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Monday, January 05, 2009

BIG BILL BOMBSHELL SENDS POLITCAL SHRAPNEL FLYING; A COMEBACK OR MORE TROUBLE? DENISH'S DATE WITH DESTINY DASHED; LEGISLATIVE SESSION LOOMS LARGER 

A placid New Mexico Sunday morning was both electrified and shaken as the state's dominant political figure delivered the most stunning news of his lengthy and eventful political career: Governor Bill Richardson was withdrawing his nomination to be President-elect Obama's Secretary of Commerce. As dusk fell the shaking had finally stopped and everyone settled in for the aftershocks. Some of them may be as powerful as the initial bombshell Bill set off and that sent political shrapnel flying far and wide. We got a bad vibe when Richardson refused to answer questions about a federal grand jury "pay to play" probe at a mid-December news conference following the release of this Bloomberg news story. We wondered whether it was the beginning of a media feeding frenzy that would take Richardson out. Frenzy or not, he is indeed out. New Mexico will not be represented in the cabinet of President Obama. That hurts because a cabinet seat could have made up for some of the influence we are losing in Washington with the departure of four incumbent lawmakers. Your blog goes long and deep on the big story, and it all starts now.

WHAT CHANGED?

When Obama nominated Bill in early December, the president-elect knew there was a federal grand jury probe involving the Richardson administration. What happened since to make that investigation turn politically deadly? Top political and legal sources suggest that someone may have "rolled" before the grand jury; that they admitted there was a pay to play scheme and that they were involved. If so, federal indictments in the case are much more probable. The new president doesn't need any of those floating around. Also, the recent notorious pay to play deal involving the Illinois Governor made the NM situation that much hotter. But maybe nothing changed. Just the level of scrutiny as the nomination hearings approached. That was Richardson's take and why he said he withdrew.

CNN says Obama's aides engineered Richardson's withdrawal, fearful of an ethics blowup. They say Richardson was "stunned." ABC News reported that Obama's aides claim Richardson was not "forthcoming" about the investigation. NBC's Andrea Mitchell, who broke the story, reports there was "heavy pressure" placed on Richardson by the Obama team to abandon his nomination.

"He was pushed. They missed all the cues early on. They thought it (the investigation) was less important than it's turning out to be, or that it would get wrapped up more quickly...They realized they had a problem and in the last week there was heavy pressure on Richardson to withdraw," reports Andrea.

Richardson's staff insists it was the governor who initiated the withdrawal.

Why the Obama transition team did not pick up on the problems earlier is a good question. They were quick to cover their own butts when Bill was deep-sixed, but there was some obvious ball-dropping going on with the vetting process.

The withdrawal timing was done to minimize damage, coming as it did on Sunday morning. It will be a one or two day story in the national media and be gone. For that, Obama will be thankful. For Richardson it will mean less damage to his reputation than dragged out and high-profile confirmation hearings would inflict. (Obama and Richardson statements here.)

INDICTMENTS OR NOT?

Most observers we spoke with expect the grand jury to report in the next month or two. In his statement withdrawing his nomination, Bill indicated the air would take weeks or "even months" to clear. The Governor's political career appears to be riding on the outcome. Just a threat of trouble has cost him a cabinet position. In the extreme, an indictment would cost him his governorship and more. An indictment of officials close to him would obviously be less serious, but it would likely close the door to any meaningful comeback with Obama. However, while Richardson has retained a lawyer, no one is saying he is a target of the investigation.

Richardson, 61, said the investigation will end with his administration being cleared. He indicated he saw the setback to his political hopes as temporary: "So, for now, I will remain in the job I love..." But as the day wore on, seasoned political operatives were not so confident that there will be another big D.C. job awaiting Bill. Some scoffed at the reaction of Lieutenant Governor Diane Denish who must have been reeling when Bill told her of his plans early Sunday. She said Richardson "postponed taking a position in the administration to ensure that President Obama and the American people face no delays in getting to work to fix our ailing economy..."

But if Di, who already had one foot in the Governor's Mansion, was engaging in some wishful thinking, she could hardly be blamed. The collapse of Richardson's nomination was not only the worst day of his political career, but hers as well. Still, if the rosiest of scenarios comes to fruition--no indictments of anyone---Big Bill could lay claim to the title held by former President Clinton-"The Comeback Kid"--and Di could still lay claim to Bill's title: Governor of the state of New Mexico.

DI'S DESTINY

Talk about a punch to the solar plexus. The 59 year old Denish surely has had political disappointments before, but nothing like this. The limb has been sawed off from under her and spilling to the ground are her immediate hopes and dreams of becoming the first woman governor in state history. She named dozens of citizens to a transition team as well as two handsomely paid aides--chief of staff Kathy Keith and communications director Chris Cervini. We hope they did not give up their day jobs because transitions just became obsolete in the Land of Enchantment. Still, Keith sent out an e-mail to volunteers Sunday night saying the transition will continue. But why? And at what cost? And who pays? What are we transitioning to? Well, maybe it's hard to let go.

An associate of the Light Guv, usually loquacious, struggled to define the emotions he felt, but he maintained that Diane's political identity is separated enough from Bill's to spare her any collateral damage.

Still, the earth has moved under Di's feet. If Richardson does not get out of town by the end of his term, will that mean there will be more 2010 Dem primary challengers for her? After all, there's nothing like the incumbency to scare off rivals. And since this is an ethics issue, will Denish be pushed more into the progressive camp when she presides over the state Senate in the upcoming legislative session? If she feels a growing threat of a primary challenge from the left based on campaign reform and ethics, she just might.

