Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Kenny Martinez Move: He's Off And Running, But Can He Catch Speaker Ben? Exclusive Details & Analysis, Plus: R's Year End Meeting Grabs Attention 

Rep. Martinez & Speaker Lujan
He's running. But don't expect a formal announcement. And if he doesn't get close by the time the Democrats of the NM House of Representatives caucus December 18th, it may be like he never ran at all. But State Representative and House Majority Leader Kenny Martinez of Grants is making a move. There's no question about that as my Alligators report he is "working the phones and lining up commitments" to pull off a major-league Movida against NM House Speaker Ben Lujan. Could that change on a dime? You bet. But when someone is making noise for the second most powerful constitutional office and is a serious personality, that's our cue to get it on.

Lujan of Santa Fe, speaker since Raymond Sanchez vacated the post in 2000, is still the man. Already fear is spreading through the ranks of Martinez's would-be supporters that if Kenny does not pull off his coup they could be subjected to the wrath of Lujan and his allies. That's not a pleasant prospect with a Legislative session coming up in which there will be committee assignments to be handed out and again millions of dollars available for "pork" projects for lawmakers.

The possibility of failure is what will keep Martinez, first elected in 98', from taking too high a public profile. "He is a master strategist," one of Martinez's supporters told me Monday while confirming that the Grants attorney is working to nail down the support of 22 of the 42 House Dems.

"I suspect that this race could be close. However, if a winner is sensed it could break big with someone getting near 30 votes. Lujan's best hope may be the five freshmen representatives who are coming in and who he campaigned for." Added our in the know Alligator whose anonymity we will protect with all the power our blogging pajamas bestow upon us.

Some had speculated on the blog that the freshmen D's could go with Martinez, but this latest source is more tapped in on that matter.

As for the Speaker, he told the ABQ Tribune: "I'm pretty confident I have the necessary votes to continue."


Lujan's iron-fisted ways and the atmosphere of state corruption are drivers in the Martinez bid. And he got some ammo when news broke that Lujan's assistant, Lisa Ortiz, benefited from a state low income housing program, yet the Speaker has been silent on the controversy, not asking for Ortiz to resign or reprimanding her.

The timing of the release of that story has the Alligators asking if it was part of "master strategist" Martinez's plan. They are also reporting that some lawmakers are nervous about Lujan because they have been questioned by federal investigators in connection with the probe into alleged kickbacks and bribery over the construction of two courthouses in big Bernalillo county. Former State Senate leader Manny Aragon is at the center of the Feds attention.

"Last year's Treasurer scandal, the courthouse investigation and Ben's handling of certain capital outlay funds is at the center of this. It is not about policy or ideology--both are Democrats with similar views--it is about money, power and politics," informed one Alligator close to the action.

It's also about acting like an independent branch of government and not kowtowing to the Governor as Lujan's foes say he does. For that reason alone, some lawmakers want change.

As for power, that's something Martinez, 49, knows about, having been schooled in the fine art of La Politica by his legendary father, former NM House Speaker Walter Martinez (1971-77) and having executed his first power play in 04' by ousting State Rep. Danice Picraux from the majority leader post. (He is also a favorite of former House Speaker Raymond Sanchez, another master of the fabled New Mexico Movida.)

Governor Big Bill, never one to shy away from any kind of power play, has not been sighted on the playing field, but that doesn't mean he isn't. Insiders say it is obvious that Lujan has been a good speaker for him and there is no reason for him to want a change unless there is more bad news to come about Lujan that would cripple him.


Martinez has his baggage too. He is a trial lawyer and if chosen as Speaker the trial lawyers would be back in charge of the key leadership positions at the Roundhouse. Trial lawyer Michael Sanchez leads the Senate Dems. If Martinez pulls off the upset, Las Cruces State Rep. Joe Cervantes, also a trial lawyer, might well take Martinez's place as majority leader. Critics point to the rule of trial lawyers Manny Aragon in the senate and Raymond Sanchez as House speaker as reason not to bring back that crowd. They say Lujan, 70, is one of the last legislative leaders to come from a working class background, giving ordinary New Mexicans a strong voice.

Martinez's detractors also argue he was too clever by half when he proposed that all new NM autos be equipped with breath interlock devices, even if the drivers were never arrested for DWI. The Legislature later passed a bill to make interlock devices mandatory for only those convicted for drunk driving. Martinez's move was attacked as calculated obstructionism on behalf of the trial lawyers who it was argued wanted no bill, or over-reaching advocacy for big government. Either way, his critics fear more of the same if he seizes ultimate power.

But one thing Kenny Martinez is not shadowed by is allegations of ripping off the taxpayers or unethical behavior. His most ardent supporters say that's why he is needed; that the state is crying out for a new generation that does not see business as usual as the way of the future. Besides, they argue, Lujan has had the job long enough and is not giving any signals that he is ready to relinquish the baton.

Who will win? Lujan is the incumbent and the favorite, but Martinez smells weakness or he would not be making his move. He will be able to back off if it becomes clear he doesn't have the horses. But he will be emboldened by even an unsuccessful challenge and there could soon be another. It will be propelled as much by the historic desire of the State House to provide a check on executive power as it will by the other issues driving the Lujan-Martinez face-off. Don't say we didn't tell you.


It's an odd setting for a meeting of the NM GOP State Central Committee. Will odd things happen? State R's will meet at that citadel of liberalism--the University of New Mexico Student Union Building Friday, December 8 to conduct a year end review, according to an invitation to committee members. But the last time the committee met in June they ousted J. R. Damron as the R's Guv candidate and replaced him with John Dendahl. Maybe this will be a routine session, but the Alligators are on high alert for any hanky-panky.

The meeting comes against a backdrop of jockeying for the chairmanship of the party with Allen Weh expected to give up the post in April, although insiders say it is possible he could still go for another term. The meeting is not being called to select a new chairman, but stranger things, as noted above, have been known to happen.

The announced agenda is the year in review, or the post-election spin the party has been putting out that it really did not do badly at the polls, despite landslide re-elects by Big Bill and Senator Jeff, no GOP legislative gains and a near Dem sweep of the down-ballot races. The R leadership, deflecting critics like State Senator Carraro and ex-Governor Cargo, say the party's performance was par for the course. The Dems are loving that spin, saying if R's are happy with their 06' performance, they will be happy to keep it coming their way.

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