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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Power Shall Soon Pass; Speaker Lujan's Wrenching Personal Drama Revealed; Succession Plotted, Plus: Senate Graveyard Again Awaits Guv's Dreams 

Speaker Lujan (ABQ Journal)
The wrenching personal drama of state House Speaker Ben Lujan, one of New Mexico's most storied political figures, pushed aside the usual opening day headlines of a 30 day legislative session and cast a pall over the capitol, sparked respectful but intense rounds of speculation over who would replace him and pushed aside--for the moment--the agenda of the Republican Governor that Democrat Lujan has so come to dread.

Most of the politicians gathered to hear Lujan's opening remarks on the first day of the 2012 session knew that he was not well--only hours before this blog broke the news that his health was an issue not to be ignored--but still there were audible gasps when he dropped the bombshell and announced that he was afflicted with advanced lung cancer and would not seek re-election. (Lujan video here.)

Both men and women dabbed at tears as Lujan--tethered to oxygen with the tell-tale transparent tubing pushing against his nostrils--delivered a five minute speech that transitioned from the medical to the political and back again. His son, Ben Ray Lujan, now a northern New Mexico congressman, watched it and felt it as only a son could watch a father. And at his desk, Rep. Ken Martinez of Grants, now the heir apparent to the New Mexican speakership, listened intently and stared downward, perhaps fully realizing for the first time the impact this moment would have on his life.

For having lung cancer, the speaker, 76, spoke strongly. It reminded us of how former Congressman and Governor Bill Richardson adopted the campaign slogan, "Fighter for the North," but Tuesday at mid-day in Santa Fe it was the real deal. The fight for political life was cast aside, as the fight for life itself moved starkly to the front and center.

KEEPING A SECRET

The most shocking revelation from Lujan's speech came when he revealed that he had been undergoing cancer treatment since November 2009. What? And the news never made it to the public? Who says you can't keep a secret in the Internet age. It wasn't until we posted quotes from our Senior Alligators Tuesday at 1 a.m. that the story--after better than two years under wraps--began to seep to the surface. The ABQ Journal came at 7:30 in the morning with a report that mirrored our speculation.

WHO IS NEXT?
Rep. Martinez
As for speculation, the City Different was rife with it. And why not? Openness and transparency eventually carry the day in a democracy. So the Wall-Leaners, Alligators and other assorted political creatures quietly murmured their crystal ball forecasts as they nursed their favorite beverages at Capitol watering holes or pressed to their ears their always present cell phones.

The nearly unanimous opinion? State Rep. Ken Martinez, an attorney, will succeed Lujan, keeping the speaker's gavel in the Hispanic column and in the north (even if some don't consider Grants to be truly northern country).

The fly in the posole could be a Republican take over of the House in November. The R's only need a couple of new members to do the deed in the 70 member chamber. If they pull off the upset there could be a contest for the speaker's chair between House Minority Leader Tom Taylor of Farmington and House Minority Whip Don Bratton of Lea County.

But most of the political intelligentsia are betting the Dems continue to control the House, even as they have lost much of the agenda to the Republican Governor. She's been able to cobble together assorted coalitions in the narrowly divided chamber to pass such conservative items as a repeal of driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants, only to see them die in the Senate.

If Lujan finishes out his last year in office, the election for speaker would come in January 2013 and would perhaps include some new Democratic members elected in the November election. Some analysts thought that could perhaps hamper Martinez's vote gathering efforts. But Lujan and his allies have been in Kenny's corner since he tried an ill-fated coup of Lujan in December 2006. Our blog leading up to that event captured the moment:

The spirited behind the scenes battle between Lujan and Martinez has been fascinating to behold. There is Lujan, 70, a Santa Fe native who started his career as a working man and rose to hold power at the upper reaches of government without benefit of a college degree; a man who scraped and fought to advance not only himself but his son who is now a member of the powerful Public Regulation Commission (PRC).

And then there's Martinez, 49, of Grants, NM who is from a bloodline associated with the state's Spanish aristocracy; himself the son of a House Speaker; a graduate of Notre Dame and an accomplished trial lawyer; a man seemingly destined for leadership since boyhood.

Of course, Martinez is now five years older and presumably wiser. He will not say right now whether he will seek to succeed Lujan but if he said he wasn't, the shock would be almost as great as Lujan's withdrawal announcement. By the way, Lujan has made the peace with Kenny and insiders say he is strongly backing him as his replacement.

THE SPEAKER'S SEAT

And what of Carl Trujillo, the upstart candidate who nearly toppled the Speaker in the Dem primary in 2010? Will he now be in line for the Speaker's Santa Fe area House seat? He's running again, but you have to think the Lujan machine will try to find an alternate candidate. They just couldn't stomach seeing Trujillo take the prize. The Speaker himself signaled as much when he said he was hurt by the speculation that he was lazy in 2010. He said he was suffering the effects of his cancer and it prevented him from full-fledged campaigning.

THE GOVERNOR

And then there's the Governor, hardly an afterthought in the world of La Politica on any given day, but Tuesday her message was drowned out somewhat by the breaking news and humanity of the moment. Before delivering the traditional state of the state address, Martinez gave the speaker and her avowed political foe a warm hug and declared that the state was "pulling for him."

In spite of a serviceable speech (full text here.) and some kinder thoughts for the Legislature in general, the Republican Governor's agenda seems doomed to languish once again in the limbo of the state senate. There, our Alligators report, the bill to hold back third graders with reading problems will sink. And so will for the third time the move to repeal driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants. Her proposal to eliminate the gross receipts tax on businesses grossing less than $50,000 a year shows no signs of early momentum and seems headed for that crowded Senate graveyard. (Is Senator John Arthur "Dr. No" Smith the caretaker there?)

What's a Governor to do? She can nibble around the edges, one supposes, and get legislative agreement on a state budget which is the main purpose of the session. And she can still wow us by proposing passage of a large capital outlay bill that would create real jobs. Will she?

We sense that Speaker Lujan gave us all the earth-shaking we're going to see in this legislative session, but that doesn't mean that Santa Fe can't deliver a successful minimalist session that keeps the lights on.

HISTORY LESSON

Native New Mexican and former TV news reporter Rodger Beimer reports from his retirement perch:

In the last 50 years--half of New Mexico’s statehood--there have been 9 Speakers of the House and 11 governors. And there's never been a better vote counter than Ben Lujan…

And Susana may have been in an office for over a year now, but the honeymoon goes on with some of our readers:

The spotlight was on Governor Susana Tuesday and she delivered her vision for New Mexico and parameters for the session! Her remarks were interspersed with humor, poignancy, seriousness of purpose, and conciliation to others of differing views. Few governors have done better! Bravo!

We give the bottom lines to former Governor Big Bill who made history by forging a deep alliance with Speaker Ben Lujan and pushed through a mountain of legislation--including controversial tax cuts--during Bill's first Guv term from 2003 to 2007:

There is no better legislator or representative of the people than Speaker Ben Lujan. He is also a formidable fighter who will battle this illness with ferocity and incredible grace. With his departure from politics an era of legislative accomplishment in tax cuts, education, jobs, transportation and healthcare will never be equaled and will be a shining example of the Speaker’s legacy to New Mexicans. He is a true giant of New Mexico politics.

Like him or not, Ben Lujan has lived a life that mattered and long ago earned a couple of chapters in our never-ending book of La Politica. Now his final chapter has begun.

Reporting to you from Santa Fe and Albuquerque, I'm Joe Monahan.

This is the home of New Mexico politics.

E-mail your news and comments. (jmonahan@ix.netcom.com)

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(c)NM POLITICS WITH JOE MONAHAN 2012
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