Bill Rehm of Albuquerque was appointed to the House just last week. Now, in the first days of the session, he’s scurrying to learn the basics.

By Kate Nash
Tribune Reporter

SANTA FE – The crash happened in the late 1980s, along a 25-mph stretch of Isleta Boulevard in Albuquerque’s South Valley.

High on heroin, the driver plowed straight through a turn in the road, killing a man changing a tire in a parking lot.

Bill Rehm wasn’t there the moment it happened but can recite details of the case because he studied and recreated it as a Bernalillo County sheriff’s deputy.

Of the hundreds of crashes he has studied, that one sticks out, in part because the driver told authorities he had shot up just 15 minutes earlier.

State law didn’t allow the Sheriff’s Department to charge the driver with drug possession, something Rehm, in his first week as a Republican state representative from Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights, is determined to change.

“That was a real injustice,” he said. “That family lost their father.”

The Bernalillo County Commission appointed Rehm to the post last week to fill the vacancy left by Greg Payne, who resigned earlier this month to become Albuquerque’s transit director.

The House has freshmen every other year, but Rehm is in a class by himself this year because of the timing of Payne’s resignation.

Rehm has spent the session’s first days getting acquainted with legislator-speak, trying to make sense of floor debates and committee schedules, and finding his way around the Roundhouse. And around.

His first and only measure so far would allow the state to charge drivers who have drugs in their system, but not physically on them or in their car, with possession.

“If we test you after any kind of accident and you come up positive, we’d charge you with possession,” he said.

On Wednesday, the first full day of the session, Rehm spent much of the morning listening to a presentation on the planned spaceport while drafting his bill.

To get from the basement level, where the spaceport was being debated, Rehm took the public elevator, not the private one expressly for lawmakers like him.

And after walking past her office the first time, Rehm enlisted the help of Jennie Lusk, one of several professionals on staff in the Roundhouse to help lawmakers draft bills.

Rehm worked with Lusk for about 20 minutes, fine-tuning the wording and mulling whether the bill should say “a drug that has been metabolized” or “a metabolized drug.”

Lusk told Rehm that after she was done he’d find a copy of the bill in his drawer.

“OK.”

Laugh, a big smile. “Where’s my drawer?”

Rehm has an idea for another bill but set it aside for this 30-day session, limited largely to budget matters. He hopes to be back for the 2007 session but faces election this fall, along with the other 69 House members.

“If I could get one bill through, that would be monumental,” he said.

On Rehm’s way back down to the House floor, Rep. Keith Gardner, a Republican from Roswell, shouted to him: “We’re having that press conference in the rotunda at 2 p.m. You should go.”

Sure, Rehm said, he’ll go.

“Now show me which way is the rotunda?” Rehm whispered to a reporter at his side.

Rehm, 55 and grandfatherly, partly bald and with a made-for-a-detective-TV-show mustache, is a longtime law enforcer retired from the Sheriff’s Department. He’s now a private investigator and teaches police how to recreate crashes. He’s married with two kids, and coaches soccer.

He put parts of his personal life on hold to become a lawmaker in a hurry. But this is what he signed up for.

Rep. Sandra Townsend, a Republican from Aztec who sits next to Rehm on the House floor, said learning intricacies of the Roundhouse can take a decade. Or three.

For 28 years before she was elected, Townsend attended meetings at the Capitol for her job as San Juan County clerk.

“I thought I knew it all. But there’s a lot to learn,” she said.

So Townsend, elected in 1995, said she’ll lend Rehm a hand when he needs it.

He might need assistance with tasks like figuring out what each of the four buttons on his desk on the House floor do.

(Green is to vote yes, red for no, black is to get in line to speak, white to call his page if he needs anything.)

Rehm said he’s catching on.

The hardest part so far?

“Getting totally up to speed in a week. I have been getting here early every day.”

Published Jan. 20, 2006.