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Monday, November 22, 2010

Santa Fe Power Vacuum: Lujan Can't Seal Deal; What Now? Analysis & Perspective On The Big Story, Plus: Jeff's Pressure & Susana's Honeymoon 

Power is slowly emptying out of the speakership of Ben Lujan. The rebellion against him at the state House Democratic caucus Saturday means even if he manages to retain his title--as a majority of the caucus voted--he will wield the gavel limply and walk the Capitol a wounded lame-duck.

The inability of Lujan to quash the mutiny by four rebels sent the smell of blood slowly wafting up to the Fourth Floor of the Roundhouse where a new Republican Governor will soon be ensconced.

Life is so easy when you play it in the rear view mirror. If only the Speaker had signaled his intentions to conclude his storied career shortly after his son, Ben Ray, was elected to the US House in 2008. Or if not then, shortly after his own flock told him the end was near when he survived the June primary by a mere 80 votes.

If only clarity had been his guide, this piecemeal dethroning of the Speaker could have been averted. He would ride off into the sunset with legendary status. Now this leading liberal light of his or any other generation faces a frosty chamber with atrophied muscles and where only three Democrats need to join with the Republicans to adopt a conservative agenda.

THE WAITING GAME
Martinez
And what of the prince who waits in the wings as the king fights to push back the hands of time?

House Majority Leader Kenny Martinez, the son of a former House speaker, led an abortive coup against Lujan in December of '06. Since then he has been content to wait his turn.

But what about taking the reins of power now, while the state rests at an historic intersection with an ascendant conservatism threatening to redefine what government can and should do? A new and well-fortified face--a liberal face--in the Legislature's preeminent power position would not derail the conservative express, but certainly slow it. Isn't that what most New Mexico Democrats want?

Martinez has remained quiet, except to pass word that he would not support any coalition with the 33 House Republicans. His good friend and this year's rebellion leader, Rep. Joe Cervantes, still toys with the idea of a coalition with the R's after losing to Lujan in caucus. But his heart does not seem entirely in it. What he may really want is for Martinez to take the chair, just as he desired in 2006 when he served as chief lieutenant for the coup.

House Democrats will caucus more between now and the opening day of the Legislature. To avoid a complete GOP takeover of the government--a conservative coalition already rules the Senate--they will either have to firm up their support for Lujan and hope for the best or force Rep. Martinez to step forward and jar the Republicans and the new Governor.

Speaker Lujan will no doubt preside with dignity if on January 18 he is again chosen to lead. But the power vacuum left in the wake of the Nov 2. election and Saturday's raucous caucus strengthens those who seek either a formal or informal conservative coalition. That diminishes the speaker--and the Democratic Party--more than even the Republicans could hope for.

JEFF'S JOB

Sen. Bingaman
There is more pressure than usual on Dem US Senator
Jeff Bingaman to make it clear that he is seeking re-election. A minor feeding frenzy is starting to form among Republicans who are hungry for more power after capturing the US House. Politico came with a report that Bingaman, first elected in '82, was still considering whether to run again. But that's contrary to what top staffers for Bingaman have been saying for months. They report he is all in.

The Senator does have over
$5oo,000 cash on hand and no one in the know seems to doubt that Bingaman is going for another six years. He is expected to make a formal announcement ion March that he will seek a sixth term.

Bingaman, 67, has always been low-key in announcing his political plans, but in this environment the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will find that tongues will wag about his intentions until he formally and definitively announces that he is going.


Former ABQ GOP Congresswoman Heather Wilson is chairing Governor-elect Martinez's transition committee and is clearly using that position to
generate headlines for herself. It could be a prelude to a 2012 Senate run. She lost the GOP US Senate nomination in 2008 to Steve Pearce. Should she run, we see a likely challenge to Wilson coming again from the right-wing of the party, similar to the one launched by Pearce who denied her the nomination. Pearce will not be that challenger to Wilson. He is happy to have his US House seat back.

A September 25-26 poll by PPP has Bingaman scoring a 50% percent approval rating. One point lower and Bingaman would be considered vulnerable. However, the poll was taken in the middle of the election campaign when all incumbents were scoring poorly and Republicans were on the rise. That PPP survey also reported that Bingaman's approval was the third highest among the 18 senators expected to seek re-election in 2012.

One other note. Jeff spent $3.4 million to defend his seat against a tepid challenge in '06. If a serious challenge emerges, this one could easily cost him double that amount.


THE HONEYMOON

They say a politician peaks in popularity the day they take office and it's downhill from there. Perhaps. In Governor-elect Martinez's case she is basking in a honeymoon glow well before she takes office Jan 1.

Idle chatter in this season between campaigns has Susana leaving the Governor's office and becoming USA Attorney General if a Republican is elected to the White House in 2012. Others even see her as a GOP 2012 vice-presidential contender. And the Republican Governors Association has put some flowers at her feet, naming her to its leadership committee.

Of course, before Susana let's all of this go to her head, she might want to do some homework. For example, on the Dream Act.

There is a deep hunger for new faces and new leadership in these economically perilous times. Every administration starts out with high hopes from the public, but this one especially so as forces internally and externally tear at the very fabric of New Mexico and the nation.

This is the home of New Mexico politics.

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(c)NM POLITICS WITH JOE MONAHAN 2010
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