Tuesday, February 20, 2007

State Democrats Brace For Battle For State Chair; Attorney Brian Colon Jumps In Race With Olguin; Wertheim Prepares For Exits; We Have The Latest

Brian Colón
"It's the old versus the new," summed up ABQ attorney Brian Colón as he revealed to me that he has decided to join the race for the chairmanship of the New Mexico Democratic Party, challenging former State Representative Michael Olguin who until now had the field to himself.

Colón, 36, says he represents a new generation of Democrats, but describes his campaign against savvy political veteran Olguin, 57, as "uphill all the way." Still, he is quick to point out that Michael lost his Socorro area legislative seat to R Don Tripp. "It can be done," Colón declared.

The trial lawyer, a longtime party activist, member of the NM Hispanic Bar Association and supporter of Governor Richardson, will have two months to get his ducks in a row to defeat Olguin, a former House majority leader. The some 400 members of the Democratic Party Central Committee meet in Las Cruces April 28th to choose a replacement for attorney John Wertheim who is giving up the position after four years of service.

The battle lines are clearly drawn in this race. Colón, a 2001 UNM Law School grad, will find his most ardent support in the "progressive" wing of the party. He is aligned politically with State Reps Al Park and Moe Maestas and he played a key role in the election of young Hector Balderas of Wagon Mound as state auditor. Olguin appeals more to "regular" Democrats and those who have been around a long time.

Liberals, including Rep. Park, attempted to oust House Speaker Ben Lujan late last year and replace him with Majority Leader Kenny Martinez. Colón was sympathetic to Martinez. Olguin is a longtime ally of Lujan who turned back Kenny's challenge.

Neither Colón or Olguin is claiming backing from Big Bill in this intraparty duel. Both combatants told me the Governor is well aware of their plans and has given his blessing to their candidacies, but is not taking sides. But Colón was quick to point out that he raised $56,000 for the Guv for his recent fundraiser at Sandia Casino.


Olguin has told me he will consider giving up his part-time lobbying if elected. He runs a Socorro insurance agency full-time.

Ethics has been a major concern of the progressives, especially since the scandal involving ex-NM Treasurers Vigil and Montoya.

Meanwhile, Colón's rivals are claiming that his relationship with Lieutenant Governor Denish has soured somewhat because of Colón's dealings with her over the auditor's race. "It's not true. Diane and I get along fine," Colón rebutted. His critics also claim Colon lacks the breadth of experience of Olguin who may have lost his seat in the Legislature, but has experience fielding the hardballs that come the way of any party chair.

Colón believes whoever is elected will face additional demands because the Governor, who was deeply involved in party affairs, will now be out-of-state campaigning much of the time. That could magnify the role of Denish who has already announced her 2010 Guv bid and will be plenty interested in how the party is run for the next several years. Like Big Bill, she has not publicly signaled a favorite in the race and is unlikely to do so.


The issue of who would claim the important job of executive director under either of the two men has also become a campaign issue, with the Colón wing warning that ABQ South Valley political operative Sisto Abeyta has his eye on the position and that he does not represent "progressive values."

Abeyta is not shying away from the battle, confirming to me that he is interested in the ED position. "If Michael is elected I will certainly file my application. I believe I can work with everyone in the party to advance our candidates and our agenda," declared Abeyta, only 30, but well-schooled in the treacherous ways of New Mexico politics by his elders in his native Socorro county and by friend and mentor State Senator James Taylor.

The scuttlebutt has current ED Matt Farrauto leaving with Wertheim and perhaps taking a position with Big Bill's New Hampshire Prez campaign. Farrauto has made no public announcement regarding his future.

The Wertheims
Party insiders credit Wertheim with generally doing a good job. One challenge was dealing with a Governor prone to managing things himself. Also, Wertheim's wife, Bianca, was in the employ of Big Bill during much of her husband's tenure, giving the Governor additonal sway over the chairman. But Santa Fe native Wertheim walks away getting some credit for the Guv's epic landslide as well as that of Senator Bingaman. Also, his party is firmly in control of the Legislature and other key levers of government power and seems to have survived the Treasurers scandal relatively unscathed.

GOP Guv nominee John Dendahl referred to Wertheim as "that boy" as he tore into the youthful appearing attorney during last year's gubernatorial campaign. But after four years as party chair and approaching 40, Wertheim carries political knowledge and experience that few others have. Observers expect him to someday try to reignite his political career which faltered after he twice unsuccessfully sought election to Congress.

Among the credits Wertheim lists on his resume is "guest political commentator for KANW 89.1 FM" in ABQ where over the years Wertheim has joined me for Election Night coverage. Now that you are headed for the exits, John, your old radio gig awaits. Who says there's no place for old party chairmen? For now, though, the Democratic stage belongs to Michael Olguin and Brian Colón as they vie for their time under the harsh, but often rewarding spotlight of La Politica.

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