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Monday, January 18, 2010

Pete Domenici Jr: A Name But No Dynasty; Announces Guv Bid; Dad By His Side; Can He Go The Distance? Analysis And Context On Your Big Monday Blog 

Domenici Jr. w/ Mom & Dad
He may be 50 years old, but that didn't make it any easier for Pete Domenici Jr. to finally emerge from the shadow of his father, former US Sen. Pete Domenici, one of the most famous political figures in state history. But on Sunday, clinging to a podium and with celebrity dad sharing the stage with him in a cramped conference room at ABQ's Embassy suites, Pete Jr. plowed--and sometimes plodded through--a 15 minute speech that officially entered him into the 2010 race for the Republican nomination for Governor. (TV news coverage here and here.)

It was an unassuming if not inauspicious beginning for the ABQ attorney who inherited a political name larger than life, but not the political dynasty that reached its peak in the 80's and gradually disintegrated and ended with Pete Sr's announcement in October 2007 that he would not seek re-election to a seventh US Senate term.

But in the media age a big name is nothing to sneeze at--at least not when you are breaking from the gate. The attractive logo unveiled at the event, featuring a turquoise backdrop and the slogan, "Domenici--Governor for a New New Mexico," reinforced the prime attribute Domenici Jr. brings to this now five way contest. For ardent admirers of Domenici the elder, that name will be enough, but for voters at large, scrutiny of the attributes of Domenici the younger will be the key to their decisions.

Domenici, who has never sought political office, will not set off a wave of enthusiasm that will force his competitors from the race. In fact, feisty Allen Weh was first with a stern attack on the would-be Governor:

This election for Governor isn’t about political connections or surname; it’s about who has the experience to create jobs and get New Mexico back on the right track-- I believe I have that experience, and the ability to lead this state forward. I look forward to the debate.

But Domenici revealed that he is not all hat and no cattle. While his maiden speech was pedestrian, his brief back and forth with the New Mexico press uncovered his mental agility and understanding of the key issues of the day. Domenici's handlers likely took note and future formal speeches may be kept to a minimum in favor of showcasing his soft-spoken yet erudite approach in one-on-one encounters.

But the first emphasis will be on the hardball playing field of La Politica--getting Domenici at least 20 percent of the delegates at the GOP March pre-primary convention so he gets an official spot on the June 1 primary ballot. You can still get on the ballot without that 20 percent by gathering additional nominating signatures, but no candidate in state history has won the primary by that method.

Not that Domenici Jr. should have much problem reaching the 20 percent mark. It's how much he can exceed that and whether he can create a head of steam that makes him, if not the prohibitive favorite following the convention, certainly the betting favorite.

THE IMPACT


The first victim of the Domenici entry may be his fellow ABQ R and State Rep. Janice Arnold-Jones. My panel of Alligators, convened for a special post-Domenici speech coffee klatch, noted that former Bernalillo County GOP Chairman Fernando C de Baca and wife Cecilia C de Baca were at Pete Jr's event and voicing support. They were in Janice's corner before Pete came out of hibernation. And Domenici's campaign manager, Doug Antoon, who was also seen as friendly towards Arnold-Jones, is now lost to Pete.

(By the way, Antoon informs that he is dropping his GOP primary bid for the ABQ legislative seat of Rep. Jim White, who was appointed by the Bernco county commission to fill out the remainder of the legislative term of ABQ Mayor RJ Berry. However, sources in the Far NE Heights district say another White GOP opponent may be in the offing.)

The C de Baca's, political veterans, are no slouches at organizing GOP conventions. And then there's the presence of new ABQ GOP City Councilor Dan Lewis who introduced Pete Jr. at his Sunday news conference. Lewis is seen as an up and comer in the GOP. He is also a pastor with important ties to the GOP Christian Right, which has never had exceptionally warm and fuzzy feelings about Domenici the senior. Lewis will serve as a co-chair of Domenici's campaign.

THE PATH TO POWER


After Western omelets and plenty of diner coffee, the Gators concluded that Pete Jr's path to the nomination is a three way road. He will rely on moderate ABQ R's his father always appealed to and many of whom may now abandon the camp of Arnold-Jones; he will have Councilor Lewis, the C de Baca's and others give him entree to social conservatives in the GOP and he will personally make inroads with the important oil and gas industry by virtue of his legal practice within that industry.

Either cleverly or presumptuously, Pete Jr. Sunday also seemed to be looking further down the road--to a face-off off with likely Dem Guv nominee Diane Denish. He gave only limited support to reinstating the recently repealed New Mexico death penalty saying:

I support the efforts underway to restore capital punishment for those who kill our law enforcement officers who sacrifice their lives trying to protect us.

