Cover Stories

Reena Steps Up

New Mexico House speaker’s longtime chief of staff is poised to take his seat representing Santa Fe

New Mexico House Speaker Brian Egolf had a bombshell to drop.

The clock was running out on the 2022 legislative session when he leaned into the microphone and said: “This is the last time I will speak to you from this rostrum at the conclusion of a regular legislative session.”

Few knew in advance the Santa Fe Democrat had planned to give up the gavel, but among those who did was the woman seated next to him as he made his surprise announcement—his only chief of staff during a five-year speakership and one of the most influential, yet rarely publicly credited, people associated with him. Egolf thanked his wife and kids for their support, then continued.

“I have to thank someone I have often referred to as my co-speaker, Reena Szczepanski,” Egolf said as he led the chamber in a standing ovation for Szczepanski.

Szczepanski’s face was hidden behind a mask, but most who have had even the shortest interaction with her could probably feel her trademark humble smile anyway.

The next day Szczepanski (pronouned “suh-PAN-skee”) announced she was running for the seat her boss of nearly a decade had held since 2009: District 47, which is entirely within Santa Fe County. Now, after running unopposed in the primary election following her only opponent’s disqualification from the ballot, Szczepanski is not facing a challenger in the November general election.

Szczepanski, 46, will be the most experienced freshman lawmaker Santa Fe has seen in recent memory. The daughter of Indian immigrants, she has years’ worth of hands-on experience about how to successfully and strategically push for ambitious and often controversial legislation. Her time as a policy advocate and lobbyist, combined with nearly a decade sitting at what she calls her “perch” next to Egolf, means Szczepanski has seen more behind-the-scenes action than some of her soon-to-be colleagues who have served for years. But this is her first run for office, and Szczepanski’s encyclopedic knowledge of policy belies an outward hesitancy to be the center of attention. Those who have worked with Szczepanski tell SFR she’s more than primed for the job as a state representative because of her extensive experience and her level-headed demeanor.

“I am someone who wants everyone else to shine,” Szczepanski tells SFR during a recent interview in the House gallery. “It makes me happy; that is very fulfilling for me.”

As a first-term representative, she’s unlikely to be assigned committee leadership roles, and, while she is taking over Egolf’s district, wielding the gavel would not come for years, if at all.

Szczepanski plans to introduce a modest, albeit realistic, slate of bills during her first session. She seems most excited about a proposal that would hopefully loop artists and other creative types in with industries that are more traditionally viewed as important contributors to the state’s economy. But she also has plans to work with fellow Democrats on touchy issues such as gun control and abortion.

Szczepanski’s past gigs include six years as state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, where she was instrumental in legalizing medical cannabis—more than a decade before full adult-use legalization. Her next stop was Emerge New Mexico—a group that promotes and trains Democratic women to run for office—where she took a job as director in 2010.

Szczepanski hadn’t considered running for office, even after Egolf quietly told her about his plans not to seek reelection. But, she says, she started thinking about the advice she’s given to countless women over the years.

“I have asked hundreds of women to run,” Szczepanski tells SFR. “I have encouraged, I have cheerleaded, I’ve told them they could do it, I’ve had those late night conversations where I’m like, ‘I believe in you.’ And then I thought, ‘Am I not taking my own advice?’”

Szczepanski’s personality and professionalism aren’t likely to draw much enmity, based on interviews SFR conducted for this story, though her progressive issue profile and her association with Egolf are near certain to rankle Republicans and even conservative Democrats. Republican House leaders have repeatedly accused Egolf of bending the rules and putting his thumb on the scales in favor of his own party and caucus. But for this story, House Republican leaders refused to offer up anyone from their office for an interview about Szczepanski.


The 2014 elections marked the first time since the 1950s that Republicans took control of the House. At that time Egolf was gearing up for his fourth term and his first as minority leader. He says he spent the weeks after the election that year strategizing on how to navigate the new role. In his search for a chief of staff who could help “reinvent” the minority office, he kept hearing from close friends about a young Szczepanski.

Egolf says when he finally called Szczepanski to set up a meeting, she at first thought he was looking for a campaign donation. When she agreed to meet, it was because of her affinity for politeness.

“She came to the meeting, the way she tells the story, ready to let me down easy,” Egolf says, adding that he took a back seat during the conversation and let Szczepanski grill him.

She accepted the job. And since 2017, when Democrats took back control of the House after a single term with a Republican majority, Szczepanski could usually be seen sitting stage left of Egolf when the House was in session.

The seasoned politician and prominent Santa Fe attorney tells SFR that his praise of Szczepanski back in February was genuine. In fact, Egolf says, it was always his intention to position Szczepanski as his equal when he brought her on as chief of staff.

“I made it clear that I was going to see her as my complete, shoulder-to-shoulder partner, equal in everything that we did,” Egolf says.

Egolf says Szczepanski found her stride almost immediately and began putting together an “action plan” for how to both take back the House and to “communicate our message from the position of the minority.”

