Monday, October 27, 2008

Diane Denish: A Lady In Waiting, But Much Longer? Guv Chair Awaits? We Poll Her Numbers, Plus: Tinsley Cashes Out, And: Death Summons Tony Hillerman 

Diane Denish
With each uptick in the polling for Barack Obama the heartbeat of Diane Denish probably ticks a bit faster. She is now on the verge of becoming the 26th person to hold the New Mexican governorship in the modern era, a story that is playing out under the radar as other epic political events sweep the state and await a decision from voters. But the permanent governing class in Santa Fe is already busy, preparing for the likely ascension of the lieutenant governor and anticipating that Big Bill Richardson could join an Obama administration weeks after the election.

The buzz over Richardson's possible departure is growing even louder in the final stretch, with top political sources saying the Governor is likely to be named to any Obama transition team, which will be the first indication of what post Richardson may get and when he would depart. If and when he does resign, the state Constitution says Denish will immediately be sworn in as Governor.

The Denish story may not come as surprise to the politically connected, but according to polling we commissioned recently, many New Mexicans are in for a jolt if they wake up and find Lady Di as Governor. Not that she is unpopular, but to many she remains unknown. Her favorable rating in Bernalillo County, the state's largest, stands at 50.4 percent. However, 30.0% have no opinion of Denish. The poll by Positive Contacts Consulting was taken Oct. 22 among 726 likely voters. Those polled are the most politically involved New Mexicans. Among those who are not likely voters, the number who do not know Denish well enough to have an opinion would very likely spike upwards. The good news for Denish is that only 19.5% of likely voters here have an unfavorable opinion of her.

In Dona Ana, the second largest county, Denish, 59, remains a largely unknown quantity with 44.5% of the 211 likely voters surveyed having no opinion of her. Her favorable rating among those that do know her was at 42.1% and her unfavorable rating was a low 13.2%.


Being half-known will have its benefits if Denish becomes the state's #1. If need be, she will have a chance for a makeover as Republicans try to pigeonhole her as a far left tax and spend Democrat. But if Denish takes over, it will be amid the worst financial condition state government has been in since the last energy price crash in the mid-1980's. Even the liberal wing of the Democratic Party is going to be chastened. The fight is likely to be about preserving current programs, not expanding them.

One of the more important decisions Denish will have to undertake is who she will hire to help her run the government. Big Bill has scooped up a lot of the state's top talent to run his cabinet departments. Denish may find she will have to run a transitional government, slowly turning over positions to her loyalists, rather than a sweeping change.

For better or worse, Denish will also be associated with Big Bill's politics, having served under him since 2003. Right now that looks like worse. We've often called Richardson the luckiest of governors, presiding over huge surpluses, but now that he appears headed toward the exits, the party is over. Just in time for him to hand the broom to Diane to clean up the mess from the night before.

While we look on in awe at the transformative election about to be held--a probable Dem sweep of all the congressional seats and an Obama NM and national win--it is natural that the Denish story plays out on deep background. But it is there, a reminder that Election Day 2008 may not conclude this most profound of political years, but only mark its beginning.


Maybe Richardson would delay any departure from the state, conscious that ducking out in the middle of a money crunch calling for tough stewardship would look bad? Probably not. The spin would be that things are not as bad as they may appear and that the steps he has taken leave the state on solid footing. Also, Richardson is said to be anxious to leave. Another 60 day legislative session--this one the most confrontational yet--is not a prospect he relishes.

Balderas & Ortiz y Pino
The Alligators have pegged State Auditor Hector Balderas as Denish's likely pick as lieutenant governor if she were to succeed Bill. But first a constitutional amendment allowing her to pick a light guv must be approved by voters November 4th. It probably will be. But the story doesn't end there. Balderas, elected as state auditor in 2006 after a historic scandal in the state Treasurer's office, may be better off staying put, say some top politicos. With the financial carnage just beginning, why would Balderas give up a safe spot and risk getting involved in what could be a political nightmare? Well, because it might make him governor someday. But maybe not.

The Denish camp finds Balderas appealing because he is from the Spanish North, heart of the Democratic Party and where Denish is not at her strongest. But some politicos speculate that while a Hispanic light guv for Denish is a political necessity, they would not necessarily have to come from the North. For example, ABQ State Senator Jerry Ortiz y Pino, 65, is seen as someone who might get a look for the slot. He would be a gray beard with no ambition for the state's top job. He would help with Hispanics and also help Di keep the liberal wing of the party under control.

