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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Sotomayor To ABQ? Buzz Over Supreme Court Nominee, Plus: GOP Split Over Her, And: A NM Dental School? That Could Cause Some Smiles 

Sonia Sotomayor
Could Albuquerque be one of the first stops for Sonia Sotomayor if she is confirmed as the nation's newest and first Hispanic female US Supreme Court Justice? There's buzz about the possibility because the National Hispanic Bar Association's 34th Annual Convention is set for September 2nd in ABQ, and the White House hopes to have Sotomayor confirmed by the time the US Senate takes its summer recess on August 7. Meanwhile, there is a celebratory mood in the state's large Hispanic legal community over the Sotomayor nomination. This comes to us from Taos attorney Helen Laura Lopez:

My blackberry was flooded with excited e-mail from Latina lawyers expressing pride over the nomination of Judge Sotomayor. We identify with her struggles and her story because ours are similar although, of course, not reaching the same heights. You bet we are celebrating her accomplishment! In all likelihood she will be in ABQ for the National Hispanic Bar Association Conference. US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy's first public appearance as justice was in ABQ in 1988 when the NHBA met here.

An ABQ appearance by the country's first Hispanic female Supreme Court justice would be an "in-demand" ticket, but the first speech Sotomayor will worry about is the one she gives to the Senators who must approve her nomination.

HOW ABOUT OUR COURT?
Justice Jimenez Maes
The Sotomayor nomination got us wondering about Hispanic female justices on our NM Supreme Court. There is currently one--Justice Petra Jimenez Maes, and from our check of state history, she appears to be the only Hispanic woman to have ever secured the honor. She won election to the five member court in 1998 to fill out an unexpired term and won a retention election for an eight year term in 2002. She is up for retention next year. We'll have to check to see if she is running, but assume she will. Jimenez Maes was one of the first two Hispanic women to graduate from the University New Mexico School of Law in 1973. During her tenure, she has served as chief justice of the NM Supreme Court.

GOP SPLIT ON SOTOMAYOR

While radio talker Rush Limbaugh and former GOP US House Speaker Newt Gingrich label Sotomayor "a reverse racist," a well-known New Mexico Republican who may soon enter the race for the GOP nod for the ABQ congressional seat says the Sotomayer nomination is the "wrong fight to pick" for his party.

ABQ attorney and real estate investor Jon Barela says he celebrates the appointment of the first Hispanic woman to the Supreme Court, telling us it "provides a good example of the American Dream" for young New Mexicans.

Barela, who in the 80's served as a legislative aide to southern NM GOP Congressman Joe Skeen, will meet this weekend with friends and potential financiers to begin the process of raising money for a congressional run for the seat held by Dem Martin Heinrich. He says he is "90 per cent there" in terms of a formal candidacy. Barela has served on the ABQ School Board and a number of years ago sought a seat in the state Senate.

THE RACE TO DATE
Jon Barela
We blogged on April 21 that NM funeral home owner Kevin Daniels has decided to run for the GOP nod for the ABQ congressional seat. A friend of his tells us he continues to move in that direction which means we could get a spirited GOP primary contest. We are all wondering if Daniels will seek an advantage over potential challengers like Barela by coming with personal money to finance a bid. And can Barela and political newcomer and real estate developer Kevin Reid, who is chairing Barela's finance effort, compete if the big foot does drop?

Never mind who gets the GOP nod, supporters of Heinrich seem ready to get it on. They are already firing shots at Barela over his refusal to step down from a GOP position when he sought appointment to the ABQ School Board, a violation, they claim, of GOP rules. Well, that's a little shot, but just a reminder from Martin's gang that Jon's not in his hometown of little Las Cruces anymore. They shoot to kill in the big city, but we think the agile Barela will be able to dodge the bullets.

By the way, we occasionally "Twitter" political news, too. We talked with Barela about his potential run over the weekend and put a brief note up on that now popular messaging service. You can follow us on Twitter here.