Our analysts seized on this because of the large role the Catholic Church has had in repealing the death penalty here and how support from the church--dominated in the Spanish North by Democrats--was so central to the election successes of Italian Catholic Senator Domenici. By not going all the way on a reinstatement of the death penalty, Domenici Jr. kept the door open to pursue northern Catholic support in a future battle with Di.

It is a potential reassembling of the original Domenici coalition from the 70's--Republicans, independents and conservative Dems that most worries the majority party. It was no surprise that Javier Gonzales, the new chairman of the Dems, made a point to smack hard at the new hopeful:

Since Republicans insiders have been unable to find a candidate for Governor with an actual record of fighting for New Mexico families, they’re settling for the biggest name they could find. The people of New Mexico won’t be fooled. It’s common for voters to ask candidates for office ‘what have you done for me lately?’ In this case, they’ll be asking ‘what have you done for me ever?

The chairman then went on to list a number of environmental cases Domenici and his law firm handled that Gonzales asserted shows Pete Jr. is a friend of polluters.

DI'S EASY TIME?


While Dems were expressing subdued concern over the Domenici entry--one told me they fretted that some people will vote for him based solely on name recognition--they were also mindful and grateful that the day had finally arrived when Diane Denish will be more a of a sidebar attraction. For the next four months most of the action will be on the internecine warfare featuring Domenici and his rivals, leaving Di to her own devices.

IN THE GOP TRENCHES
Allen Weh
As for the early stages of that GOP war, Republican analysts say that right now former GOP Chair Allen Weh and Domenici appear most likely to garner the 20 percent of the convention vote to be sanctioned for the primary ballot. They see Dona Ana County District Attorney Susana Martinez as the possible third candidate to make it on because she is the sole southern hopeful. Doug Turner's hopes are seen resting on a bloody fight between Weh and Domenici, with disgusted Republicans turning to him for relief and giving him a primary spot. Turner knows it, too, as evidenced by his statement on the Domenici entry:

I want to welcome Pete Domenici Jr. into the field of GOP candidates and look forward to hearing his ideas about how to take back NM. There are so many good Republicans running because New Mexicans are desperate for a change from the policies and corruption they have endured for far too long...

As mentioned, Arnold-Jones is seen hurting the most from the Pete parade. There's been talk circulating for several weeks among some Janice backers who want her to give up her Guv quest and seek the GOP nod for Secretary of State because of her record fighting for transparency and because she has only raised about $50,000 for the Guv battle.

Domenici is expected to come quickly with large donor money and join Weh and Turner--who have loaned themselves funds--in the big money club. But Janice is hearing none of it yet, vowing to stay in and arguing that GOP voters are looking for a female standardbearer--either her or Martinez. But Janice would still have time to file for her ABQ NE Heights House seat if she came up short at the March pre-primary, a prospect that seems more on the radar than 48 hours ago.

Martinez is not seen as shying away either--at least not yet. She has over $225,000 in the bank, but the problem now may be raising more. Much of her support has come from the oil and gas industry, and that money could dry up with Domenici's entry. He may be seen as a stronger nominee against Denish.

Susana's supporters recently zapped Domenici for having too many possible conflicts because of legal contracts he has related to federal business in the state. They question whether he had help in getting business for his law practice from his famous father and warn that that could hurt the R's when they try to use the ethics issue against Denish.

But Pete Jr. backers were telling us Sunday it will soon be time to check on the varied boasts Susana has been making about her record as district attorney. They wondered aloud about her plea bargaining record as well as her success, if any, of prosecuting drug dealers.

Veteran pollster Brian Sanderoff says in the end Domenici the younger will get a nice kick-start from his famous name, but that he will have to deliver a distinct image of his own to voters. True enough. But the fear of Domenici's Republican foes is that the name alone could carry him far--too far for their liking--in this crowded primary contest. Expect them to do all they can to put some tarnish on that silver nameplate.

THE COSMETICS

Domenici Jr. did not get risky in making his opening bid. He chose a small room, with space only for a handful of supporters and TV cameras. He could not risk attempting to build a crowd and coming up short. The simplicity of the event was aimed squarely at the thousands of households that would see clips of it on TV.

When we played the consulting game we also often did Sunday announcements because you generally got a clean shot on the early and 10 p.m. TV news on what is traditionally a slow news day. With the Domenici machine disbanded, Pete Jr. is more of a media figure, not a grassroots politician. The event played to that strength.

It didn't take long for the new candidate to lose his beard. He strode into the announcement clean-shaven. A good move because, right or wrong, voters seem to distrust politicians with beards. Big Bill grew his after his election. Mayor RJ Berry has a moustache but no beard.

Domenici's marital status might be an issue among social conservatives in the GOP. He is divorced and a single father of a nine year old daughter. His campaign describes his relationship with his ex-wife as cordial and takes pains to point out that they share the responsibility for raising their daughter.

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(c)NM POLITICS WITH JOE MONAHAN 2009
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