Monday, February 06, 2012

Thank You, Mr. Speaker; A Farewell Visit With The Leader Of The House, Also: "Progress" In Santa Fe? And: Senate Poll Debate Scrutinized 

A Blogger & A Speaker
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. That's how we greeted Ben Lujan on our recent visit to his office at the state capitol. In return, he sported the classic broad smile of a politician, patiently posed for photos from my malfunctioning cell phone camera and those of two friends who accompanied me on the visit. His wife, Carmen, amused with the camera hijinx, chuckled as she relaxed at the office conference table.

The Lujans cope with the lung cancer diagnosis that will force him to resign this year by embracing life. And by fighting. Always fighting. And by working.

This is not a speakership atrophying in a pool of sentimentality or self-absorption. There's a job to be done and done it will be. He continues to undergo depleting cancer treatments, while not missing a beat in presiding over the House.

It wasn't supposed to turn out this way. When he announced his cancer diagnosis in a moment of drama and pathos on opening day, the wall-leaners wondered who would sit in for him. The answer is no one. The same determination that made him the second-longest serving House Speaker in state history is now applied to his last great struggle in life--seeing through the job his colleagues have given him and safeguarding what is left of his health.

Ben Lujan, 76, is a working man. Plain and simple. He was an iron worker--a union man (A nonsmoker, his cancer may be work-related). He possesses a keen native intelligence, not one cultivated in the Ivory Tower. His rise to the peak of New Mexican political power in the late 20th and early 21st centuries was not preposterous, but certainly improbable.

His presence in the House for 36 years and at the Speaker's dais these past twelve has been a constant reminder that, in America, the climb up the mountain is for all who care to take it. His climb down that mountain in an era when American economic inequality has gone to extremes makes his departure all the more poignant.

He was always sharply partisan, but a doer not a delayer or a naysayer. Even now with only days remaining in this 30 day session, he looked for common ground when we commented to him that Santa Fe seems hopelessly gridlocked.

"There's a tax incentive bill to attract the headquarters of the Tres Amigas project..It will mean jobs and a good future. The Governor is supportive and we can get this done."

The Lujan-sponsored bill had passed the House only moments before our visit. The project would build a hub across 22 square miles in eastern New Mexico to link the nation's three major electrical grids.

There's no denying that there's been rougher sledding for Lujan since a Republican Governor took office and the Dem majority in the state House has been shaved so close. The R's now sometimes prevail over Lujan's objections. After the session he will spend his final months in power doing all he can on the campaign trail to have his beloved House become more comfortably Democratic.

How different it was for him--for New Mexico--during his glory years when he and Governor Bill Richardson formed perhaps the most accomplished gubernatorial-legislative tag team in state history. The mountain of legislation and the copious public works projects approved during that time of plenty will serve as Lujan's legislative legacy (And so will the election of his son, Ben Ray Lujan, to the northern congressional seat).

You wouldn't expect Lujan to recoil from the battle over his successor. And he isn't. When we arrived without an appointment, his staffers told us it would be a few minutes as he was in a meeting. Moments later, House Majority Leader Kenny Martinez, once Lujan's nemesis and now his protege, emerged from the office, looking every bit like the soldier who has just received his marching orders. Will he be the one to be issuing the orders a year from now? It seems more than likely if the Dems retain power. Does he have the mental toughness--the doggedness--to successfully follow in Lujan's footsteps?

Speaker Lujan over the decades was occasionally snared by what now seem like minor ethical transgressions. He was also scored for turning over too much legislative power to the Governor. His embrace of massive tax cuts for the well-off remain questionable in their aftermath. But this has been a public life well-lived. First and foremost, he avoided the great sin of having political power and doing nothing with it.

As we concluded our visit, Carmen Lujan pointed to a beautiful piece of pottery decorating the Speaker's desk. She noted with a proud and broad smile that it had been given to the Speaker by the Navajo Nation as a symbol of their appreciation.

The Speaker gazed admiringly at the sand-colored pottery, crafted by those who preceded his own ancestors in settling this land he holds so dear. As he reached out to touch the pot we thought of how power has passed in New Mexico through the centuries--sometimes peacefully, sometimes violently. His work now nearly complete, the Speaker will soon be part of that continuum, his life's work duly noted and well-regarded in the never ending book of La Politica.


It's interesting to read from some of the capitol press how they expect the do-nothing legislative session to turn into a veritable beehive of progress in the final 10 days of the 30 day session. But it's not going to happen. We are in a new minimalist era-- with a GOP Governor and a Dem Legislature and not a whole lot of cash to count.

What you will get is a state budget which is the constitutionally mandated purpose of this session, However, the signals are loud and clear that we are not going to get major legislation on driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants, eduction reform, tax reform, or economic stimulus. The politicians are tyring to paint a narrative that something of signifigance is getting done in Santa Fe as they prepare for election later this year, ( even the Guv is getting in on it) but it's a hat trick. (Please prove us wrong, Santa Fe.)

The press and the insiders seem to forget that the first legislative session Martinez presided over was also a do-nothing session. Remember how everyone basically wanted to go home after 30 days and the talk was of why we even needed a 60 day session?

What we will get at the end of this session s a logjam of minor measures that may add up to a big number. Some of them will be useful but they won't be a big deal.


Campaign insiders tell us that Lt. Gov. John Sanchez has told the three GOP contenders for the ABQ House seat that he will not join them in that race once he drops his bid for the GOP Senate nomination. And reader reaction to the Sanchez news:

He is dead meat politically and basically a political dead man walking.

And another one:

He’s better off staying on as Lt. Governor, despite being frozen out by Martinez during the Senate run. Susana is a rising star and a possible VP pick, and he’s better off hitching his wagon to her rising stardom. It wouldn’t make any sense for him to step down from a statewide office (and possible future promotion to governor) to run for House.

And our take: This withdrawal to come and the brief campaign that he fashioned hurts Sanchez. His previous campaigns have all given him room to go to the next one--even if he was the loser. We are not so sure where John Sanchez goes from here.


We blogged recently about how Republicans were grumbling that a poll that showed Heather Wilson trailing Dem Martin Heinrich by one point (45% to 44%) in the race for an open US Senate seat included registered but not "likely" voters. DC Dem political consultant Stephen Clermont has some thoughts::

The value of looking at likely voters this far ahead of the election is generally in the category of interesting, advisory information. The intentions of likely voters months before an election shows the potential that voter turnout can have on the popular vote outcome, but is not a predictor of what that turnout will look like on Election Day. As a rule of thumb, registered voters are the relevant group to establish basic patterns of change in voter support for presidential candidates. Modeling of likely voters at this point is an additional analytic tool.

It is way too early to determine who is going to be a likely voter, so this Colorado College poll of registered voters is a valid barometer of the potential electorate. And it shows what I think everyone can agree on--a Wilson-Heinrich contest will be close and nasty down the stretch. And the polling will likely be within the margin of error from now until Election Day. Expect a lot of TV ads from both sides as well as the Super PACs.

Thanks Stephen. We think your prediction about "a lot of TV ads" is the safest. Where do we hide?

And with exclusive insights like those keeping the campaigns honest, there's no disputing that this is indeed the home of New Mexico politics.

This is the home of New Mexico politics.

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