Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Outing The Operative: Guv Guru McCleskey Stirring Pot; Too Much Power On Public Policy? We Connect The Dots, Plus: Top Judge Popped On Prostitution 

Balzano & McCleskey
The public face of the Martinez administration is slowly coming to include that of Jay McCleskey, her chief campaign strategist who is not on the government payroll but who has been playing the power game with Martinez behind-the-scenes. We have the news and the crucial analysis you won't get anywhere else.

Toni Balzano, the deputy tourism secretary who we blogged about Monday when she complained on her Facebook page of being bullied, has now gotten into the details of her forced resignation from the Martinez administration. The hold-over from the Richardson administration headed for the exits while firing a fusillade at consultant McCleskey, perhaps opening a new chapter in the wars of La Politica:

Toni Balzano, the state tourism agency's deputy Cabinet secretary, wrote to the governor's chief of staff that she could no longer stomach having to "defend myself against references that I am a Democrat Terrorist Al Qaeda member, a Richardson girlfriend, a spy poised to take down the administration."

Balzano resigned after she says she was told she wasn’t welcome at the launch of a Billy the Kid-based summer tourism promotion.

Balzano was a public information officer and then deputy secretary at the Economic Development Department, before being shifted to Tourism under the Martinez administration.

She also said that for months she has had to defend herself against “false accusations and slanderous attacks,” including she was a Democratic terrorist and a “spy poised to take down the administration.”

She blamed the governor’s chief campaign strategist, Jay McCleskey, for the allegations.

“We disagree with her letter,” was (Guv spokesman Scott) Darnell’s only response to Balzano’s assertions.

Balzano's entire letter is posted here.

McCleskey made a brief comment on the matter to a capitol reporter, saying:

You have a Richardson appointee who chose to resign before she was being asked to leave. I don’t really have anything to say. The letter is pretty ridiculous. It speaks for itself.

But Balzano was more than just another Richardson appointee. Even though she worked for Democrat Richardson, insiders tell "New Mexico Politics with Joe Monahan" that Balzano was able to hold on to a state job under Martinez because of her close ties to Republican heavy weight Sherman McCorkle, a key player on Martinez's transition team. Balzano did PR for McCorkle when he headed up TVC Ventures.

McCleskey's influence over this Governor and administration is becoming controversial. The ABQ Journal recently noted he is referred to as the "Fifth Floor," a reference to Martinez occupying the fourth floor of the Roundhouse. That did not settle well with a number of state legislators and others who complain they can't get in to see the Governor.

It is not unusual for a new Governor with little executive experience to rely on those who brought her to the party, but there are few signs she is weaning herself away from the consultant and broadening her circle of advisers. The problem being that campaign tactics and consultants become the driving force in making public policy.

Gov. Martinez
McCleskey, who has been on the state GOP political scene for 15 years, also took hits in the aftermath of the Darren White incident. ABQ officials conducted a disastrous media bashing news conference as they tried to save White's skin. It backfired. The Public Safety Director was forced to retire. Whether warranted or not, insiders saw McCleskey's fingerprints on that handiwork because he is also the chief political consultant to GOP ABQ Mayor RJ Berry and a close friend of White's.

McCleskey, who ran Martinez's 2010 Guv campaign, now heads Martinez's political action committee, but his influence within the administration is said to be all encompassing and labeled pernicious by his critics. Some Republicans are fearful of complaining; they don't want to cross the consultant, a sure sign that his power in the administration is formidable. But there is no shortage of back room bitching.

There is a fierce wing of defenders of Jay and the faction of the GOP he holds sway over. We and our Alligators have witnessed attempted intimidation first-hand for many years, coming under regular fire in anonymous attacks when we have gotten too close to the bone. Frequent salvos include that we can't blog fairly because we are ethically compromised by past PR clients, that our political predictions and analysis are off base, that we are a "liberal Democrat" and generally just not a nice guy. The latest rounds were fired our way during our tough-as-nails blogging on Darren White.

Well, the part about predictions may have some truth, but the rest is balderdash. But we digress....

Some of our Alligators think McCleskey is focused on getting Martinez a national profile and winning her the VP slot on the 2012 GOP presidential ticket. It would be a giant leap for Martinez---and McCleskey.

The consultant, known for his forceful and negative attack ads, has worked in a number GOP primaries, launching wars against fellow Republicans. It has made him enemies, including former State GOP Chairman Allen Weh.

McCleskey, who started his own consulting company after the Martinez victory, had a string of campaign failures, but scored big with the Martinez and Berry wins. One of his Martinez TV ads won a national award.

ABQ GOP City Councilor Trudy Jones recently announced McCleskey is consulting her Oct. 4 re-election campaign against fellow Republican Greg Payne.

The issue is how much power he has on the official actions of the New Mexican government. He does not work for the government and thus is not subjected to normal checks and balances on his authority.

McCleskey started McCleskey Media Strategies shortly after Martinez was elected. Friends say the firm does not take government contracts or lobby, but one Senior Alligator pointed out having "a line on inside information is a tremendous competitive advantage in the private sector."

