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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

On The Political Tightrope With The Governor In Waiting; Denish Starts A Two Month Balancing Act; Tension Palpable As Transition From Big Bill Begins 

Lt. Gov. Denish
Lieutenant Governor Diane Denish began a two month walk on a political tightrope Monday, balancing herself between forces pushing at her to not act presumptuous and others pushing for her to begin consolidating and protecting the power that will be hers when Governor Richardson leaves to become Secretary of Commerce.

Di's coming out party after six years in the political shadow of Big Bill was low key, but fraught with significance. She met with various cabinet secretaries to talk about the January legislative session, but this time those secretaries were also job applicants; when she takes over they can be fired for wearing the wrong colored socks. And she had her first news conference since it became apparent last Friday that her long wait to sit in the Governor's chair was finally coming to an end. (Newspaper coverage here and here.)

The events of the day underscored the urgent tasks she faces--finding a strong staff leader to help her harness the bureaucracy and cabinet departments so her governorship is not immediately marginalized and undermined, and to beef up her communications office to assist her in building and retaining the personal popularity so vital to modern governing.

THE TRANSITION OF POWER

Governor Bill released a statement saying that he and Di had briefly discussed the transition, but taking any more action at this time would be "premature." It is an open secret that the relationship between the two is strained--some would say very strained--but Richardson does not need any trouble with the state's soon-to-be first woman governor as he prepares for US Senate confirmation hearings for his commerce appointment. Also, the public is going to be rooting for the new governor, not looking for a food fight between the state's top two leaders.

Denish put the best face she could on the situation saying she expects the transition to be "smooth" and that she is "prepared to lead." Did she mean she is prepared to lead the transition as well as lead when she becomes governor? We would think so. Remember, it is she who will soon have the power to hire and fire, approve contracts and move legislation. As ticklish and delicate as it may be, Denish must start consolidating power the minute President-elect Obama makes the Richardson appointment official. If she is too deferential, it could strike the electorate as weak and be her first defining image. Also, leadership from the get-go could calm the chaos, consternation and chicanery that is already underway in the halls of government during this unprecedented period in state history.

WHO WILL BE NEW #2?
Rael w/ Denish
Veteran political power players consulted are of a mind that Denish need not consider appointing a "caretaker" lieutenant governor and then letting the many possible Democratic candidates for the job fight it out in the 2010 primary. "Govern from a position of strength," offered one Alligator. "She needs to form the 2010 Democratic ticket immediately. The message is that the leadership team is in place--that there is stability in government and that she is not going to back off in the face of insider intrigue."

On that front, sympathizers of State Auditor Hector Balderas, a leading prospect to be tapped by Denish for the Light Guv nod, were starting to sweat. Another faction supportive of Denish is now pushing hard for politico Lawrence Rael. Maybe that faction has some unfinished business begun with the Big Bill administration? Balderas, 35, is absorbing behind-the-scenes body blows as the skirmish for power escalates. The former one-term state rep, an attorney who was elected auditor in 2006, is said to be too young, too inexperienced and really can't deliver votes in the Spanish North Denish will need. But Balderas wants the job, and he seems willing to fight for it. If he isn't, he isn't ready.

THE TIMING COUNTS

Governor Richardson's office says he expects to be here to give the annual State of the State address to the opening day of the NM legislative session. It is scheduled the same day as Obama's swearing in--January 20th. However, D.C. watchers expect Bill to take office as Commerce Secretary before February 1st.

The Governor has no legal obligation to cut Denish in on the budget proposal he plans for the sixty day session, but it could be argued he has a moral duty to do so. Unless the Governor plans to be here for the entire session, Denish should be dealt in on administration proposals for covering a budget shortfall that could be as much as $500 million. Mr. and Mrs. New Mexico aren't going to pay much attention to whether Lady Di is dealt in or out, but she will get the kudos or the blame for whatever occurs. The message from the public--many of whom are struggling economically--is simple: Di's in the poker game now. They presume she knows how to play. So play.

MARTY'S MONEY: PART TWO

We told you Monday about Mayor Marty's December 11 $500 minimum and $2500 maximum fund-raiser and that it was not specifically for the 2009 mayor's race. A mayoral aide now tells us money raised will be used to pay for the mayor's holiday party and a mailing to a lengthy Christmas card list.

"The Marty Chavez for New Mexico" committee could also use some of that money for political purposes like polling. But the city's public campaign finance law kicks in January 1 and it is very restrictive. The Chavez aide confirms that the mayor will take public financing if, as widely expected, he seeks re-election. Marty ran into trouble in a previous term when he formed the ABQPAC to raise money to finance travel and other expenses. His political rivals are sure to keep an eye on his fundraising as the election cycle nears.

THE BOTTOM LINES

Everything old is new again at NM GOP headquarters, at least for a month or so. Headed out the door, state GOP Chair Allen Weh delivered a final slap at the faction opposed to him and named his ally and veteran political operative Whitney Cheshire as acting GOP executive director. A new chairman will be elected January 10 and, if they wish, can name their own ED. Cheshire also served briefly in the position a few years ago. There won't be much work to do in the holiday period before Jan. 10 but Weh will irriate his foes by rewarding supporter Cheshire with a paycheck. Kind of his version of putting coal in their Christmas stockings...

The Alligators say keep your eye on this ongoing FBI probe into a Beverly Hills firm that did biz with the state and was a contributor to Big Bill's political coffers.

"There is a lot more to the Beverly hills contract to come; everyone and their brother is lawyered up." Says one.

This is the home of New Mexico politics. E-mail your news and comments and snippy rejoinders.

(c)NM POLITICS WITH JOE MONAHAN 2008
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