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Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Speaker Speaks: Lujan Says He Has Votes To Retain Power; "Substanially More" Than Needed, Also: Jaws Drop As He Shows At Rep. Martinez's Party 

Speaker Lujan
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 COALITION
Leader 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

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Guv Hug: Emotions Pour Forth As Big Bill & Senate Dem Meet; Big Bill Admits Mistakes; Sen. Grubesic Apologizes; Foes Hug; Exclusive Details Here 

Sen. Grubesic
Emotions poured forth at a frank and candid Saturday morning meeting between Governor Richardson and New Mexico state senate Democrats. The highlight came when Santa Fe Senator John Grubesic, who during last year's legislative session took to the senate floor and termed Big Bill a "flabby king" and then penned a nasty column about the Guv, openly apologized to the Governor who in turn hugged the senator as the rest of the high-powered politicos looked on approvingly.

Those exclusive details come from my Senior Alligators who say the one hour session at a conference room at a Socorro hotel was a stark contrast to when he last met with the Senate Dems during last year's legislative session and where he berated them for not approving all of his legislative agenda. Saturday the Guv told the senators he had sent them too crowded an agenda for a thirty day session and pledged to do a better job this time.

Another riveting exchange at the high-powered confab came when Big Bill and State Senator Bernadette Sanchez exchanged views on a payday loan bill; an issue she parted ways with the Guv on last year and which led to rancor between the two. Both said they wanted to work to get such legislation approved this year.

The caucus also discussed the Governor's proposed statewide minimum wage which went down in flames in the waning hours of Legislature 05' as southern senators rebelled, fearing it would harm the agricultural industry. The Alligators say Senator Mary Kay Papen and the Guv talked of a compromise that could exempt the chile industry and other agriculture from the minimum wage. No deal yet, but it appears the Guv now has a better shot of not getting shut out on this high-profile piece of legislation.

YOU ARE THERE

Big Bill
The Governor and Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez also discussed the lay of the land, with both men acting conciliatory towards one another and pledging cooperation, according to my top sources.

Big Bill, dressed casually, sat with the lawmakers who were gathered in a circle. It was not a new Big Bill, but the one who has successfully negotiated with foreign leaders around the globe as United Nations ambassador and special envoy, but often mysteriously missing when dealing with politicos here.

Mindful of his upcoming Prez campaign and his past mistakes, the Governor Saturday laid the groundwork for a less contentious session. Senators who in the past felt they were not getting the respect they were due were buoyed by the meeting. With a long two month session starting in mid-January, tempers are sure to flare and bodies tire. But the lines of communication between the Fourth Floor and the upper legislative chamber may now be less clogged. That means compromise is more likely. And in our system that's the magic word.

COUPING THE CONSERVATIVES?

With the Guv going for peacemaker instead of landing haymakers with the solons, it raises the question of why he and/or his staff is apparently pushing to keep Deming State Sen. John Arthur Smith, Senate Finance Committee Vice-Chair, out of the chairmanship of the powerful committee to replace State Sen. Fidel.

The talk of another southerner taking the post, Roswell's Tim Jennings, isn't comforting to the Fourth Floor either. But the often fiscally conservative Jennings and Smith holding chair and vice-chair of the panel may be the check and balance taxpayers need as the billions of oil and gas royalties continue to pour into Santa Fe. If they aren't allowed to sometimes put on the brakes, who will? In other works, let Smith be Smith and Jennings be Jennings. And let either one of them head Senate Finance.

MY BOTTOM LINES

The rumors of more turnover in the Guv's cabinet continues unabated in the wake of the departure of Labor Secretary Conroy Chino. We blogged that the insiders expect at least one more. The ABQ Journal's Trip Jennings asked the Guv's' office about more turnover in the over 20 cabinet posts and they replied: "Not at this time." Those surely are not comforting words to those who already feel they are on bit of thin ice in their $100,000 plus a year jobs. For some, a second Big Bill term will not be delivering a second chance. Don't say we didn't tell you.

