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Monday, January 31, 2011

Soft Landing For Manager Lucero; Buyout & New Gig, Plus: The Access Game; Guv's Chief Political Adviser To Open Consulting Firm, And: Milking Susana 

Talk about a soft landing during a hard recession. Thaddeus Lucero will walk away from his job as Bernalillo County Manager with a buyout package worth $200,000. But that's not all. Apparently all the controversy and rancor that led to his forced resignation is going to be anything but a career killer. Our insiders report Thaddeus will be ensconced in another well-paying job at the Mid-Region Council of Governments, just a comfortable stone's throw from his downtown digs. Word is soon expected on what he'll do and for how much.

County Alligators report that Lucero needs about four more years of government service to get his retirment. It seems all the trouble Lucero got in with the county isn't too much concern to the folks at COG.

The five member county commission voted Friday to buy Lucero out to get him out. They did not want to fire him, apparently fearful that the legal expenses as well as the political heat would not be worth it. There had also been talk that the county attorney and county fire chief would also be hitting the exits, but nothing new on that.

Thaddeus had a seven year run and for the most part a pretty good one. But his fatal political error came when he refused to back off his support of John Dantis, a deputy county manager, who became embroiled in a nepotism scandal and was forced to resign.

Lucero's refusal to start operation clean-up paved the way for new commissioners Dem Michelle Lujan Grisham and Republican Wayne Johnson to put the heat on. They did and new Commission Chairwoman Maggie Hart Stebbins joined them to force the ouster.

The county saved a little money in their buy out deal, but Stebbins is saying the next county manager will not be getting such a generous exit package when he goes to work. That new manager is expected to come from within the state, even though there is renewed interest in having someone from outside the sate manage New Mexico's largest county.

Now that Lucero is gone the new commission chairwoman is saying it is a "new day for this government." It is that and also a new political reality for the county. Commissioner Lujan Grisham hasn't hidden her political ambitions and will look at running for attorney general in 2012. GOP Commissioner Johnson might take a stab at the ABQ GOP 2012 US House nomination for the seat held by Dem US Rep. Martin Heinrich.

Maybe all that ambition will translate into some more change at the county. If nothing else, it's not going to get less noisy.

NOW THAT'S A BUY OUT

You think Thaddeus got a pretty good buy out? Well, take a look at this Indiana school superintendent who cashed out with a retirement deal of $1 million. He makes Thaddeus look like a piker.

THE ACCESS GAME
Jay McCleskey
As we've said often over the years, the players may change but the game doesn't. And that cliche again comes to mind as news is received that Jay McCleskey, the lead political consultant for GOP Governor Susana Martinez, is leaving Lincoln Strategy Group to launch his own political consulting and PR firm:

After a great cycle with my friends at Lincoln Strategy Group, I am excited to announce that I have launched my own firm — McCleskey Media Strategies.

At MMS, we will continue to offer full-service political consulting, with an emphasis on media, mail, and strategic consulting, along with public relations services for clients outside the political world...

McCleskey's ties to Martinez are as close as anyone's in her immediate circle. He essentially designed and implemented her campaign, along with his pollster wife Nicole McCleskey. She was a main player in the Martinez transition, with close ties to Transition Chair Heather Wilson, the former ABQ GOP congresswoman.

Martinez emerged from the ranks of the politically unknown to take her political prize. McCleskey was also waiting for a break. While he had been a consultant over the course of nearly two decades, it wasn't until he managed Richard Berry's 2009 winning ABQ mayoral campaign and then Martinez's successful 2010 effort that he broke through. Before then, it was mainly losses.

Now with word of his new venture, McCleskey is being compared to Butch Maki, a former congressional aide to ex-Governor Richardson who emerged as a leading lobbyist and PR consultant in Santa Fe after Bill's election. Due to his close personal ties to the Guv, he scored dozens of lucrative deals--not all of them without controversy--and became known as a key link for business types to get through to Richardson. Big Bill even called Maki a "go-to" guy and served as best man at Maki's wedding.

McCleskey may be on the path to assume a similar role with Martinez, although after the pay to play years of Bill and Martinez's assault on them, he could be subjected to closer scrutiny than Butch, who operated in the looser days of epic budget surpluses. Also, unlike Maki, Jay has many more political rivals than Butch. Many of Martinez's foes for the GOP Guv nod are among them. They still cringe at the thought of McCleskey's negative campaigns that sent them reeling.

DEEP INSIDER INFO
Nicole McCleskey
Insiders say McCleskey's access to the new Guv has been essentially unlimited during the transition as well as the first month of her tenure. He has been seen escorting her to various events, including one at the White House. There has been corridor talk that Martinez Chief of Staff Keith Gardner and Deputy Chief Brian Moore--both former legislators--are subservient to the political arm--or worried about being subservient. Deputy Chief of Staff Brian Cangiolosi, Martinez's campaign manager who worked under McCleskey, is a bridge in the Guv's office to the consultant. McCleskey's relationship with Lt. Governor John Sanchez is known by insiders to be rocky.