Denish remains the frontrunner for the 2010 Dem nod. She has about $1.7 million in cash and higher name ID than most potential challengers, but the hill just became steeper. Potential Dem hopefuls, even long-shot ones like actor Val Kilmer, are feeling a winter breeze at their backs.

CASEY DENISH?


And will, the Light Guv, as one Alligator mused, now "pull a Casey Luna?" That's a reference to Lt. Guv. Luna who served under Gov. Bruce King in the 90's and broke with Bruce and challenged the boss in a primary election. Denish's instincts may soon tell her she too will have to start drifting away from her boss to show the public that she is her own woman. That could make an already tense relationship between her and Big Bill even more nerve wracking. Casey Denish? Hmm.....

And what of those forlorn R's? Suddenly, they hope for renewal. Outgoing ABQ GOP Congresswoman Heather Wilson just days ago openly flirted with the notion of running for Governor in 2010. The prospect could look more appealing if the grand jury probe turns sour on the Guv and tarnishes Di in the process. Of course, Heather has her own ethics issues. Remember that little ol' US attorney scandal? Still, Wilson more or less secured the endorsement of the ABQ Journal for the 2010 GOP Guv nod on Sunday. Now, if outgoing Rep. Steve Pearce will just stay out of her way--as the Journal hoped and prayed he would---Heather could be on her way again--at least with Republicans.

CRESTFALLEN HOPEFULS

And how about that list of potential Light Guv candidates for Denish to pick from when she is appointed governor? Well, they can unpack their suitcases. For how long is anyones guess. And how about all those governor appointed and highly paid "exempt employees?" Di had asked all of them to justify their jobs as she prepared to take the reins. But today they still answer to Big Bill.
That whooshing sound you hear is several hundred of them exhaling in relief. (As long as Di did not give Bill any ideas about chopping a few of them.)

THE ROUNDHOUSE IMPACT

If there were still gobs of oil and gas money to gobble up, Bill's national setback may have been more eventful to the upcoming 60 day session of the Legislature. Not that there aren't consequences. The rebels will relish taking on what they perceive as a weakened chief executive. But the governor--even a weakened one--retains the veto power. And with an anticipated shortfall of at least $453 million, new programs and proposals will die for a lack of money, not necessarily because of acrimony and politics between lawmakers and the Fourth Floor. Bill, after licking his wounds for a few minutes, was probably already plotting his return--in the form of an 800 pound gorilla. If solons come looking for a fight, he will give them one. He is, however, already on the defensive with the state Senate. He can again be expected to look to House Speaker Lujan and other favorites to smooth his way around the storied Roundhouse.

State Sen. Tim Jennings had some good analysis on TV news. He said the upside of Richardson staying on is having one governor for the entire session. There's already enough confusion in Santa Fe.

And will this latest ethics issue--the latest in a long, long line--finally spark significant campaign finance reform in the state? Reader Fred Sisneros wondered:

I am saddened to hear that he withdrew. I think he could have helped this state from the Commerce position. But I was even more disappointed to hear of the investigation. I would love to see this state expand publicly financed campaign to more offices, even the Governors seat. Maybe some of the new Democratic blood in the legislature could push it.

They could, Fred. But with an imploding economy, interest may lie elsewhere.


MEDIA PLAY

NM TV news turned it on for the Big Bill story. We interviewed with Jeff Mahr at KOB-TV and Crystal Gutierrez at KRQE. Nationally, right leaning blogger Michelle Malkin made some hay with the Obama-Richardson trouble. The ABQ Journal's Mike Gallagher has been on the story from the start. He has the primer on the deal that dashed Bill's hopes. Solid New York Times coverage is here.

MORE READER REACTION

The e-mail box was busy with reaction to the big story. Eli Chavez, a longtime foe of the Guv who years ago dubbed him "El Patron," has been quiet recently, but he came out of the woodwork for this one.

Joe, I am the happiest person on the face of the earth. This is the beginning of the big crash within both parties… New Mexicans deserve better. It is time to clean house and you know what I mean...I was beat up by El Patron and his buddies… but I can take a punch regardless if it is a jab or a hook. Viva Nuevo México and its people regardless of background and political party.

A South Valley Alligator started circulating a joke. "Bill and Manny will soon be cellmates!"

That's a reference to the impending imprisonment of former State Senator Manny Aragon on corruption charges.


But there was a good share of sadness over the turn of events. This from a Senior Alligator:

"It is a sad time for us who have enjoyed watching Bill's ride. Whether we agree with him or not he has put New Mexico on the world stage. It will be unfortunate for all of us New Mexicans if there is more to Bill's involvement that just smoke. Whatever the case, the long knives will certainly emerge and the upcoming session will probably be unpleasant."

And then there some of my favorites--the conspiracy theorists. Bill's rocky relationship with the Clintons gave rise to this e-mailed missive:

Joe, Any inkling that the Clintons were behind this? Any word of manila envelopes sent to the grand jury investigators, bearing a Chappaqua, NY (where the Clintons live) or Harlem (where President Clinton has an office) post mark? Have the Clintons been seen high-fiving each other? Any joggers in the vicinity of Richardson's residence, along with missing family pets & slashed tires? Signed, Suspicious in Paradise.

Hey, Suspicous. Did you see this?

An upstate New York developer donated $100,000 to former President Bill Clinton’s foundation in November 2004, around the same time that Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton helped secure millions of dollars in federal assistance for the businessman’s mall project.

How does Hill's deal differ from what the feds are investigating down here?

What a day it was--one that will be duly recounted in the years ahead in the never-ending and always fascinating book of La Politica.

E-mail your news and comments.

(c)NM POLITICS WITH JOE MONAHAN 2009
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