IMPROVING NEW MEXICO'S SMILE (AND ECONOMY)

First, the official news:

Governor Bill Richardson and U.S. Senator Jeff Bingaman today took the first step toward bringing a dental school to New Mexico. (They) unveiled plans for a feasibility study that will determine where to locate a dental school in the state. Senator Bingaman secured $95,000 for the study, and Governor Richardson is making funding from the state available to pay for the remainder of the cost.

The timing on this seems right, as state economic experts scratch their heads on where the next generation of jobs will come from, not to mention enough dentists for our rural areas. Perhaps not all the dentists trained at a NM dental school would stay here, but a great many would as we have seen with graduates of the University of New Mexico School of Law and University of New Mexico School of Medicine. (We already train dental hygienists at the med school, but building a complete dental school could encourage more students.)

A dental school could add to the professional class here, providing needed high paying jobs in cities and rural areas. It will cost money to do it and the heavy hitters in the Legislature will have to take up the cause as their predecessors did decades ago when they created the UNM School of Law and the UNM School of Medicine. And maybe something has to give. How about the proposed millions to bail out the College of Santa Fe that the Guv and others are pushing. Isn't that an institution that served a purpose but whose time seems to have passed?

Proposals to have NM build a veterinary school-- a seemingly natural match for the state--have foundered because of our low population. Building a dental school could face that and other similar hurdles. ABQ GOP State Senator Kent Cravens, former executive director of the NM Dental Association, is already fretting over the expense of operating a dental school and the possibility of it running a deficit. Building such a school, he says, is estimated to cost about $75 million. But the state could easily afford that money through its bonding capacity. Didn't we just come up with over $60 million to renovate the University of New Mexico basketball arena? Cravens is on more solid ground when he worries about the operational expenses at the University of New Mexico and at any future dental school.

GET HER DONE

While Cravens and other fiscal conservatives need to be heeded; they also need to be pushed. A proposed dental school is no chimera like so many of the economic plans that have been sold by the politicians and collapsed around here. Eclipse Aviation immediately comes to mind. If a lawmaker opposes building a dental school, what are their specific plans for adding jobs to the professional classes here? These are the jobs that provide career security, high pay and opportunity for our young people, many of whom can't afford to leave the state for specialized education. Senator Cravens says there are programs now to send students to out of state dental schools. But that's half a sandwich, Kent. Our kids deserve a full plate, and we need the economic development right here as well as dentists to serve an under served population.

The Richardson-Bingaman plan to start the ball rolling comes during the depths of this severe economic downturn. We've recited how New Mexico's economy is looking like a bad accident you want to turn away from--the bear market in energy prices, the real estate depression, the reduction in federal funding for the state in coming years and the lack of high paying jobs to replace those being lost. The state had some great bipartisan legislative moments when it came together to build the UNM medical and law schools. We'll wait for the feasibility study on the dental school, but can't help but hope that Big Bill and Senator Jeff can push us toward another of those moments.

THE SCANDAL SWIRL

While Bill hit with the school announcement at a news conference, there is no escaping the state scandals swirling over his head. The press remains interested in his relationship with Marc Correra, the placement agent who made millions by helping to get state investments for his financial clients. Correra hasn't been accused of any wrongdoing, but the use of such agents has now been banned. Richardson was peppered with questions Wednesday on whether he had met with Correra prior to the state Educational Retirement Board deciding to make a $90 million investment deal in which all the money was lost. Correra acted as placement agent for the investment. The Guv would not say whether he had met with Correra, son of a major supporter of his, prior to that ERB investment. Instead, he pointed to those stricter regulations the state has adopted for investing public cash.

THE BOTTOM LINES

From ABQ Journal Washington correspondent Michael Coleman:

"On my way to Austin for five days of bodacious BBQ, masterful Mexican food, and margaritas mixed just right. See ya in 5-10 pounds."

Do you think summer is just about here?

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(c)NM POLITICS WITH JOE MONAHAN 2009
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