Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Right Saves The Left: Lujan Keeps The Gavel, Plus: Susana's Speech: How It Played, And: Even More On Day One Of Legislature '11 

Speaker Lujan's saviors--The Tea Party
Susana Martinez has put Santa Fe on notice that she has come to clean house, but her broom won't have quite the reach she had hoped for. Moments before she strode to the podium to deliver her first State of the State speech her political allies in the House came up empty in their efforts to dethrone Speaker Ben Lujan and replace him with Dem Rep. Joe Cervantes, a Martinez favorite and fellow Las Crucen.

The new Governor will have formidable political power in the newly conservative tinged Legislature, but unlike her predecessor--Big Bill--she will not have a direct pipeline into the Speaker's office. That's a big deal because of the speaker's power to move legislation before the House or put it in the ash can.

The House GOP leadership whipped their members like rented mules on the eve of the session to get them all aboard the Cervantes bandwagon, but they were outmaneuvered by their own supposed political allies--the conservative Tea Party.

The far right saved the left-leaning Lujan when they revolted over having a Democratic speaker of any sort. Freshman Republicans shuddered at the prospect of getting Tea Party primary challenges in 2012. Messages flooded the Roundhouse warning the R's not to go south with Cervantes. They also rebelled when Cervantes offered only his smiling face in return for their support. As they say, that and two bucks and change will get you a cup of Starbucks.

Cervantes' name fast became poison ivy for the R's. He was not even nominated for speaker. Instead, Lujan ran against GOP House leader Tom Taylor who he defeated on a party line vote.

The House GOP leadership and the Governor's political arm (you're darn right they were in on the attempted coup) made a major miscalculation--they failed to dance with those who brought many of those new R's to Santa Fe--and that's the Tea Party. They offered them nothing and they got nothing.

It seems Chuck Franco isn't the only new cop in town. The Tea Party is also patrolling Santa Fe, trying to make sure Susana and the House R's don't jaywalk around conservative principles.

Ben & Carmen
The Speaker seemed stunned and depleted after the ordeal. He shakily delivered his opening ceremonial remarks to the chamber and was only too glad to then retreat. He will be speaker for two more years, but his gavel is going to make less noise.

That the Tea Party, anathema to all Lujan stands for, was essentially responsible for keeping him in power was one of the great ironies of his lengthy career and modern New Mexican politics.

Tuesday night we ran into the venerable Lujan, 74, and his wife Carmen at the annual Dem legislative dinner at Sweeny Center in Santa Fe. He was more composed than earlier in the day. Despite our tough as nails treatment of the speaker over the past year on this blog, he was affable and open and posed for the pic posted here. In this game you learn to appreciate a player who doesn't take it personal. It commands respect.


This is the second time Cervantes has politically malfunctioned, and he is going to pay a steep price. He helped lead the unsuccessful coup against Lujan four years ago when Rep. Kenny Martinez made the challenge and now this. His supporters preened for days that he had the votes. Rep. Andy Nunez, in particular, now looks like an air bag that has been punctured. Cervantes' inability to finesse the deal leaves him badly damaged. He and his wife are close with Martinez. Maybe they find some solace in her arms. They certainly won't in the nominating wing of the Democratic Party.

Cervantes, 50, remains one of the more articulate political figures in the state, even if he will now henceforth be known as the man with timing worse than a broken Rolex.


The new Governor's speech was serviceable, if predictable. Our conventional wisdom meter gave her a B. She basically reiterated her campaign pledges and did it with intensity and even a bit of passion. She breathed nervously at the opening but the moment was hers and she embraced it. After a few minutes she was your Aunt Martha sternly telling you to clean up your room or no dessert.

Humor is not her thing but she did fire off a funny wisecrack about her husband making baloney sandwiches now that she has fired the two chefs at the Guv's mansion in a cost-saving move.

It appears we've gone from escargot to French's Mustard in the space of two months.

On policy, Susana said the time to "sugarcoat" the state's fiscal mess is past. But she continued to describe the shortfall as $450 million, when her proposed budget cuts only $174 million for the budget year that starts July 1st. She will get most of her cuts because the LFC budget and hers are nearly the same.

Also, former State Senator Richard Romero pointed out that some $600 million in spending had already been erased from the books and taxes hiked before Susana took over. That has given her some breathing room.

We found her to be at her most effective in her fiscal arguments when she assailed--but not by name--the Albuquerque Public Schools for wailing that they can't cut any more spending from the bureaucracy. Susana drew blood when she cited APS public relations and lobbying spending, issues that are sore points with voters of all stripes.

We didn't hear the new Governor mention Medicaid, the 800 pound gorilla of state budget shortfalls including our own. She said she is done kicking the can down the road, but we thought we saw her foot dinging the thing on that one.

If Martinez can change the spending culture in Santa Fe and make pay to play a phrase of the past she will have a pretty good run.

This is not going to be an administration of broad strokes or sweeping vision, at least not in its embryonic months. But a dose of no nonsense pragmatism can't hurt.

This speech indicates Susana's initial intent is to fine-tune, trim and make more efficient existing programs and structures. She is not going to burn the house down (But don't hold us to that).


Dems at the legislative dinner last night said they recoiled at Martinez's tough tone in her maiden address to the 112 solons. Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez told the crowd he felt she was trying to "intimidate" the lawmakers. State Sen. Mary Jane Garcia of Las Cruces told me she believes Susana is still talking like the district attorney she was before she became governor.

"She's a Governor now, not a DA. She needs to make the transition," said the veteran Senator.

An Alligator of the Dem variety summed up the criticism in this email missive:

I thought the state of the state was pretty lackluster--a recitation of campaign one liners. What's her vision for the state? How does the DNA laboratory issue or the El Paso/Union Pacific rail issue ( which, by the way, Senator Jeff Bingaman has been working on for 5 years) for instance, speak to that vision. The strongest she got to expressing a strong vision was on the ethics stuff and she was good on that. It's like she has a work plan but no blueprint. I mean, is she trying to imply that Richardson didn't do enough on DWI ? I think we are still working with someone that doesn't understand really what she is getting into...

But Martinez's conservative base lapped up the speech like they were at an oasis. In a KKOB-AM hours-long praise-a-thon, host Jim Villanucci led callers through a nonstop gabfest of all-love-all-the-time for Susana. The speech also won high marks in an informal poll for KRQE-TV, with respondents overwhelmingly grading the speech an "A" or a "B."

Martinez's sometimes strident tone fit the bill when she discussed the pay to play culture that beset Santa Fe in recent years. It was tough talk that one senses was welcome to the many independents who helped elect her.


The re-election of Ben Lujan as speaker may help Javier Gonzales in his quest to win another term as Dem state party chairman. That was the take of several of the Gators gaming the action. They said a Republican led coalition in the state House might have triggered momentum for Javier's main challenger in the April election--ABQ attorney Sam Bregman...

The Dems political savvy was on display when they selected two female lawmakers--ABQ State Senator Linda Lopez and Santa Fe County Rep. Rhonda King to deliver the party's response. They threw only softballs, but it was a reminder that women voters remain a weakness for the new Governor, especially when it comes to education cuts...

Most of the former living Governors of New Mexico attended the state of the state. Dave Cargo ('67 to 71) won the popularity contest by drawing the loudest applause when the Guvs were introduced to the joint session of the House and Senate. But then Cargo hasn't stopped campaigning for 40 years.

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