Martinez Chief of Staff Keith Gardner and especially Deputy Chief of Staff Ryan Cangiolosi are in Jay's camp, according to the most reliable sources in state politics. They say former Deputy of Chief of Staff Brian Moore was not. He has now vacated the Governor's office for a state job in Washington. (More on that below).

Again, the newspapers have not explored the matter, but the more the consultant's name surfaces as it did in the Balzano incident, the more public curiosity is piqued.

Of course, it is ultimately Martinez who takes responsibility for what happens in state government, but just how much influence McCleskey and his wife--pollster Nicole McCleskey--have over public policy in this state is of deep interest to the political community and the public. It looks like a whole lot, but we await a more definitive answer.


Speaking of the Fifth Floor...oops...we mean Fourth Floor.....

There's finally official confirmation from the New Mexican of our blogging about Gov. Martinez Deputy Chief of Staff Brian Moore. He is out of the Fourth Floor and now in Washington to head up the state's office there. The Moore DC job appears to be a permanent move.
The importance of this? Moore was seen as a moderate voice around Martinez and a bridge-builder to the Legislature in which he once served.

ABQ Journal DC correspondent Michael Coleman asked Moore about reports heard here that he was unhappy with his deputy chief position because he was being shunted aside. Moore gave a non answer:

“The governor and I have a great relationship, and we remain old friends.."

Others will speculate that Moore is being shipped to DC to help with Martinez's national political ambitions, but that's X-Files stuff.

Whatever the case, if the administration implodes they won't be able to blame Moore. He'll be 2,000 miles away.


Our Gators are rumbling that one reason Moore may have packed his U-Haul is because of a recent hire at the Guv's office. Is it nepotism? Here is an email from Keith Gardner, the Governor's chief of staff, regarding the hiring by the Governor of Alexis Valdez Darnell, the wife of Guv communications head Scott Darnell:

Alexis' hire date was May 28th, for the Director of Operations position within the governor’s office. Her annual salary is $75,000, and it is an exempt--not classified--position. At-will exempt positions are not posted; individuals who serve in them are appointees of the Governor. There is no conflict at all, as she was hired by the Governor. Neither she nor Scott report to, nor supervise, one another; they each report directly to me.

The Darnells are close to Jay McCleskey, having all worked together on the 2004 NM Bush re-election campaign. Alexis Valdez Darnell also worked as a top aide to 2010 GOP congressional candidate Jon Barela who was consulted by McCleskey. Scott Darnell, the Guv's communication head, is 27. He is a native of Farmington. He was communications director for the NM Republican Party when McCleskey was the regional director for the Republican National Committee.

That's plenty of eyes and ears for Jay on the Fourth Floor, wouldn't you say?

Murdoch mug shot
Another shocker featuring prostitution and a prominent New Mexican as the breaking political news knows no end in these dog days of summer. Here's the sensational story:

District Judge Albert "Pat" Murdoch was arrested Tuesday afternoon on charges including rape. According to the arrest warrant, the charges stem from a secret video tape the prostitute made of the judge in his own bedroom.

Murdoch is the chief criminal judge in the 2nd Judicial District in Albuquerque. He is charged with criminal sexual penetration and intimidation of a witness.

The criminal complaint states undercover police received a tip of a sex tape with the judge and a prostitute. The undercover officers bought the tape from the woman and her pimp for $400. They say when they watched it they saw Judge Murdoch having sex with that prostitute.

It was just a couple of weeks ago that former University of New Mexico President Chris Garcia was busted for promoting prostitution via an Internet site. That one also sent shock waves through the city.

One of our Alligators, reviewing all the craziness of late in the criminal justice system, came with this:

Police shootings have gone through the roof, Judge Murdoch does a repeat of Judge Brennan, APD officer Levi Chavez may have faked a car theft and killed his wife, Darren White is forced to resign as the city's public safety director and police chief Schultz and CAO Rob Perry still have lot of 'splaining to do about it, Attorney General Gary King is in Hawaii, the US attorney here doesn't see any wrongdoing anywhere.

It's like were the "Gotham" of the southwest.

The mention of Judge Brennan was a reference to his arrest on drug charges in 2004. Like Murdoch he was the presiding criminal court judge of ABQ district court.

Who knows where the Murdoch case ends, but his arrest sends the credibility of the state's judiciary tumbling once again and that plays into the hands of Governor Martinez.


We cracked wise when we blogged Tuesday that First Gentleman Chuck Franco (or our preferred title of "First Dude") chased an invading bear away from the Guv's Mansion by feeding him baloney. We caught this from a reader:

Joe, I don't know if you were using editorial license with the First Gentlemen and the baloney bit, but if true, someone at Game and Fish needs to give a little "mountain living" seminar and reiterate to the First Family that "a fed bear is a dead bear"..... No reason our stressed wildlife should be put in peril by more baloney in Santa Fe....

The lesson is taken, but Susana and Chuck are in the clear. They say they are clamping down the gubernatorial trash cans so no bears or other creatures of the wild are tempted to get in them.

Now that doesn't mean the Democratic Party isn't going to try somehow to get in the cans and read Susana's mail----but that's another story....

From a Senior Alligator:

Secretary of State Dianna Duran accused about 64,000 voters of voter fraud and turned the list over to the state police for investigation. Does that mean under the new law they must give a DNA sample? Just asking.

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