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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Lion In Winter: Ben Lujan Freezes Out Martinez To Retain Power; Talk Over Rewards & Retaliation; We Go Indepth, And: U.S. Attorney Iglesias Is Out 

Mr. Speaker
A lion roared in Santa Fe Monday and the cubs were sent scurrying. 70 year old Ben Lujan quashed a rebellion led by State Representative Kenny Martinez to retain a firm grip on the speakership of the House. In doing so he strengthened the hand of the Governor, put in the deep freeze Martinez's long held ambition to lead the 70 member chamber as his father before him and set the stage for dispensing the rewards and punishment that belongs solely to the victor.

According to my Senior Alligators and wall-leaners who were calling the race for Lujan for several weeks, the Speaker appeared to garner at least 24 of the 42 House Democrats and maybe a couple more. Martinez retained his majority leader position, but the taste of defeat had to be bitter for the man from Grants who overstepped and claimed he had the votes and the "momentum" to win. It was a defining moment for Martinez and one that will be vividly recalled by future practitioners of the fine art of La Politica.

A PRICE TO PAY?

Even in the afterglow of the big victory the speaker continued to hold his cards close to his chest telling me in a phone interview from his Roundhouse inner sanctum that he has not made up his mind on the all-important committee assignments for the 60 day session that starts in mid-January.

"I have not given them much thought yet," Lujan coyly demurred as I pressed him on what awaits those who supported or opposed him.

Those close to the Speaker's lair were less hesitant.

"The Speaker will likely leave Kenny alone. You don't need to cut off the head of the snake, you can cut off its tail and weaken the head," a political player close to the action graphically analyzed.

For those uninitiated in this particular bloodsport, what that means is that the chief supporters of Martinez might be expected to pay the price for the failed campaign.

But you can look at it a more charitably. The Speaker no doubt made some commitments to secure re-election. Those supporters will have to be rewarded resulting in the punishment of those who bet wrong.

Not that anyone expects Lujan to run amok. After all, the Martinez forces did get a respectable number of votes and House unity is the ultimate goal for a Speaker, but some punishment will have to be extracted, or else it could encourage yet another run at the throne.

INSIDE THE CAUCUS
Rep. Martinez
"The meeting was dignified, somewhat lighthearted," a legislator told me following the mid-afternoon caucus at a committee room at the Capitol.

"Both Ben and Kenny gave rather lengthy speeches, mostly personal stuff about themselves. Ben might have spoke 20 minutes; Kenny 15. Some of the older guys who like to meet and vote seemed a little restless.

"We voted on a preprinted paper ballot, checking off the name of the candidate we wanted. The votes were taken out of the room and counted. The winner was announced, but no vote total. Kenny went over to Ben and hugged and congratulated him and the Speaker told us how deeply grateful he was for the support," reported our insider.

I asked the Speaker if he and Martinez had spoken privately after the election. He confirmed that Martinez congratulated him at the caucus, but said no meeting of substance took place. "We pledged to work together and advance the cause of the Democratic Party. We did appear before the media together after the caucus," Lujan said.

Martinez did not immediately return a call, but his supporters had plenty of spin, saying the challenge to Lujan did not jeopardize his future hopes to become speaker; that Lujan will have to be more sensitive to House members and that the Governor will be put on notice that not all in the House are pleased with the way he has exercised his power through Lujan.

THE FAILED COUP


There is some truth to that, but Lujan, as he did in my December 6 interview, was in no hurry to criticize the Governor or even admit that Big Bill had his hands too deep in the business of the House. In fact, he wandered away from the question to talk about "moving the House forward." (Wasn't that Big Bill's campaign slogan?)

As for Kenny, it is true that he is still the heir apparent to the speakership, but analysts said his loss opens the possibility of someone else emerging to compete for the position when Lujan finally retires. The good news for Martinez is that "someone" is not readily apparent, at least not yet.

Martinez's spinners also noted that as soon as he was defeated for speaker, he turned back a challenge for his majority leader position from ABQ Rep. Mimi Stewart, a Lujan ally. They said that shows he retains widespread popularity in the caucus.

But others pointed out it appeared that most, if not all, of the six freshmen members of the House may have gone to Lujan and that if Martinez is indeed the agent of change and representative of the next generation he has some work to do.

