He did not brag or boast, but in the low-key style that is his trademark New Mexico State House Speaker Ben Lujan flatly declared Wednesday he has the votes to fend off a challenge from State Representative and Majority Leader Kenny Martinez to retain the state's second most powerful political office. From his quarters at the storied Roundhouse on a clear blue New Mexican afternoon, Lujan told me via phone that not only does he have the necessary 22 votes in the Democratic caucus, but "substantially more." It was his first public assessment of his race with Martinez since it began in earnest and came with less than two weeks left before the December 18 Dem caucus where the question is to be decided.
"I believe in my members. I trust my members. I take them at their word. I have spoken to 95 percent of the caucus and I believe I have the necessary 22 votes....and substantially more," declared the 70 year old power broker who assumed the speakership at the 2001 legislative session.
There are 42 House Dems and 28 Republicans. Does Lujan indeed have a majority of the D's? Martinez sympathizers were quick with the counterspin: "What’s he going to say? That he doesn't have the votes?” slammed one.
Still there seemed to be a consensus forming, albeit slowly, that the Speaker is dodging the bullet.
INSIDE THE BATTLE
Lujan and Martinez will both have to "trust the members" because the contest will be decided by secret ballot. Is the race close? That depends on who you consult. One wall-leaner says he went over the Dem list with an informed legislator and came up with as many as 19 votes for Kenny. But another informed State Rep. told me he counts only 10 firm votes for Martinez.
If Martinez of Grants sees it as a one or two vote race he would likely take it down to the wire and challenge Lujan at the December 18 caucus. If not, he could withdraw ahead of time to avoid an ugly clash that could injure him politically. The race is already tearing apart the caucus with many reps wishing the whole thing would just go away, rather than forcing them to cast a gut-wrenching vote that could hamper their political futures.
If you have the votes, I asked the Speaker, what is the prospect of a meeting with Rep. Martinez prior to the caucus and settling the matter. "That is something we might want to consider," he replied, emphasizing the "we" and being careful not to indicate such a meeting would be demanded on his part. In fact, Lujan showed no animosity at all towards Martinez. ”Like any member of the caucus he has the right to run for the leadership," he told me in a matter-of-fact tone.THE RISE TO POWER
The spirited behind the scenes battle between Lujan and Martinez has been fascinating to behold. There is Lujan, 70, a Santa Fe native who started his career as a working man and rose to hold power at the upper reaches of government without benefit of a college degree; a man who scraped and fought to advance not only himself but his son who is now a member of the powerful Public Regulation Commission (PRC).
And then there's Martinez, 49, of Grants, NM who is from a bloodline associated with the state's Spanish aristocracy; himself the son of a House Speaker; a graduate of Notre Dame and an accomplished trial lawyer; a man seemingly destined for leadership since boyhood.
The generational and cultural contrasts could not be greater; the stakes not higher.THE SURPRISE PARTY
The jaws dropped and the whispers grew loud as none other than Speaker Lujan showed up Tuesday night at the fundraiser hosted by Rep. Martinez for his "Leadership Fund" at Sandia Casino and Resort. "Yes, I was there. I received an invitation. I assumed it was sincere and I was glad to see so many Democrats turn out," Lujan deadpanned.
It was apparently the first face-to-face meeting between the two since Martinez went public with his ambitions for Lujan's job. "We did not talk about it (the campaign) but we did talk about things we usually talk about," reported Lujan.
Yeah, but was Ben taking notes on what lawmakers were there?COLD WATER ON COALITIONLeader Martinez
Lujan, who has firmly ruled out forming a coalition with House Republicans to retain power, nevertheless wanted to re-emphasize the point when we spoke Wednesday.
"I would never do it, and I don't believe he (Martinez) would either. It is true that I have spoken with Republicans, but I am Speaker of all the House. They are members too and they will have a vote. It has nothing to do with a coalition." He said.
While it is technically true the whole House elects the speaker, the majority Democrats will decide the issue absent any coalition. Martinez's camp told your blog that like Lujan, he would not pursue a coalition with the R's which was last done in the early 1980's. Reasonable speculation would be that Lujan is talking to R legislators , not to form a coalition, but to have them use any influence they have with their Democratic friends. GOP Rep. Dan Foley is a close friend of Martinez and Capitol insiders say he is working the angles for Kenny.
The Speaker shied away when I queried him over Martinez's majority leader position. Will you oppose him (Martinez) for majority leader if you are re-elected Speaker? I asked. "No," he declared without elaboration. Clearly, Lujan is more concerned about his race than the machinations which will follow for the number two spot.BIG BILL AND BIG BEN
What about the talk that Lujan is to obsequious when it comes to Big Bill; that he takes orders from the Guv at the expense of his members?
"The Governor dominates the media and the public may get the impression that he controls the agenda, but the House has amended his plans quite often. Look at the income tax cuts; he wanted them to take effect over four years. We said no and made it five. We also made significant change in the GRIP (transportation) plans." explained the veteran lawmaker.
He also brought up comments made on this blog by Martinez supporters that Kenny would support most, if not all, of the Governor's agenda. “We are Democrats and we agree on many of these issues," said Lujan as he worked to defuse the argument that he is in the pocket of the Guv.
Still, I gave the Speaker the opportunity to be more bold in separating himself from the chief executive, citing the criticism he has received on the issue from State Rep. Lucky Varela, among others. He did not take the opportunity to do so.
He chuckled over criticism that he has been "iron-fisted," responding that "his door is always open to the members."
As far as staying too long at the helm, another argument the Kenny camp has made, Lujan, first elected to the House in 74', compared himself to longtime U.S. Sentor Domenici. "We both started out at about the same time and people say the same thing about him.”
The Speaker did not give any indication when or if he would step down, and one would not expect him to do so publicly as it would make him an instant lame-duck.PERSPECTIVE AND ANALYSIS
If the Speaker has the votes he says he does, we could see Martinez throw in the towel prior to the 18th and work to retain his majority leader position. On the other hand, if he feels he is within a vote or two, he could take it all the way to a formal vote. If he lost under that scenario it might be stickier, but he could probably still keep the majority leader title. What Martinez has going for him is the widely accepted notion among the Dems that he is their heir apparent and that there are no other rivals on the horizon, thus a defeat might not permanently damage him.
More fundamentally, the election results and the NM economic boom could be thwarting Martinez. The Democrats have re-elected a popular Governor in an historic landslide; both the House and Senate are comfortably controlled by the Dems; the Republicans are not a factor and record amounts of money are flowing into state government coffers courtesy of the oil and gas boom. What's not to like? Concern over Lujan's ethics? That hasn't shown much legs. Newly elected and re-elected Dem lawmakers will again be able to bring home barrels of pork to their districts. Why risk that by rocking the boat? In short, at this point in time there is a lot for Kenny Martinez in his prospective speakership, but maybe not so much for his colleagues.MY BOTTOM LINES
Blog reader Pat Alarid of Santa Fe dug out what the thought was an appropriate quote from Winston Churchill in reaction to our Wednesday blog reporting on Big Bill's peacemaking meeting with the state senate Democrats this past Saturday:
"Appeasing the crocodile only assures that you will be eaten last."
"Our Governor, well schooled in the art of deception, will still be leading most of the senators around by the ring in their noses; they just won't know it," ribbed Alarid.
(c)NM POLITICS WITH JOE MONAHAN 2006
Not for reproduction without permission of the author