We welcome your emails of news and comments. Drop a line from the link at the top of the page.

(c)NM POLITICS WITH JOE MONAHAN 2006
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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Pete's Pajama Party: "He's More Substance Than Style," Plus: Lujanites Hit Challenger Martinez, And: Chino Out At Labor; More Cabinet Changes Awaited 

We bloggers are well-known for our wardrobe of choice-- pajamas. In fact, NM U.S. Senator Pete Domenici chastised us over the phone back in June 2005 for story we had blogged on the ABQ Mayor's race by exclaiming" "Joe, you have no pajamas!" So it was with some amusement that we read the following account Monday from the "Heard on the Hill" section of the Capitol Hill Newspaper "Roll Call" explaining how it was thought our senior senator was seen wandering the senate hallways dressed in his pajamas. Oh yeah, it's strange. Just the way you like it.

By Mary Ann Akers

We had a number of reports Friday that Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) was wandering the halls of Senate office buildings in his jammies.

Two staffers said they saw the Senator wearing “tartan” or “buffalo plaid” pajama bottoms and a “loose-fitting shirt.” By the end of the day, one informant called to say she heard Domenici was walking around in his boxers. But by that point, we already had spoken to the Senator, who assured us, “These aren’t pajamas! They’re hunting pants!”

“What are people talking about ‘walking the halls’? I work!’” the 74-year-old Domenici said, sounding a tad indignant that folks would assume his lightweight wool plaid pants were pajamas. “These pants have two pockets like any else.”

He explained he wears the hunting pants around the house and if he leaves to go to the office, “I don’t necessarily take them off.”

They’re comfy, and they’re fun, he said. “People stop me to talk about them. They’re Christmasy, they’re black and white.”

As for the loose-fitting shirt that our sources saw him wearing — that was a University of New Mexico golf shirt, you numb skulls!

A source close to Domenici who went up to check out the scene for himself confirmed that Domenici was not wearing PJs. “This is not a dedicated follower of fashion,” the source explained. “He’s more substance than style.”

Indeed, Domenici told HOH he was in his office reading up on the budget in anticipation of passing a continuing resolution next week when Senators return to wrap up this session of Congress.

“I love being a Senator. Thirty-four years is a pretty long time. I’m still going to run again, and win again,” Domenici, who’s up in 2008, vowed.

Well, bully for you Pete. You may not have been wearing pajamas, but you were close enough for us to make you an honorary member of the pajamahadeen. We hope you and wife Nancy will accept this gift sent on behalf of the NM blogging community. Once you receive it, don't let anyone ever say "Pete, you have no pajamas!"

(Here's more on Pete's pajama partying with the Wonkette.

GUNNIN' FOR KENNY

Back here in River City, the behind the scenes boys (and gals) are starting to dress down State Rep. Kenny Martinez as he continues his campaign to unseat House Speaker Ben Lujan. They are grumbling that Martinez, who boasts a liberal pedigree, is actually very tight with conservative State House Republican Minority Whip Dan Foley and former House GOP leader and now lobbyist Joe Thompson. The insiders say the trio has been tight socially and wonder what influence Foley and Thompson would have over the Grants, NM trial lawyer if he succeeds in ousting Ben at a December 18 caucus.

Martinez's camp has faulted Lujan for being "iron-fisted," for having an ethical cloud over his head over a low income housing scandal and for being a tool of Big Bill. In turn, Martinez is now being scored for his tight ties with former House Speaker Raymond Sanchez. The Lujanites say Ben has been tight with Bill, but it has served the state well and the voters overwhelingly said so November 7. Sanchez, who they already see having influence with his senate leader brother, Michael Sanchez, was kicked out of office by the voters in 2000. The Martinez foes are also highlighting the past legal problems of one of Matinez's legislative staffers as a counterweight to the ethics complaints leveled against the speaker. We'll keep you posted.

CABINET SHUFFLE STARTS

We still have not heard which female cabinet member of Big Bill's is hitting the exits, but our Alligators said here Monday she has been saying she is gone. Meanwhile, Secretary of Labor Conroy Chino confirmed Monday he is leaving the position to take a consulting job in California. No word yet on his replacement.