Blog readers at the Hillary Clinton rally at Sunland Park in the deep south Saturday noted that Denish rattled off more than just a sentence in Spanish, prompting locals to ask if she is fluent. She has said in the past she is not, but works on it. If she becomes governor, she will be hearing language few others are privy to.

Ed Tinsley
Why throw good money after bad? That seems to be the decision of GOP southern NM congressional candidate Ed Tinsley who has canceled his TV buy on the major ABQ and El Paso network affiliates for the last week of the campaign. The Gators are gaming it this way: As of mid-October Tinsley, owner of the K-BOB's steak restaurant chain, had about $570,000 in the bank. He bought $50k in TV time, leaving him about $520,000. Tinsley has loaned himself $500,000 for the general election. Now he has half a million in his account, but isn't going to spend it on TV? What's he going to spend it on? How about repaying that loan to himself? And he needs to do it before Election Day because after that, we're told, federal rules state that you can only retire a personal loan of up to $250,000. Speaking of which, Tinsley loaned himself about $230,000 for his primary so he will be able to retire that debt with fund-raising after the election.

All told, Tinsley, who appears headed toward defeat at the hands of Hobbs oil man Harry Teague, stands to recover all of the personal money he put on the line. Now we're not saying Ed is definitely going to do all this, but it not happening seems as likely as seeing fresh fish on the K-Bob's menu.

Tinsley may not have been the best candidate in the world, but he's not a bad businessman. Polling in the district, including some conducted by us in Dona Ana County, basically shows the race out of reach. Tinsley could be accused of being "Quitter Ed" if he makes a stab at political office in the future, but it does not appear Ed Tinsley has a political future in mind. And, yes. We are changing our rating on the southern race from toss-up to lean Democrat.


We checked in on the KOAT-TV debate Sunday afternoon between Dem Martin Heinrich and Republican Darren White for the ABQ US House seat. Both candidates continue to cling to their party's boilerplate, giving few, if any signs of independence in what is touted as an independent minded district. They have both campaigned actively and worked up a sweat doing it, but the intellectual exercise for the two newcomers to national politics seems to have been limited to memorizing their party's positions.

White and Heinrich have improved in their public speaking, as you might expect since they are doing it on a daily basis. Still, their TV demeanors need work. White, the Bernalillo County Sheriff, seems too hot for TV, bobbing his head and gesticulating in a way that the camera exaggerates. He seems too caffeinated. As we've written previously, Heinrich, the former city councilor, seems a bit stiff and robotic. He needs to lower his head while looking into the camera, instead of leading with his chin, which makes his eyes seem to close. The state GOP, in an especially cruel mailer, likened Heinrich to a weasel, trying to intimate a physical resemblance to the creature. That was weird. No wonder Martin says he is restricting his two toddlers' campaign media viewing to public TV.

Heinrich's style more closely resembles the historic template for political success here. His low-key, not-to-be-rattled persona recalls that of former ABQ Mayor Harry Kinney, former ABQ GOP Congressman Manuel Lujan and current Dem US Senator Jeff Bingaman. White has that side as well, but being behind in the polls he believes he has to attack harshly which has given Heinrich an advantage by allowing him to play Mr. Laid Back. That's what many ABQ area voters seem to prefer.


Heinrich has also carried the day in the earned media department, with the Journal failing to rouse itself over White and there being little other mainstream press coverage. That's better for Heinrich because he is ahead. Angela Barranco, a Capitol Hill staffer for Rep. Joseph Crowley, is handling communications for Heinrich. Stephen Schatz, who has worked on the Hill for GOP Rep. Dan Burton, was imported to handle White. Schatz has been shy. We have heard little from him, but we still broke just about every major development in the White campaign in the past year. Well, not only us, but those not-to-be-denied Alligators who just don't seem to pay much attention to candidate news releases or "here today gone tomorrow" press secretaries and campaign managers.

Insiders say White's managers, Sara Lister and Heidi Fuller, are wary of blog coverage, believing we've been too tough on various Republican factions who they've toiled for. Hey ladies, you don't have to worry about us, we've shot this thing down the middle; it's the voters in those polls showing Heinrich winning who are a lot more scary.