“She suggested a goal, from the very beginning, that we put in every effort to make the House of Representatives be a majority-woman chamber,” Egolf says.

Szczepanski’s plan seemed to work because women outnumber the men in the Democratic House caucus by 10. The House as a whole is also majority women.

During her time in the House minority office, Szczepanski established herself as a person in the know—not just about how the Legislature operates, but also the often-dry policy details spelled out in the stacks of papers shuffling around the Capitol.

Marsha Garcia, a communications consultant who advises nonprofit groups across New Mexico that work on reproductive justice issues, worked with Szczepanski in the House minority office. Garcia tells SFR she was always impressed, not only with Szczepanski’s ability to stay cool under pressure, but also that Szczepanski never seemed stumped, no matter the issue.

“It just always kind of felt like Reena was a person that held all of the information,” Garcia says. “[She] knew who was on first and what was on second.”

Garcia marveled at Szczepanski’s ability to balance interpersonal relationships with institutional and policy knowledge. She recalls a situation in 2016—the second year of the Republican controlled term—when the GOP and then-Gov. Susana Martinez relentlessly pushed to restrict driver’s licenses to those who could show “proof of authorized legal presence in the United States.”

With a House gallery full of immigrants and advocates watching the floor debate, Democrats could only play defense and try to run the debate clock with the hope they might flip a handful of Republicans on the issue.

They didn’t, though the law has since been relaxed to allow the option of a driver’s license that does not require proof of legal residency, (said license does not meet federal Real ID requirements).

Garcia, through tears, tells SFR that while advocates pushing against the bill were downtrodden after hours of sharply-worded debates, Szczepanski took a moment to gather Democratic House members to commiserate with the advocates. Garcia, also a daughter of immigrants, says it was one of the many times Szczepanski showed she is a “master at her craft.”

“It was just really one of those moments of seeing her selflessness come out, because while we were all crushed, the first thing she thought of was our people, was our community,” Garcia says.

The outward appearance of perennial rancor in the Legislature often creates perceptions of screaming matches between political leaders behind closed doors. Whether those interactions are based in reality, news releases filled with political rhetoric from Republicans and Democrats paint a picture of a cutthroat atmosphere. However, former Republican House leader Nate Gentry tells SFR that Szczepanski “was always the consummate professional.”

The Albuquerque attorney who served as a leader in both the House majority and minority before he decided to not seek reelection in 2018, describes Szczepanski as “funny” and “always pleasant to work with.”

“I never saw her lose her cool,” Gentry says. “I wish I could say the same of both Brian [Egolf] and me. She was always super level-headed and just a nice person.”

Thrust into a role

To say House District 47 is safe for Democrats would be an understatement. Since taking office in 2009, Egolf has virtually never been seriously challenged. And now, Szczepanski will essentially walk into office. The district includes the state Capitol and mountain foothills, but it also juts out to include chunks of Santa Fe County toward Glorieta and almost to Lamy.

By New Mexico standards, and particularly those of Santa Feans, Szczepanski could be viewed as an outsider, despite her and her husband calling Northern New Mexico home for more than 20 years. During an interview at the Roundhouse, she politely and gracefully moves past the critique. She says she first encountered professional mentors who encouraged her when she moved to New Mexico.

“All I can say is the people of this state have been so good to me, really,” Szczepanski says. “So, all the ways that I can think of to give back, I will. Because, growing up, I didn’t have a lot of mentors. I didn’t have a lot of mentors in college, certainly not in grade school or high school.”

Born and raised in Decatur, Georgia, to Malayali parents, Szczepanski moved to New Mexico with her now husband Michael just after they both graduated from Brown University where she got a bachelor’s degree in human biology and community health.

Szczepanski says she and Michael, who shares her last name, were “college sweethearts” at Brown. The two moved to New Mexico after Michael found a job here and Szczepanski started work at a medical clinic in Taos, the town where the two would marry in 2001. It was that medical office where Szczepanski says she first got that professional encouragement.

From there, she found work at a state-run hepatitis program, which spurred her in the direction of harm prevention advocacy. She says that interest made her a perfect fit for the Drug Policy Alliance. Much of Szczepanski’s advocacy for legalized medical cannabis is memorialized for posterity in former state Sen. Dede Feldman’s book Inside the New Mexico Senate: Boots, Suits, and Citizens. Feldman noted how instrumental the Drug Policy Alliance, with Szczepanski at the helm, was in bringing personal stories from deathly ill patients who used cannabis as one of their final options for comfort. Feldman’s book showcases the struggles Szczepanski and lawmakers faced in trying to change Reagan-era views on cannabis, but, Feldman wrote, the real winners were the medical cannabis patients.

“The gratification of the dark-haired woman, who had shepherded her flock of patients and spearheaded four sperate bills through the process over the years, was nothing compared to the rush of relief that the advocates felt upon the bill’s tortured passage the previous month,” she wrote.

Szczepanski says during that time she was thrust into a role of pushing for policy changes while balancing the lives and dignity of people who often struggled to not only leave the house, but endure the often drawn-out legislative process with the dark cloud of their own mortalities always in the room.