The Guv's office told me Monday that Big Bill chief of staff James Jiminez is saying no one has been "fired" from the cabinet. Departing cabinet members are rarely characterized as being fired, but often diplomatically "resign." We await definitive word any more departures.

MARY'S #2

Incoming Secretary of State Mary Herrera has hired her #2. He hails from Taos and the Taos News has the story.

THE PARTY IS ON

Let's finish where we started--back in D.C. The New Mexico State Society there is doing its best to keep the home fires burning along the banks of the Potomac, along with the tongues of the many transplanted New Mexicans there. They will host a "Red or Green Holiday Party" Thursday, December 7 at the Longworth office Building. Anita's New Mexican Style Food has been enlisted to cater the event. Being politicos, expect most of them to order their chile "Christmas" style, a combination of red and green, and forego answering the question which is the title of the party as well as the official New Mexico state question--Red or Green? By the way that's red or green chile, not pajamas.

Help us cover the lastest NM political news. Drop an email via the link at the top of the page. Interested in advertising here? Drop me a line and we'll get you started.

(c)NM POLITICS WITH JOE MONAHAN 2006
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Monday, December 04, 2006

Keeping The Heat On Heather; Dems Talk of Redistricting, Plus: Sen. Sanchez Retained As Leader, And: Marty Puts Brakes On Streetcar 

Rep. Wilson
If they can't get her at the polls, some Dems appear determined to get ABQ GOP U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson at the Roundhouse. Talk is circulating that the Legislative session could see an attempt to redraw the lines of Wilson's congressional district making it slightly more Democratic and finally doing what voters have refused to do for the past 40 years--giving the district a Democratic Representative on Capitol Hill.

It wouldn't be easy, but with with a Democratic governor and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that doesn't prevent such a mid-decade redistricting, expect at least one bill to be introduced. Whether it will be treated seriously is the question. When the subject came up in a pre-election conversation I had with Big Bill's chief political adviser, Dave Contarino, he smiled sheepishly, but offered no telltale comments.

A move on Wilson's seat would make the R's go ballistic, but they made no gains in the State House in the recent election and remain in the minority there, the senate and the Fourth Floor. There is little to stop the Dems from going for it except strong public opinion. But with Wilson scoring the weakest victory of her career this year, would the public care much?

One of the plans circulating seems aimed at getting the job done without stirring an outcry. It would place rural and heavy Republican Torrance county in the southern congressional district and would move all the precincts in Valencia county that are in the southern district into Heather's 1st CD. Along with some other minor changes, that would increase the Dem registration in the district by 1.2%.

Would that finally turn the tide for the D's? For sure, it would not hurt, but the district has such a history of independent voting that even increasing the Dem totals would be no guarantee, but it would certainly increase the odds.

The Governor will have to measure opinion carefully before he decides how much, if any, to support a mid-decade redistricting. But with a huge 69% re-election victory, placing a Dem in the ABQ district may be a legacy he decides is worth going after. Stay tuned.

SENATORS SELECT
Sen. Smith
Apparently there is still some jockeying going on over who will head the powerful Senate Finance Committee when the Legislature convenes in mid-January. Insiders report that Senate Democrats held a quiet out of the way caucus in Socorro Saturday where they re-elected Senator Michael Sanchez as majority leader and Ben Altimirano as Senate President Pro Tem, but committee assignments are still undecided.

Deming Dem Senator John Arthur Smith, a fiscal conservative who sometimes is a thorn in the side of the liberals and Big Bill and who is vice-chair of the committee, is in line for the post after the resignation of Senator Fidel, but there is talk of Senator Jennings of Roswell competing for the position. He's no fiscal friend of Bill's either and is also pretty conservative, so while it makes for interesting insider baseball, it would not appear to signal a new direction in the committee's overall direction. Let's see what develops.

