Longtime New Mexico First Executive leaving for Foundation
After more than a dozen years leading nonpartisan public-policy nonprofit New Mexico First, Heather Balas announced she is leaving her post.
Balas will begin work this month with the Santa Fe-based Thornburg Foundation to lead reform efforts in good government. As part of selecting Balas’ successor, board chair Valerie Romero-Leggott said the organization’s volunteer board members are already coordinating a national executive search. The executive search committee is chaired by former state Lieutenant Governor Diane Denish.
“One of the many legacies that Heather leaves with the organization is a strong team that will continue the arc of progress that New Mexico First was founded to pursue,” Romero-Leggott said. “The board and I are confident there will be a smooth transition in leadership, in large part due to Heather’s fidelity to the organization from her first day to her last.”
Balas joined New Mexico First as its deputy in 2005, upon returning to the state after a dozen years working in the nation’s capital and California on public policy and voter education. By 2006, the Portales native was named New Mexico First’s president and executive director.
“It’s been one of my greatest honors to serve alongside dedicated New Mexicans who put the state’s well-being ahead of their own personal or partisan interests,” Balas said. “When we come together, and when we are reminded that we are not as different as we sometimes believe, New Mexico is the better for it every time.”
New Mexico First is known for its statewide town halls, where hundreds of New Mexicans from around the state gather to discuss challenges and opportunities facing the state, as well as develop policy proposals to address them. During Balas’ tenure, the organization influenced dozens of laws and appropriations in education, the economy, natural resources, good government and healthcare.
Balas said examples of those reforms of which she’s most proud include expansion of scholarships for nontraditional college students, statewide reductions in student testing time, expanded watershed restoration and state water planning, passage of the constitutional amendment to create a state ethics commission, loan repayment incentives to keep medical school students in New Mexico, as well as multiple conventional and renewable-energy reforms. All policies were advanced on behalf of the people of New Mexico, prioritized through nonpartisan public deliberations, she said.
“Engaging New Mexicans in the public policy process – giving their ideas and their voices access to the halls of the Roundhouse and beyond – is really our core competency,” Balas said. “Every day, New Mexico First sees proof that Democrats, Republicans and independents can and do work together for the common good.”
New Mexico First’s senior policy director, Pamela Blackwell, will fill in as the interim executive director over the coming months while the executive search and selection processes are conducted. Romero-Leggott said the staff and board are grateful to Blackwell for her valuable experience and leadership during this time.
During the interim, New Mexico First will host its biennial First Forum Lecture Series, the theme of which this year is “Sustainable Journalism: Preserving the Fourth Estate.” The June 6 fundraiser will feature a panel of veteran New Mexico journalists discussing the need to sustain and grow New Mexico’s reliable news sources. New Mexico First will also present its Spirit Awards, which honor public officials, civic leaders and journalists who make positive impacts in New Mexico and put good policy or fair coverage above partisan politics.
Romero-Leggott said that the event will also recognize Balas’ tenure of service to the state.
“New Mexicans who have seen firsthand the impact that the organization has had under Heather’s leadership are encouraged to attend this year’s First Forum,” Romero-Leggott said, “which will be both important in its own right and an opportunity — a golden opportunity — to thank Heather for her tireless efforts, which we know will continue in her new role, as well.”