations of our republic have been shaken.  Yet, we have survived. A constitutional crisis was averted. A vaccine against COVID 19 has been deployed.  Derek Chauvin has been convicted. The fires and hurricanes have abated—for now.

But the events of 2020 and 2021 have rocked us. They have created great dangers and great opportunities. They have changed everything, and they are your inheritance.

The rules of the game by which governments have operated for decades are hanging by a thread. There is no longer common agreement on a set of facts assembled over decades, even centuries  by scientists, historians, doctors or the media.  Public trust in all institutions—from the athletic department to the Catholic Church—is at an all-time low.  Elected officials pledge allegiance to their leaders, or their parties not to common sense, or the evidence. 

The media checks facts and calls out misinformation, but it doesn’t matter to many. The public has become numb, cynical about the government, the politicians, even the courts. Decision makers often retreat into their own corners, rely on their own sources, shut out conclusions and data they don’t like.

Caught in the middle are the hundreds of thousands of pubic servants charged with keeping the lights on, the roads in repair, the schools open, the taxes collected, the votes counted, the prisons operating, the fire department responding.

And, there you are as a policy analyst for the Legislative Finance Committee, or an assistant to a department head in the state or city government, a public information officer for the district court, maybe an election administrator, or a lobbyist for the Governor or a non-profit. 

What do you do to foster sound policy?  What do you do to bridge these cultural and political divides? What do you do to be ethical in a political arena fraught with conflict, and tough calls.? What do you do to ensure the survival of our system? Ok I know that last one was not in the job description and not in the scope of services.

But I am asking you to include it, and I am asking you to do that by standing up for facts, standing up for the evidence, and for social science,  It used to be easy, it used to be simply a matter of professional ethics… but now it’s not. Thousands of elected officials have swallowed the big lie that the 2020 election was stolen despite the recounts, the certifications, the court decisions.  Their staffs, their contributors, those who report to them are along for the ride.

Yet there are a few who have stood up—who have refused to back down from the facts—and have chosen to take the heat in order to preserve a nation based on laws, not expediency, not loyalty, not corruption. 

They are my new heroes.

In late November, Christopher Krebs, the Director of Cybersecurity in the Department of Homeland Security  called the 2020 presidential election one of the best we ever had.  Based on his investigation ,He saw no evidence of election fraud. His findings infuriated his boss, Donald Trump, who fired him immediately.

Republican Secretary of state Brad Raffensperger counted and recounted votes in the close Georgia presidential election, standing by their accuracy. He was vilified, his home was attacked but he stood his ground. Later, he was bullied by the President.  All he was asking, President Trump said, was that he find 11, 780 votes.  It was simple. Raffensperger declined.

Ukrainian Ambassador Marie Yovanovich was a career diplomat, served both Republicans and Democrats but she refused to bend to a President’s desire to get the Ukrainians to provide political dirt on his opponent. “Bad things” were going to happen to her, as a result of her failure to cede her authority to Rudy Giuliani, said President Trump. Hew was right. He fired her for sticking to the evidence and for refusing to say what he wanted her to.

And at the eleventh hour, Vice President Mike Pence stood up and told an insistent President that—even as President of the Senate-- he did not have the power, by law, to block the counting of certified electoral votes, and the election of Joe Biden. The consequences came very quickly.  His very name immediately drew the wrath of the President’s followers who stormed the capitol looking for Pence, to kill him.

I do not agree with these folks philosophically. Some of them have gone on to do things I don’t approve of. But that is not the point. They had the knowledge, the facts, they had investigated and could detect deliberate misinformation. And they had the courage to stand up for the evidence.

That’s what you need to do.  The knowledge you have, that you have accumulated, is power, but it is only power if you are willing to stand up for it.  It is power only if you are willing to testify, to not back down to bullies, or threats or personal attacks.  Because if we continue on the path broken in 2020, they will come.

And every attack on science, every attack on the data that supports the efficacy of fluoride and now vaccines is an attack on you.

When a Michigan legislator introduces a bill—as happened Tuesday—to punish fact checkers like those used by TV stations and newspapers—it is an attack on you.

When a TV station reports a conspiracy theory as if it was real news, it is an attack on you.

When no one questions the cost of tax breaks for the film industry of housing people with mental illness in state institutions, it is an attack on you.

When certain politicians say there is massive voter fraud that  justifies erecting new barriers to voting, it is an attack on you.

So, graduates, in this year where everything has changed, I hope you will continue to do some of the old things: to ask questions, to analyze, to probe, to look for solutions grounded in evidence.  Do that and you’ll  not only be a professional policy maker, but you will be a protector of democracy—here at the local level, where everything begins and is reflected.

Congratulations again on your achievement and thank you so much for letting me share this special day with you.