Monday, June 14, 2004

GOP Shocker: Barnett Felled by Buffett, "Cockiness And Complacency" Cited For Stunning Upset; Plus: Death Calls For NM Media Legend Mickey Toppino 

It was a genuine shocker and it sent GOP National Committeeman and lawyer-lobbyist Mickey Barnett falling to the canvas. The knock-out punch was delivered by a man old enough to be his father, ex-State Rep. George Buffett, who was dismissed as over-the-hill by opponents and even friends before the Saturday showdown where Barnett and his zealous supporters were dealt a devastating blow.

Barnett lost to the 75 year-old Buffet 239-185, a decisive 56% victory over Barnett who for the past year has been at the center of one of the more memorable and bloody intra-party GOP battles in a generation.

My insiders were hot on the phones to me immediately following the stunning upset of Barnett, who ousted former Congressman Manuel Lujan from the committeeman post four years ago.

"This was a vote to overthrow Barnett and the (former state chair John) Dendahl faction of our party. It was a secret ballot and was a true measure of how most party loyalists feel about the infighting and Mickey's role in it. He was done in by his own cockiness and complacency. The clincher was his boasting on the front pages of the newspapers about the candidates he fielded against other Republicans in the (June 1) primary," analyzed one player deep in the action.

"No question this is a major blow to Barnett, his followers and maybe even to his lobbying business. Republicans had had enough. He was just too audacious. While there is really no formal faction where power will shift to, it is a victory for mainstream Republicans who have been disgusted with the fighting. This defeat increases the chances of some strong candidates emerging for party chair next year and taking control fully away from Barnett,”
said another informed R.

"He grew cocky when most of his candidates won primary night," another deep insider jabbed. "He thought he would be an easy winner. He wasn't even at the convention where he was kicked out. I think a lot of Republicans who have lived in fear of Mickey and his machine told him that they would be supporting him for re-election, but as soon as they had the chance to take revenge against him in secret, they went for it. Mickey, who is a great vote counter, got completely blind-sided on this one, and he will not again have the influence he had during this election cycle."


Barnett's political enemies, and there are many, immediately seized on his defeat, bringing out the long knives and drawing blood. "Thank God," exclaimed State Rep. Bob White when told of the news. He was defeated in the June 1 primary by Barnett's office manager and daughter of Democratic lobbyist Charlie Young, Justine Fox-Young. Her father shares lobbying clients with Barnett.

"He lost because of his dirty politics," continued White. “People are sick and tired of him trying to serve his lobbying clients by using the party as his personal playground. It stinks and the stench had to be cleaned up." White also told me he has no plans to dump the Republican Party as was reported Election Night, and he also corrected the record that he had once been an Independent. The lifelong Republican said Barnett's defeat will keep him in the party. "Now I want to work to get a new chairman who will finish them off," declared White who is freshly scarred from his brutal primary contest

Barnett claimed the backing of Senator Domenici in his re-election bid and was also supported by GOP national operatives who have worked with him over the years. "This is a wake-up call to the White House,” a top R told me. “Will they deal Buffet in or will they treat him like they did Ramsay Gorham (former GOP chair) and try to undermine him. I hope they are looking at the polls because they are on their way to losing here. This kick in the pants to Mickey is also a message to the know-it-all's who seem to be running the president's campaign here."

Another lifelong Repub fired a shot at Bernalillo County Republican Sheriff Darren White who gave the seconding speech to Barnett’s nomination Saturday. "Darren is now on the wrong horse. If he has future political ambitions, he better start looking on the other side of the fence. Barnett is a big advocate of legalized drugs in this state. Darren quit in protest of that position when he worked for Governor Johnson. Now his fingerprints are all over the Barnett camp. How is that going to play?"


Transitional GOP Chair Allen Weh, deeply aligned with Barnett and the Dendahlites, also was dealt a blow by the defeat. "Weh is not what you would call a seasoned player," said an R who has worked with him. This is a bucket of cold water in his face and puts pressure on him to go to a neutral corner."

As for the immediate impact, sources told me they still expect the GOP Dendahlite faction to play a dominant role in the President's re-elect campaign. "They are set up over at Mickey's office and are not going anywhere. But if Bush loses NM, it will set the stage for a completion of the coup,” offered one.

Another speculator said he felt Dendahlite Dan Foley, a State Rep from Roswell who has ambitions to become House Minority Whip, was also hurt by the coup against Barnett. "They are losing the fear factor quickly. The reason a lot of Republicans lined up with Barnett was because of fear and intimidation, but if you can’t win an election in your own party, the fear factor goes way down. Also, if Barnett insists on still fighting fellow Republicans he is going to find now that there will be much more opposition and it will go public," she predicted.

Barnett's fall from grace was all the more stunning as he celebrated big victories over fellow R's just two weeks ago. Some said the death of Ronald Reagan before the convention may have played a role in the battle. "Reagan always preached against criticizing fellow Republicans. Barnett and Dendahl have flaunted that and it was fresh in the delegates’ minds because of the national mourning."


As I have written here repeatedly, this is an ongoing war in the state GOP only to be fully resolved when the R's pick a new chair next year. And how that goes depends to a good degree on how the Prez fares here in November. Barnett and his followers remain a small minority, but when only a few R's participate in party activity, such as the recent primary, their power grows. But Dendahl was thrown out last year and that was a true gauge of the feeling of the rank and file. They showed it again Saturday, but Barnett, State Sen. "Lightning Rod” Adair and associates are nothing if not determined.

A vigorous anti-Barnett delegate to the convention said of his arch-enemy's defeat: "This is no time to lay back. We need to push the knife in deeper because Mickey isn't going to go quietly into the night.

With words like those, either is this battle for the heart and soul of the New Mexico Republican Party.


Mickey Toppino, legendary New Mexico advertising executive, PR man, lifelong Democrat and adviser to several generations of businessmen and politicos, died over the weekend at the age of 72 from congestive heart failure.

Toppino, a native of New Orleans, started off here in the early 50's with another legend, author Tony Hillerman. Both were wire service journalists. Mickey later started his own advertising and PR firm where he did it all. He worked for Los Alamos Labs, Taos Ski Valley, NM Tourism, UNM and other leading institutions of our state.

He gave much back to New Mexico, teaching journalism classes at UNM and serving on innumerable boards. His passion was seeing Albuquerque and NM develop economically. And he loved his politics. His most recent triumph was assisting ABQ Mayor Marty Chavez in his successful 2001 campaign.

Mickey Toppino was from the post-WWII generation of New Mexicans who helped lay the foundation for the economy of today. He was salt-of-the-earth, intelligent and a dogged advocate for any cause or work he chose. But most of all he was a gentleman and we will miss him.

Mickey is survived by his wife Stephanie, son Terrance and four stepsons. He will be laid to rest in his native Louisiana and a memorial service will be held in Albuquerque at a later date.

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