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Friday, March 09, 2012

Parsing With Pearce: Capitol Hill Visit Includes An Hour Of Verbal Volleyball With GOP Congressman On Key New Mexico Matters 

On the Hill with Pearce
Steve Pearce turns 65 this summer, but there's no fishing hole or rocking chair in his future. In fact, Pearce is as fiery as ever as we discovered when we visited the southern New Mexico Republican congressman on Capitol Hill recently. We played an hour long game of fast-paced verbal volleyball with him, bouncing from the banking crisis to the Spaceport to the funding crisis in the federal labs, especially Los Alamos. When all was said and done we wondered aloud if the passionate Pearce was setting himself up for another run at the US Senate in 2014 or perhaps someday for Governor.

"We only think two years ahead," he quipped. "We're seeking re-election this year and when it comes to politics that's what we will concentrate on."

It was a deeply dejected Pearce who walked away from the podium on Election Night 2008. Dem Tom Udall scored a landslide win over the Hobbs conservative who conquered the world of private enterprise by building and selling an oil service business, but was thwarted in the pursuit of a cherished political dream.

Still, if Steve Pearce is bitter, you would never know it. During a break in a hearing of the House Committee on Financial Services we threw fastball questions at Pearce and he fielded them with rat-a-tat responses that revealed the experience he has accumulated in his stints in the US House, first from 2003-2009 and then back again starting in 2011.

His voting record is the 36th most conservative out of the 435 US House members, according to National Journal rankings, but while others may see him as doctrinaire, Pearce does not. "I know you guys (the media) call me conservative but that's not the whole picture." he declared.

Pearce has a point. Coming at him from an independent point of view we found a number of areas of agreement as we got down to business and updated his views on a range of issues in a tiny anteroom adjacent to the grander committee room.

Pearce says the GOP has "got the tone all wrong" when it comes to immigration. He did not directly tackle Governor Martinez's obsession with the repeal of driver's license for undocumented immigrants, but you could tell he was not pleased that this has come to top the state's social issue agenda.

He has supported legislation to make it easier for businesses in the rural and agricultural district south if I-40 to attract immigrant labor and has hammered away at border security as well. But he has not burst into emotional flames over illegal immigration. For Pearce it's all business, nothing personal.

His hearty support of the NM Spaceport is welcome by voters of all stripes--he pointed out a framed thank you note on his Washington office wall that he received from Virgin Galactic chief Richard Branson. Pearce praised the project during Spaceport America dedication ceremonies last year.

Pearce, who served as an Air Force pilot in the Vietnam era, sees the futuristic project near T or C as a major employment driver for his district. When the Legislature failed to approve an immunity bill for the Spaceport, he took to the op-ed pages to blast the trial lawyers for killing it.

Governor Martinez stalled in supporting the Spaceport when she became governor but since has warmed up. Still, the inability of the administration to get a bill through the Legislature is worrisome. She gets another shot--maybe her last--in the 2103 session. And while Pearce takes pains now to support the Spaceport, the congressional delegation has not been seen working as a whole to support the project, even as other states begin competing for space business.

MIXED MESSAGE

Pearce's office seems to have some mixed messages on funding for Los Alamos and Sandia Labs, arguing that there are efficiencies that can be made to save money but continuing to maintain that they are vital to the national security. It's the Tea Party in Pearce that you can't take out of him (he is a member of the Tea Party Caucus). He warns that other states will continue to covet the high-paying jobs the labs generate and that keeping them will require"fighters" in the state's congressional delegation. He does not see the current Demociratic Senators--Bingaman and Udall--as falling into that category, even as he is careful to praise them personally. Asked if probable 2012 GOP US Senate nominee Heather Wilson--who Pearce beat in the divisive 2008 GOP Senate primary--could be that "fighter," he replied, "Maybe."

That's when we wondered if Pearce himself might make another run at the Senate in '14 when he would be 67.

PEARCE THE POPULIST

That powerful House Committee On Financial Services is Pearce's baliwick. He does not sit on other standing committees. The ongoing financial crisis has put him in the catbird's seat and Pearce is decidedly "Main Street" not Wall Street. It's a small-town populist approach that he says calls for holding the big bankers "accountable"and it goes back to his 2008 vote against the bailout of the banks which won him praise outside of his usual political circle. The way he railed against the sins of Wall Street during our sit down, we offered that he and his 2012 Dem opponent--Evelyn Madrid Erhard--might actually agree on the matter. "We might," Pearce deadpanned in response.

But don't get the idea that having some common ground with others means Pearce still doesn't have his famous edge and penchant for throwing out the red meat. He gives full-throated attacks against the "unreasonable enviornmentalists" who he sees as impeding economic progress in the mining and agricultural developments that are mainstays in his sprawling district. And his defense of the oil industry--the 500 pound economic gorilla of southern New Mexico--remains unabashed.

It is his conservative--some say ultra-conservative side--that endears him to much of his district while putting off voters in the other two congressional districts. It was his inability to bridge that gap that led to his 2008 Senate defeat and it remains his chief challenge in broadening his power base.

Since he made his comeback and reclaimed his House seat by ousting one term Dem Rep. Harry Teague in 2010, Pearce has set a peripatetic pace. He has visited the district repeatedly and broadened his message in intensity and propensity. His new position as chairman of the Congressional Western Caucus gives him the potential for a wider audience. His hiring of Capitol Hill heavy Todd Willens as his chief of staff is seen as guiding this change as well as taming some of Pearce's gruffer instincts, ensuring he does not become isolated from the political mainstream.

Being in the GOP majority in the US House surely energizes Pearce and engenders some bigger thinking. But for now he must await the outcome of the US Senate race and the fate of his old rival Heather Wilson. When the dust settles in November Pearce will then look about. He can complete his career as an engaged and driven member of the US House or take a gamble and again go for the more lasting impact that comes with ascension to the statewide stage.

This is the home of New Mexico politics.

Thanks for stopping by this week. Reporting from Albuquerue, I'm Joe Monahan.

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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