When US Sen. Pete Domenici, R-NM, announced the end of his 36-year Senate career and the state’s entire Congressional delegation threw in for the job, it became clear New Mexico was in for a shake-up. And that’s indeed what we received: a true-blue delegation, larger Democratic majorities at the Roundhouse and, now, rumors of mass political shuffling.
Here are the whispers, murmurs and gossip that have flooded in since the end of the election.
The Blue Ladder
From ground-level Democratic Party of New Mexico staffers to the state’s senior statesmen, it seems all eyes and résumés are aimed at Washington, DC.
Gov. Bill Richardson is, of course, one of the most-referenced short-listers to head up Obama’s State Department. The pundits aren’t thrilled at that prospect: An Inside Washington panel told host Gordon Peterson that Richardson wouldn’t survive the vetting process and Slate.com’s Timothy Noah concurred, suggesting the confirmation hearings would drudge up Richardson’s Department of Energy problems, including other-woman Monica Lewinsky and not-a-LANL-spy Wen Ho Lee. Blogger Heath Haussamen reports Richardson also could be tapped to lead the World Bank, or serve diplomatically in China or Latin America. The Washington Post lists Richardson as a potential successor to Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean.
Or, he could try to succeed US Sen. Jeff Bingaman if Obama offers the energy secretary post to New Mexico’s senior senator and chairman of the Senate Energy Committee.
Not gonna happen, according to Bingaman’s spokeswoman Jude McCartin.
“He does not want the job—it’s hard to be any plainer than that,” McCartin says, adding that Bingaman has not been offered the gig.
But back to Richardson: If he does step down, Lt. Gov. Diane Denish would step up and, thanks to Constitutional Amendment No. 5, (which passed on Nov. 4 by a two-to-one margin), she’ll get to appoint her successor. In that case, New Mexico may be looking at another switch-up, with DPNM Chairman Brian Colón and State Auditor Hector Balderas frequently named as potentials.
“I’m extremely flattered that I’d even been considered,” Balderas tells SFR. “I’ve heard the rumors as well and I’ve talked to several people about the possibility. Until there’s a solid situation, I’m just going to continue to focus on being state auditor. I’ll consider it strongly if it presents itself.”
As for Colón, “I would adopt the statement that I’m not ruling out public office, but I really am focused on making sure we put everything in place so that the Democrats can lead.”
Blockgate Still Open
One Democrat not in the running for a prestigious appointment is Jerome Block Jr., who managed a solid victory (56.3 to 43.7 percent) against Rick Lass, his Green Party opponent for the Public Regulation Commission District 3 seat, despite near-daily above-the-fold scandals that lasted until election day.
Already, SFR is hearing murmurs the New Mexico House of Representatives may draft Articles of Impeachment during the 2009 60-day legislative session to force Block out of office. The issue has been on the conscience of Rep. Larry Larrañaga, R-San Juan, who spearheaded the effort to impeach State Treasurer Michael Vigil in 2005.
“I’m really concerned about somebody doing something that might be, if not illegal, then far out from correct,” Larrañaga says. “By the time the session comes [in January], I will be looking at that and what more violations [may have occurred] with fund-raising, expenditures and whether they stayed within the law.”
That’s assuming Attorney General Gary King doesn’t get to Block first: The Voter Action Act states that knowingly filing false campaign finance reports is a fourth-degree felony; the secretary of state issued a final determination to that effect
Nov. 3, requiring Block to pay $11,000 in fines and return $10,700 in campaign money for paying San Miguel County Clerk Paul Maez $2,500 for a band performance that never actually happened and for using public money to help Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-NY, pay off her presidential campaign debt. Block can pay up or appeal to an arbitrator.
A second complaint for three other campaign-finance irregularities is pending. The SOS also has yet to respond to a complaint filed by Block against Lass regarding Green Party contributions. That complaint was quickly debunked by SFR.
Arming the Lege
The New Mexico Legislature also is primed for upheaval. Two prominent members of the Republican leadership—House Minority Whip Rep. Dan Foley, R-Chaves, and Senate Minority Whip Sen. Leonard Rawson, R-Dona Ana—were ousted by Democrats.
Sen. Tim Jennings, D-Chavez, is also “toast” (as one incoming legislator put it) in his position as Senate president pro-tem for recording robocalls in defense of Rawson.
Rep. Ben Luján, D-Santa Fe, is apparently safe in his role as house speaker; House Majority Leader Rep. Ken Martinez, D-Cibola, states he won’t challenge Luján.
“I was never considering going for speaker, and I don’t know how that rumor got started,” Martinez says. “I sent an e-mail to members asking them to give me the opportunity to serve them again as majority floor leader.”
But Martinez may have to fight a battle in the upcoming caucuses. Rep. Mimi Stewart, D-Bernalillo, is rumored to be throwing her name into the mix with calls to other House members. Stewart wouldn’t comment on internal caucus politics, but does tell SFR she will be pursuing health, education, energy and domestic partnership issues in the upcoming session.
As for Republicans, they will need to either intensify their opposition or learn how to play nice. House Minority Leader Rep. Thomas Taylor, R-San Juan, is urging a return to the party’s core conservative values.
“We’re probably going to look to be a little more conservative in this process, especially with the economic issues that are facing us,” Taylor says. “If you’re not in the majority, then you’re the watchdog.”
Other Republicans in northern New Mexico seem more open to compromise. One lawmaker to watch is Rep.-elect Dennis Roch, R-Union, a young politician and one of the few of his party to defeat a Democrat this year.
“There will be times that I’ll say, ‘I can’t compromise on that, it’s a principle issue,’ but there will be other times I’m perfectly happy to work with Democrats and Republicans both to get things accomplished for the good of the state,” Roch says.
Some Democrats may wonder what happened to the post-mortem investigation into the Feb. 5 Democratic Party-run presidential caucus, which didn’t present a result until weeks after the election. According to Colón, the investigation fell by the wayside as the party decided to focus its energy on an Obama victory. The issue isn’t likely to be reexamined.
“The question is whether we will have another caucus,” Colón says. “I, for one, think the idea of an early [state-run] primary is the feeling…New Mexico really needs to make sure we’re relevant and at the table in terms of who the nominee is going to be.”
For Colón’s full debriefing, check out SFR’s pop politics blog, SwingStateofMind.com