Just how much influence Martinez's political arm, as exemplified by McCleskey and wife Nicole, will exercise on public policy as weeks turn to months in the Martinez administration remains a subject of intense comment and speculation among the Santa Fe political class. While those answers are awaited, McCleskey appears to be preparing to market his access to the new Governor in a new version of a very old political game. Stay tuned.

MILKING SUSANA

Access to Susana and who gets it has already become an issue. The wrangling over whether dairy industry lawyers helped write her executive order suspending certain regulations--a decision later overturned by the state Supreme Court--moved front and center last week. A court document indicates industry lawyers were up to their necks in the deal. Susana's office says it isn't so.

Veteran players note the involvement of former GOP state Senator and two term lieutenant governor Walter Bradley who served under Governor Johnson. He's the head lobbyist for the dairy industry here and is seen in the court docs offering the help of industry lawyers.

Walter has been on the circuit a long time and is a political Alligator (although not one who reports in here) but his aggressive move with this new Governor was an eyebrow raiser. He may be kept on a short leash when he next wanders into Susana land.

Not that our state's dairies could not use some attention from the Governor. The industry, a prime employer on the east side, has been savaged by dropping milk prices and escalating feed prices. It's just that the attention needs to be on the up and up and not hush-hush.

The controversy was a blow to Susana's no pay to play campaign message, which is especially attractive to independent voters. Dems immediately seized on it, saying he campaign contributions were already speaking more loudly than the voters (The dairy industry gave over $70,000 to her campaign).

The lesson in all this? Martinez and her key aides need to take ownership of this governorship by putting up the iron gates and skeptically question all favor seekers. If those gates turn out to be as soft as licorice, we're going to have a Guv term that runs into the rocks.

THE INAUGURAL MONEY

The Guv reports raising nearly $1 million for her inauguration celebrations ($966,000) and spent $861,000 (Was the food that good?). She says she will donate $106,000 to safe houses for abused and neglected children. And don't you know, they can use it.

We (and the AP) talked about the Martinez inaugural money when she decided to accept donations of over $5,000 for the event, even though that is the new state limit on individual campaign contributions. The campaign said the limit did not apply and that reasoning was not challenged. They said they capped the donations at $25,000.

Among those giving the full 25K was Allsup's stores, United Healthcare, the PNM PAC, Coca-Cola, Devon Energy of Oklahoma and energy company Apache in Houston. ABQ attorney Turner Branch also gave $25,000.

Martinez posted a complete list of donors on her Web site, fulfilling an earlier pledge.

ABOUT TIME?

We've been wondering here for months when the Feds would step in and finally end the pain for First Community Bank, the state's third largest. Well, Friday was the day. The bank, hemorrhaging money from millions in sour real estate loans, was finally and mercifully put down. It will be taken over by U.S. Bank a division of banking giant U.S. Bancorp.

This is actually good news for the area economy. Lousy loans need to be written off and the homes and commercial real estate need to be dumped onto the market. There has been resistance to doing that around here and it has kept the real estate depression going. No one wants to take a loss, but if losses aren't taken, prices remain artificially high and the market can't recover. Lower prices will bring buyers back into the market and begin the long slow climb out of the cellar.

Let the out-of-towners who have no emotional attachment to the propertis get on with the unpleasant but necessary job of cleaning up the banking books and moving the real estate that is gathering dust and sitting on the market here month after month.

ANTI-SAM
Bregman
State Dem Party Chair Javier Gonzales is now publicly questioning whether he will seek another term when the party election is held in April. Maybe that's why this negative site-- stopsam.com--has sprouted up. It takes on ABQ defense attorney Sam Bregman who seeks to replace Gonzales. The hit on Sam is also extended to Facebook. The focus of the attacks is Bregman's service as defense lawyer for political actors like former state Treasurer Robert Vigil. They say Bregman's clients tie him to state corruption that cost Dems votes last November.

Neither the stopsam.com site or the Facebook page list an author.

Bregman's backers point out that everyone is entitled to a defense. They also note that Bregman has worked hard to get where he is at. The legal beagles say he is among the elite circle of ABQ trial lawyers who can ask for and get a $50,000 retainer.

Bregman has pointed to the dreary Dem performance in the 2010 election as the main reason for change at the top. (Video of Bregman announcing is here.) Gonzales, a NMSU regent, says he may not want to give up that position because he is set to become president of the panel. He also has a full plate of business and family issues to deal with, say insiders. Still, there is pressure on him to continue. He remains popular with much of the party establishment.

Bregman, an east cost native, is brash, aggressive and not well-liked in some political circles. It would seem unlikely that he would go unchallenged if Javier heads for the exits. But that's probably fine with Bregman, a former ABQ City Councilor who relishes a battle whether it be on the legal or political field of battle.

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(c)NM POLITICS WITH JOE MONAHAN 2011
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