Late word that the state Republicans are playing hard in the re-election race of longtime Dem State Representative Ed Sandoval. He was first elected back in '82. Insiders say it appears his R challenger, Ron Toya of Jemez Pueblo, has been in the mailboxes multiple times, hitting Sandoval who is chairman of the House Taxation and Revenue Committee. Sandoval's support of the Rail Runner and Toya's claim that he is unfriendly toward business are key items. We are told it appears at least $50,000 has gone into the race from Toya's end, counting his own campaign money and that of state R's. Why? Apparently the re-elect numbers for Sandoval were low going into the race. The tide is now going Democratic and it appears Sandoval will survive in this ABQ North Valley and West Side district which is 56% Dem and 26% R.

Sandoval, 61, is one of a number of longtime reps who in the past have coasted with easy re-elects. But the times are changing and incumbents of all stripes are coming under scrutiny. If they don't think they have to work anymore, voters notice. Voters rejected State Rep. Dan Silva and State Sen. Shannon Robinson in the Dem primary election. Here's more on Sandoval vs. Toya. Let's keep our eye on the Sandoval race when we get together Election Night on KANW 89.1 FM.


E-mailers ask where were the candidate endorsements in the state's largest newspaper Sunday? The election is just about over and by this time we usually hear from the ABQ Journal. Maybe they aren't too pleased with the choices they have. By coming with endorsements so late, the candidates are unlikely to be able to use them in their advertising. Maybe that's fine with the Journal. Meantime, a mild surprise up in heavily GOP Farmington where the Daily Times endorsed Obama. This, after they gave the nod to Republican Steve Pearce for US Senate. The state's other large newspapers, the Santa Fe New Mexican and the Las Cruces Sun-News, both endorsed Obama.


In our first draft Saturday night, we wrote that the Obama rally was the biggest political gathering in state history, but after talking to insiders we switched that to the "largest in ABQ history." They recalled President Clinton's 1996 visit to Las Cruces. One of them claimed that visit attracted upwards of 50,000. But we could not find any archive info on it in the papers or on the Net. But KOB-TV's Valerie Castro reported Sunday that the KOB-TV archives show the Clinton visit drew just 20,000. So that seems to settle it. The Obama visit was indeed the biggest political rally in New Mexico history. And he set another record over the weekend, holding the largest political rally ever in Denver, where 100,000 turned out to see him.

And what about the TV stations saying Obama attracted 35,000 and the AP saying it was 45,000? Turns out the fire marshall gave the 35,000 estimate for those on the field. The AP count included people outside the field perimeter and who could not get in. We told KOB-TV last night a number of those 45,000 were curiosity seekers, but it was still a whale of a crowd and reminded us that not only is Obama an historical figure, but that NM's population has crossed the two million mark.


Did the Obama campaign cross the line when it came to dealing with the lines at their big Saturday night rally at Johnson Field at the University of New Mexico? The question arises because people at the huge event said Obama workers were going down the long line telling those stuck in it that if they agreed to go into the Student Union Building and cast an early vote they would get to the head of the line and also into the VIP section which provided a better view of Obama's speech. The campaign can argue the rally was free and they weren't offering anything of value. Obama probably doesn't feel that way. He values his speeches, very much.


Often when someone dies you hear that "everyone knew him and everyone liked him." But in Tony Hillerman's case the cliché is true. Maybe he would roll in his grave hearing that such unimaginative writing was being employed to describe his passing. But probably not. Hillerman, one of America's legendary fiction writers and an astute student and player of our beloved La Politica, served as our academic adviser when we started out covering politics at the NM Daily Lobo at UNM in the early to mid 70's. He never did much criticizing, just a lot of encouraging. Hillerman died Sunday at an ABQ hospital. He was 83.

Hillerman, a native of Oklahoma, was teaching journalism when we knew him best, just after experiencing his first taste of big time literary success with the novel "Dance Hall of the Dead." It would be one of his many best-selling mysteries set on the Navajo reservation. But the Hillerman I knew was rooted in the newspaper world of UPI and the Santa Fe New Mexican where, in the 50's and 60's, he carved out a reputation for excellence and intrepidness. He loved the newspaper game. I think he lived a long life, in part, because he learned the secret of New Mexico. After vowing to stay around, you must learn to laugh at its politics and actually take joy in its utter outlandishness.

There will be much written in the days ahead about this towering figure. The ABQ Journal's Jim Belshaw played poker with Hillerman for decades. We're sure he, along with other notables, will have worthy rembrances. My fellow students and I will fondly remember Hillerman for his guidance in those most tender of years when criticism, if not handled judiciously, can scald and stunt. Again, the clichés come to mind, but as I write of his death this late Sunday evening, they speak the truth:

Tony Hillerman was a great man. His was an important life.

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