THE MARTINS FOLD

You gotta know when to hold them and when to fold them, says the old gambling adage. ABQ Mayor Martin Chavez and City Councilor Martin Henrich saw the wisdom of that over the weekend and decided to put the brakes on that controversial $270 million streetcar project that threatened to give both of them losing political hands.

It was a poker game that the Mayor probably should never had sat down to, but like Big Bill, he has high popularity ratings and perhaps he figured he could tilt this one his way. Meantime, Heinrich showed too much enthusiasm for the unpopular concept, jeopardizing his reputation as a liberal, but not an ideologue. He pulls back just in time.

The Mayor says instead of pushing for a streetcar, he will form a study group on city transit. That study could take up to a year to complete.

MAYOR AS TUTOR

Chavez is on much firmer ground in his continued push to improve the quality of the Albuquerque Public Schools. To do that he will have to tangle with the teachers unions, parents, the current school board and the Legislature. Real estate agents are fond of telling you how the first thing newcomers ask about are alternatives to sending their kids to public schools. Chavez wants the mayor to have a say in the direction of APS. If he succeeds in even a small way, it will be a much more significant legacy than a streetcar or a downtown arena. And, we imagine, a more satisfying one.

BIG BILL'S AXE

Insiders say Big Bill began to swing his axe this weekend, felling at least one female cabinet secretary who was said to be "shocked" by the Guv's action. We did not have the fired secretary's name at blog press time. Will there be more to come in the transition to a second term?

News? Comments? Send them our way via the email link at the top of the page. Thanks for stopping by.

(c)NM POLITICS WITH JOE MONAHAN 2006
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Friday, December 01, 2006

Clippings From My Newsroom Floor As We Wrap Up The Week, Plus: Some Bottom Lines 

The battle over the state House speakership between Ben Lujan and Kenny Martinez squeezed a lot of the other political news out of the picture this week, including who will replace longtime Dem State Senator Joe Fidel of Grants who announced he was calling it quits. The only names I've heard circulating so far are Jackie Fisher, who has been involved in Cibola county and Grants area politics and Clemente Sanchez, the director of the New Mexico State University/Grants Small Business Development Center. The county commissions in the multi-county district will come up with a list of recommendations for Big Bill to select a Fidel replacement from.

TV NEWS

KRQE-TV has grabbed back the 10 p.m. news crown after it slipped away by a mere fraction of a point in the February ratings. November put the CBS affiliate back on top in the big Albuquerque market as it came in with a 10.5 rating for its late news followed by KOB-TV with a 7.7 and KOAT with a 7.3. A rating represents the percentage of households with television that are watching a particular station.

A PERSON FOR PETE

Is that a "People for Pete" employee sighting? So say one of the Alligators who says he knows of at least one worker who has been hired for Senator Domenici's 2008 re-election committee. The Senator's operatives have been putting out the word that he is running after much national speculation to the contrary. But he has left himself some wiggle room on the issue. On this one, the old cliché, "only time will tell," is quite apt.

MY BOTTOM LINES

Former KOB-TV reporter Neil Simon checks in from D.C. to remind us that his TV documentary "Inside Bill Richardson," will get a screening in Santa Fe this Sunday, December 3 at 2:30 p.m. at the Jean Cocteau Cinema, 418 Montezuma. Tickets are $9. I sat down and interviewed at length with Neil for this program which first aired on KOB-TV. It is a good introduction to the life and times of Big Bill and will probably be seeing more airtime when he gets his presidential campaign underway...

Michael Henningsen makes his debut in La Politica as communications honcho for Light Guv Diane Denish. The former 11 year editor of the popular ABQ alternative newspaper, the Alibi, Henningsen joins Di chief of staff Judy Espinosa as a new addition to the office. Denish has been beefing up her staff of late and she needs to. With Big Bill on the out-of-state Prez campaign trail soon, Denish is going to be called "Governor" more than ever. But there's still four years and a long, long campaign trail before Diane gets to have that title permanently...

(c)NM POLITICS WITH JOE MONAHAN 2006
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