Friday, October 05, 2007


The past was honored and Pete Domenici was venerated, but the birth pangs of the political future shared equal time Thursday on one of the most storied days in the history of La Politica. I was positioned just yards from the Senate legend as he uttered the words that will change the politics of our lifetime.

"I come here today, to the site of the school I attended as a boy, to tell you that I will not run for re-election to the United States Senate." Domenici announced. (Complete transcript.) (Complete video.)

The atmosphere was one of nostalgia and pride in the native son who went to the senate in 1973 and went on to become the state's longest-serving senator. In the crowd were the old warhorses of New Mexico politics who were with Pete at the beginning of his fabled run. They included former NM Congressman Manuel Lujan, attorney Billy Marchiondo, "Smokey" Sanchez Davis and businessman Bing Grady.

Domenici, now frail at 75, kept his emotions in check and spoke of the work to come in his remaining 15 months, but the tears flowed freely among men as well as women. Members of his large family seemed to be bracing themselves as they stood erect behind the man who has insured that their name will be known as long as there is a place called New Mexico.


Domenici and his wife, Nancy, seemed at peace. In introducing her, he described how she has recently been helping him to better pronounce his vowels and speak more forcefully on his weekly radio program. The humanity of the moment overwhelmed the audience.

The great wave of history represented by the occasion was brought home as Domenici explained how in 1972 he became the first New Mexico Republican Senator elected since Bronson Cutting 38 years earlier, in 1935. I had heard him say it before, but on this day the statement had my head swirling with images of nearly a century of our state's politics and people, and I admit it sent a chill up my spine.

Throughout the state, New Mexicans paused to watch and listen to Domenici's words broadcast over the three major television networks, Web sites and radio outlets. The audience spanned the generations.

23 Year old Scott Darnell of the NM Republican Party, born when Pete was already seeking his third senate term, described himself as awestruck by the unfolding events. 26 year old Antoinette Antonio, a reporter for KOB-TV, said the station's bustling newsroom fell silent as Domenici began his valedictory. How often does that happen?

Pete & Nancy
Domenici chief-of staff Steve Bell, with the leader since the beginning in '72, described for me the phone call placed to the President by Senator Domenici to tell him of his plans to retire.

"It was a five to seven minute conversation. I talked with the President's chief of staff the next day to find out what had been said on the President's end, but he told me the President had the room cleared while he talked with Senator Domenici. That's something special," said a wistful Bell.

From the White House Thursday came the President's official statement on the Domenici retirement.

"Pete is a man of intellect and compassion have valued his counsel and friendship, and I look forward to working with him as he serves out the remainder of his term.”

Domenici, who reporters have ribbed for years for having an oversized ego, abandoned lofty rhetoric or self importance in summing up his acclaimed career.

"We left the state in better shape than we started." He declared.

Soon after, it was over. The Senator took no questions. He was in the arms of those who will now finally reclaim him from a lifetime on the political stage.


Domenici peppered his swan song with references to the remaining work he has before him. It seemed in part aimed at speculation that his illness could force him to resign, not just retire. If that occurred, Democratic Governor Richardson would name a replacement, something that last happened in 1962 when another NM Senate legend, Dennis Chavez, passed from the scene.


Staff chief Bell also told me that Domenici "will not endorse a candidate at this time" in the contest for the GOP Senate nomination. He deflected questions on whether and endorsement would come in the weeks ahead.

In 1998, when Rep. Steve Schiff died, Domenici, in an unprecedented move, cleared the Republican primary field by endorsing Heather Wilson for the ABQ Congressional seat. Such an endorsement now would have impact, but not nearly as much as it did then because power is draining away from Pete. And that leads us to those birth pangs of the future that we referenced at the top of this blog.


Wilson, as expected, is going to be the first to jump, with an official announcement of her candidacy for the 2008 Senate nomination expected today. (We will tell you when it happens, so check back here.) Insiders report she has called a meeting of her "kitchen cabinet," a group of advisers, for a 2 p.m. meeting. Unconfirmed reports late Thursday had her holding a 1:30 news conference where she will toss her hat in the ring.

There was some grumbling among R's that Wilson's candidacy was being leaked even before Pete had given his official retirement statement. But stopping the speculation was like the Little Dutch Boy trying to stop the dam from cracking by plugging a hole with with his finger.