"One of the lessons in this is that Martinez needed to do more to get these guys elected. Ben was on the campaign trail working it hard and when they were elected, they owed him. It was a big reason he was re-elected," offered one seasoned observer.

Prior to the caucus five of the six freshmen had lunch together at a hang out near the Roundhouse. The gathering earned several double-takes from the old-timers who had to be wondering if the young bucks were cooking up any schemes like they used to.

BIG BILL: ALWAYS A FACTOR


As for Big Bill, who maintained he kept his hands off the speaker contest, Lujan's re-election assures him that peace and quiet will continue on the House side even as he deals with a spunkier state senate. Lujan has been especially close to this Governor. Both have taken hits over the relationship, but their mutual loyalty--their unwillingness to turn on one another--has cemented a bond that has resulted in the passage of the most significant legislation in the post WWII era. With Big Bill set to hit the Dem prez trail in earnest, Lujan's presence at the helm is reassuring for him and a safeguard against potential political embarrassments.

Predicting when Lujan will leave the House--he has served for over 30 years--is an unpredictable sport. The latest from the crystal ball readers is that he wants to stay on long enough to see his son, Ben Ray Jr., re-elected to the powerful Public Regulation Commission in 2008. That would keep the speakership in Lujan's hands until the 09' session and Martinez's hopes on hold until then. Still, Martinez would only be 50 years old and with many productive years ahead of him.

MORE ON THE KENNY CAMPAIGN


Martinez's "send a message" campaign could have worked if it had been billed as that and not as an all-out effort to unseat the sitting speaker.

"He was serious as a heart attack," one Martinez backer told me. And therein lies the problem. His inability to count the votes, or detect who was or wasn't telling the truth, made him take the race all the way to the wire when he could have cut it off and said he had just been "testing the waters" and spared himself defeat in the harsh statewide spotlight.

"It seemed he was determined to make a statement and that's why this went to a vote. Kenny takes a hit, but he also made a point," said a Martinez sympathizer.

The "point" being that the Governor was too involved in House affairs and that Lujan's ethics were in question. On the Guv he may have a point, but on ethics? Lujan backers retorted effectively that Martinez is the lawmaker who tried to bottle up DWI law by trying to have every car in the state equipped with a DWI interlock device even if the driver had never been convicted of DWI. They also argued that Martinez has not been subjected to as much scrutiny as Lujan and that no one in the game is pure as the driven snow.

The Martinez camp clearly overshot on the ethics issue, coming with an association Lujan had with controversial lobbyist Smiley Gallegos, but not much more.

The Speaker Monday was emphatic: "My conscience is clear. I have done nothing wrong," He declared.

OTHER PLAYERS

Las Cruces area Rep. Joe Cervantes and ABQ Rep. Al Park were two of Martinez's closet allies in the failed takeover attempt. Cervantes planned to seek the majority leader spot, but bowed out Monday when Kenny needed to fall back to it after losing the speakership.

Cervantes has repeatedly made noise about running for a variety of state positions, but couldn't bring the Dona Ana county House delegation over to Martinez or his own candidacy and takes a hit over his ability to call the shots right in the political game. He was named chair of House Judiciary by Lujan, but bet with Kenny and will now pay the price. Friends of the rep say he is actually more interested in becoming a member of Congress than his tenure in the state House. The frustration he faces in Santa Fe could increase his Potomac fever.

Rep. Al Park, an attorney and judiciary member like Cervantes, also has some battle scars on his political hide today, but is young enough to ride out the remaining Lujan years or seek a statewide office. The defeat also offers Park the opportunity to try to make up with some of the old guard whose memories are long and whose list of young relatives is even longer.

U.S ATTORNEY IGLESIAS OUT

Late word came from KRQE-TV Monday night that Republican U.S. Attorney David Iglesias has been forced out. He will leave the position after being asked to by the U.S. Justice Department and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, reported the TV station.

Iglesias's highest profile case was the two trials of ex-Treasurer Robert Vigil on corruption charges. The feds have also been investigating the construction of two Bernalillo county courthouses. Indictments in that case are expected early in the new year.

A replacement for Iglesias will be named by the White House. Senior NM GOP Senator Domenici will have a say in who gets the job. More on this in the days ahead.

Thanks to photog Mark Bralley for today's feature photo of House Speaker Lujan, and thanks to you for tuning in.

(c)NM POLITICS WITH JOE MONAHAN 2006
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