“I just felt like I had to get everything right,” Szczepanski tells SFR. “And I had to be at my best all the time, because the patients I was working with, I didn’t know if they would be around one more session.”

Working on medical cannabis and syringe exchange programs taught her the importance of stoicism in the face of political adversity, she says.

In 2005, with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 still a a fresh memory for many, Szczepanski caught a rhetoric-filled floor debate about whether to allow in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants who also graduated high school in New Mexico. She says some lawmakers’ comparisons of the gallery full of young immigrants to Osama bin Laden shook her.

“I just remember walking out of the building and calling my mentor who had recruited me into this job and just crying, ‘I can’t do this job. These people hate me and you know what? I don’t think I like them either,’” Szczepanski recalls.

The bill passed, granting the students lower tuition.

When asked about the driver’s license bill anecdote from Garcia, Szczepanski says the issue hit close to home because of her parents’ experience immigrating from Kerala, India to the US in the mid 1970s. At the time the US was experiencing a nursing shortage, which Szczepanski says was the “very specific twist of fate” that helped her parents start a new life. Her father, who served in the Indian Air Force, would go on to be a “big truck” mechanic and her mother, who was pregnant with Szczepanski on the flight to the US, would go on to work as a nurse.

“There’s a lot of situations where I’m like, ‘But for the grace of God, there go I,’” she tells SFR. “Especially with immigration, because the reality is, if immigration policy had just been a little bit different, if we hadn’t had a nursing shortage in the ‘70s, my parents would not have been able to immigrate here, or maybe they would have immigrated under different circumstances.”

Now, Szczepanski is slated to become the first Indian-American woman to be elected to the state House.

Out from behind the rostrum

Szczepanski walks SFR around the Roundhouse and points out some of her favorite spots to take a breath and get some clarity. In plain sight, at the end of one of the hallways of committee rooms, is a giant window that not only adds much needed natural light, but also offers a view of Paseo de Peralta, a road that loops downtown Santa Fe. Szczepanski says she’s “always been fond of” the nook adorned with plants, away from anything besides a couple of offices, partly because of the quietness. The area is also near the office she vacated after Democrats took back the House.

Just weeks ago, Szczepanski officially left her paid job as chief of staff in anticipation of her new unpaid gig as an elected official. She, along with all state lawmakers, will receive a paltry per diem, but also like many of her soon-to-be colleagues will have to take a day job. For Szczepanski, it will be a with Civic Resolve, a newly formed national organization that aims to encourage civic engagement.

Szczepanski says he doesn’t plan to go overboard with introducing legislation next year, which could be a result of her realizing, after years of watching sessions from her perch, that freshman lawmakers tend to be overzealous in their attempts and usually come up short.

She says she plans to work on a “gun violence prevention” bill, and she lights up when discussing a proposal to bolster the state’s “creative economy.”

“I started thinking about this because obviously the arts and creative people are huge for Santa Fe, but it’s also one of the things that makes New Mexico so special and so unique,” Szczepanski says.

It’s still too early to start examining any legislation in earnest, namely because the general election is still weeks away. But, Szczepanski says the goal is to create a new “creative industries” division of the state’s Economic Development department.

Regardless of what bills she files, House Majority Leader Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, says Szczepanski’s new district can look forward to a representative who brings extensive knowledge and compassion to the proverbial table. He says she has worked on nearly every major issue Egolf has taken on: decriminalizing abortion, tapping state funds to pay for early childhood education, massive budget overhauls to include a transition to renewable energy, major tax reform and, of course, legalizing adut-use cannabis.

“She’s been behind some of the biggest policy wins the state has seen in the last 20 years,” Martínez tells SFR.

House members must elect their new speaker when the session begins in January—a position that seems ripe for Martínez. He tells SFR that if that’s what his colleagues want, he’s ready for it.

“If my caucus decides that I would be a good speaker on their behalf, I welcome the challenge and the opportunity,” Martínez says.

But Martínez says he wants everyone, including those who Szczepanski will represent, to remember who she is and what she’s done.

“I just hope her constituents realize that they’re voting for not just any old representative,” he says. “They’re voting for a heavy hitter. I know that when the book is written on our generation’s leadership, she’s gonna be smack in the middle of it.”

Egolf, ever the contrarian, points out a flaw in his longtime aide.

“This is the most controversial thing about Reena: She hates tater tots,” he says.

Others who spoke with SFR confirm that Szczepanski is a French fry connoisseur, but could not confirm that she dislikes the clearly superior version of fried potatoes.

When asked in person about the claim, Szczepanski dodges the question.

“Who told you that? Probably the speaker,” Szczepanski speculates. “It infuriates him.”

When SFR asks Szczepanski if she has her long-term sights on the speaker’s gavel, she leaves that to speculation as well, only saying she’s focused on turning out voters in her district and raising her two sons.

“Oh gosh, I don’t know,” Szczepanski says at the notion of leading the House proceedings. “As the working mom, I’m like, ‘One day at a time.’”

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