Wilson wants to be first in so she can have a shot at clearing the field. The only rival of consequence she possibly faces is GOP southern Congressman Steve Pearce. Washington sources were hinting that Pearce could be poised for a run against Wilson, but there was no way of telling what the final decision would be.

"I think it's 50-50," said one of our top analysts.

That seems like pretty high odds and I can see why after reading this statement Pearce made when asked about running for the Pete seat.

“We should not be jockeying for position, kicking him out the door,” Pearce said. How's that for a shot across a certain Heather's bow?

The two, as this blog first reported months ago over the protests of certain GOP insiders, have been, to use Pearce's words, jockeying for position in the event of a senate vacancy. Now the moment of truth has arrived.

Heather & Steve
A Wilson-Pearce primary would be bloody, not only creating opportunities for the Dems to win two congressional seats, but perhaps increasing the odds of the Dems taking back the seat.

Pearce, with an unquestioned conservative pedigree, could start the race as the favorite because primary turnout is weighted towards conservatives. But to close the gap Wilson could use the argument that she is a stronger general election candidate.

Neither Pearce or Wilson would struggle to raise money for the contest. This would be a battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party.

Pearce may be ready to make the leap, say the insiders, because he is now a part of the GOP minority in the House with little chance that will change. At 60, he has just one shot at the senate seat. But if Big Bill gets in the race, the pros say either Pearce or Wilson would be likely losers. A decision not to run will look brilliant by Pearce if the Guv eventually gets in, but a colossal blunder if Richardson doesn't. Hey, no one said this politics stuff was easy.


While not an easy decision, Dem US Rep Tom Udall found himself in less of a quandary when weighing whether to seek the Dem nod for the senate seat. Last night, the ABQ Journal reported he was a no go. That broke the hearts of a dozen or so hopefuls already lining up to become the nominee in the heavily Dem district.

For Udall, who recently assumed a position on the House Appropriations Committee, the politicos said the decision was wise. His importance to the NM Congressional delegation has grown with his new House assignment and a statewide senate run would have been brutal for the liberal lawmaker. However, he will probably still be a frequent visitor to the Senate side of the Capitol come 2009. Tom's cousin, Mark Udall, is heavily favored to capture a Colorado senate seat next year.

Udall's decision means we will not get the political trifecta some were betting on--a turnover of all of the state's three US House seats, but we could still get two out of the three. And for sure we are getting one--Heather's. On that front, it is known by GOP Alligators that some Republican National Committee types and the faction of the state party involving lawyer-lobbyist Mickey Barnett and attorney Pat Rogers, will push Bernalillo County Sheriff Darren White as Heather's heir.

White told me he will start talking about his future today, after refusing to do so out of deference to Senator Domenici. But White may find the field has not been entirely cleared for him. The lure of an open seat could be too much to resist by independently wealthy businessmen or political types like ABQ State Senator Mark Boitano who told us he is going to take a look at a run. But White, having been elected twice and with the R's dealing with a so far weak bench, appears to be in a good starting position. He could come in as early as this weekend.


Following Big Bill is like tracking a shifting hurricane. It veers a lot. First, we see the door is open for a senate run, then the door appears completely closed. Here's an example.

"I am not running for the Senate. I'm running for president," Richardson said in a brief phone interview with The Associated Press.
He hung up before answering follow-up questions about whether he might run if his White House bid is unsuccessful. But his spokesman Tom Reynolds called later to say Richardson would continue serving as governor if he doesn't get the nomination.
"We are confident we are going to win," Reynolds said. "If for some unfathomable reason he is not the Democratic nominee, he will return and serve out his term as governor. We're not leaving any door open to run for the Senate."
Well, the door may be closed for Mr. Reynolds, but those seeking a shot at the power and glory of a political lifetime remain leery of any declaration flatly ruling out a run that does not come directly from The Man. Hanging up the phone doesn't exactly get them where they want to go, does it?

"I don't think the Governor knows what he is going ot do," commented former Dem Attorney General Patricia Madrid in a midday phone assessment. She says she is pondering the open seat.

The smart money is saying to stop listening to Bill and just watch the calendar. The thinking being that he is determined to give his long-shot Prez candidacy as much rope as possible, meaning he wants to have voters in the first primary states pass judgment on him. That will come in January. Richardson's friends and opponents seem unified in the belief that if the presidential run becomes a bummer, the Domenici senate seat comes back in play.


Judging by that AP interview, the Guv seems irritated by the senate speculation, even though he is in fourth place in the early state Prez polls. But you don't get to where he has been without having an ego. While the brass ring looks enticing right now, it can get tarnished pretty quickly and the prospect of becoming one of 100 in the United States Senate can become very enticing. Stay tuned.

You Know Who
This cat is out of the bag. No matter what the popular Governor says, February 12, the filing day for the senate seat will be the day the speculation on his possible senate candidacy ceases, and not one day before. (OK. If he takes first or second place in Iowa, we might not seem him for a while.)

The Alligators have even outlined a plan for Bill to get the necessary 3,000 or so needed petition signatures just days before that fateful deadline.

"His campaign could collect those signatures the day of the February 5 New Mexico presidential caucuses. Thousands of Democratic voters will be meeting that day and the campaign could get petitions signed right there," advised one of the Gators.

If they keep this up, I'm going to ask Bill campaign manger Dave Contarino to start cutting checks for the free advice.


With Udall out and for the moment assuming that Big Bill does not make the run, the frontrunner for the 2008 New Mexico Democratic US Senate nomination is ABQ Mayor Marty Chavez. Now a good deal of our little ol' reading audience just let out a big groan. Marty is not the most popular guy in Dem denizens. But right now he's all they got.

Patsy Madrid tells me she is going to do polling soon to assess a senate run, even though some are advising her to take a look at the ABQ House seat for which she ran and narrowly lost to Heather Wilson in 2006. But other than Madrid, who is out there besides Chavez with name ID and money to launch a race?

What about Don Wiviott, you say? He's already in the race and he now says his campaign budget will be $2.1 million. He represents the progressive wing of the party that has no use for the ways of Mayor Marty. Maybe Don can make the dash, but a well-known Hispanic Dem seeking a statewide nomination is historically a powerful combination.

(Santa Fe's Jim Hannan is also in the race, but says he may drop out as a result of recent developments.)


A His Honor running for senate will try not to talk about those bitter local issues that have been proven so pesky. The bet is Chavez can go liberal faster than his dreaded red light cameras can take a snapshot of your license plate.

But Marty is also worried about a late Big Bill bid. Does he form an "exploratory committee" and not go overboard with raising money until the February D-Day? Or does he go all-in to keep others out? It's like offering a vegetarian a choice between a rib-eye or a New York Strip. Neither option quite fits the bill.

The events of the past few days have so many angles they can keep you up all night. And they are, so let's keep going, and steer our Honda's back to the ABQ Congressional race.

My Alligators, getting a real workout, come with the news that former Big Bill cabinet secretary Michelle Lujan Grisham is expected to announce her Democratic bid for the seat October 11. She will be joining ABQ City Councilor Martin Heinrich who has raised a couple of hundred grand, but now knows the meaning of the phrase--reshuffling the deck. You might even say Heinrich will miss Heather because as my grandma always said, "Sometimes the devil you know is better than the devil you don't."


So with Udall staying put, we've gone from pandemonium to mere mayhem. As the reality of raising the ungodly sums needed to run an effective campaign sets in, the field in these congressional races will winnow rapidly.

I remember back in '72 when we had something like 32 candidates for the US Senate when Senator Clinton Anderson retired. But those were simpler times. We will have some political unknowns and perennial runners get in this time, but with a candidate required to have a ton of money and also get 20% of the delegates at their party's respective March pre-primary conventions, we may see candidates start, only to quickly flame out.

Congressional politics is a place these days where only the big dogs can eat. The bowls are out and filled with the best of chow. Let's see who ends up having the heartiest appetites.

New Mexico's political journalists are in a state of sleep-deprived euphoria. Barry Massey of the AP, Steve Terrell of the New Mexican, Jeff Jones, Leslie Linthicum and Mike Gallagher of the Journal and Kate Nash and Erik Siemers of the ABQ Tribune all attended the Domenici retirement speech while Heath Haussamen collated their reporting and his own from Las Cruces. Carol Clark of the Los Alamos Monitor came down from the hill for the big event. The three ABQ TV stations and their reporters have all hit it hard with a myriad of special reports on the air and on their Web sites. For the public it's a welcome break from what veteran TV newsman Stuart Dyson calls "the murder meter."

Thanks to Mark Bralley for today's photos.

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