Monday, January 14, 2013

It Ain't Over Til It's Over: Clash For Top Senate Post Goes On Despite Papen's Victory Declaration; Sen. Sapien Among Key Votes Campos Needs To Beat Conservatives Back; Pressure Grows On Leader Sanchez; Papen Win Seen As Even Bigger One For Susana, Also: Lightning Strikes At SOS Office 

Senator John Sapien
We just consulted Yogi Berra and he assures us that when it comes to that intense battle for a key state Senate leadership post "it ain't over until it's over." Even if it looks like it's over.

Although conservative Dona Ana Dem State Senator Mary Kay Papen says she is a slam dunk to become Senate president pro tem by entering a coalition with the Senate's 17 R's, supporters of Senator Pete Campos of Las Vegas--the official choice of the Senate Democratic caucus--have not been seen waving any white towels of surrender.

Wishful thinking? Could be. But the battle has intensified since Papen, a retired car dealer, went public and said the race is a fait accompli. Campos backers still see a couple of wavering Dem senators as key to getting their man over the line. Historically the southern conservative juggernaut has been tough to crack in Santa Fe and it is being made even tougher this time by the split among northern Hispanic Senators.

The Senate Democratic caucus will meet today to talk some more before the public vote is taken tomorrow after the Legislature convenes at noon for its 60 day session. Committee assignments are expected to be announced by the new pro tem--whoever it is--later in the day.

(Here is the AP preview of the '13 session).

All eyes are on John Sapien, the Senator from the Corrales area. He is being lobbied furiously by Democratic party interest groups like the labor and teachers' unions as they try to prop up Campos.

The fear is that Papen has offered the chairmanship of the Senate Education Committee to Sapien and that because of it the insurance agent will join with her and the R's.

The central power of the Senate pro tem is to shape the committees in the Senate. That's where legislation lives or dies.

Sapien is still stewing over the primary challenge he received from a Democratic progressive and is seen as vulnerable to Papen's entreaties. Dems point out that it was the Guv's PAC that hammered Sapien in his general election campaign, but the possibility of a chairmanship can skew the senatorial view.

There is also speculation that Sapien. who won his re-election by less than 200 votes, could take the Papen deal and then switch to the Republican Party after the session. The district is considered a swing district, with Dems having a slight edge.

Look at this quote from Sapien when he was in the heat of the battle against Republican David Doyle:

We know that Doyle is pretty much going to be a conservative rubber stamp for a lot of the issues that are not at the forefront for residents of Senate District 9. 

Well, how about that? If Sapien sides with the conservative Papen it will be he who is dubbed "the conservative rubber stamp." That's why the Roundhouse is rumbling with those rumors of a Sapien party switch if he cuts a deal for the education committee post.


Sen. Clemente Sanchez
Newly elected State Senator Clemente Sanchez is also feeling the heat. The Grants area Senator, who is director of the Small Business Development Center at the NMSU Grants campus, earlier told me he wants to see powerful Senator John Arthur Smith retain the chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee. He frets that Campos will not commit to Smith. If Clemente could be convinced to join Campos, Campos' chances get a boost.

Like Sapien, Clemente faced a liberal primary challenge. He only won the primary by 11 votes in a multi-candidate field.

He seems to be thinking the district is more conservative than generally thought. But the most important political consideration for him is this: Would a pro tem vote for Papen be remembered in four years and cause him to lose a Democratic primary and make him a one-termer? It could.


Papen--who is very supportive of Governor Martinez despite their difference in party affiliation--must get five Democrats--including herself--to join with the Republicans to become the coalition leader. If it is a 21-21 tie, they go to round two. We recently reported that the Lt. Governor can't vote to break ties in Senate organization matters by a ruling of the state Supreme Court.

Papen has Smith firmly in her corner and he is engineering her effort. Gallup area Senator George Munoz has said he supports her. If those two are joined by Sanchez and Sapien, that would get her to the magic 22 needed--assuming all Senators show up and vote.

There is also concern among Dem interest groups that Senator Joe Cervantes of Dona Ana, who has close ties to Mary Kay, could stray. However, his statewide ambitions could keep him from crossing over, fearing that supporting the conservatives could cost him dearly if he ever runs in a statewide primary--say one for the Dem nomination for Governor.


Majority Leader Sanchez
That the Democratic Party, coming off a big November election win, hasn't yet been able to put the coalition to rest is the subject of endless conversation and frustration among party insiders.

They blame Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez for not putting it together immediately after the election, Campos for not being aggressive enough and Senators who are more concerned with just being in Santa Fe rather than getting something done.

Fingers also point at Dem Party Chairman Javier Gonzales who has been as silent as a church mouse. They ask out loud if a GOP chairman would be this acquiescent to a possible coup?

No one, the complaint goes, seems to be able to or even wants to enforce any discipline on Democrats who bolt from the choice of the caucus.

A coalition win for Papen would also be a big, big win for Governor Martinez. It would keep unwanted legislation off her desk and give her the argument that she has been able to work in a bi-partisan fashion. Without tough choices to make, Martinez's 2014 re-election chances--looking good in the very early going--could soar.

The unions, teachers and other Dem Party interest groups spent heavily on the last election. Although the Senate picked up three R members, it was largely because of redistricting. The Senate remains Democratic 25 to 17.

The state has undoubtedly gone more blue. The state House picked up a couple of new Dems, Obama had a landslide win, Martin Heinrich won the Senate seat comfortably and Michelle Lujan Grisham and Ben Ray Lujan both waltzed to victory in their congressional races.

But against that backdrop you could actually get a Senate more conservative than it was prior to the election. What a coup for Susana.


Remember when she targeted Dem State Senator Tim Jennings of Roswell--the former leader of the Senate coalition? It was said that by defeating him last November Susana could very well get a more liberal Senate and she should have stayed out of his race. But the election of Papen as pro tem would mean a personal friend of the Governor from her home county would hold the keys to the key Senate committees. It doesn't get much better than that. Well, actually it does. Because John Arthur Smith would chair Senate Finance, killing any legislation that would put Susana on the spot.


And that pretty much sums it up. Majority Leader Sanchez has only hours to deliver. How ironic it is for him. He was the #1 target of Governor Martinez in the November election. She unleashed her political committee on him and it dumped hundreds of thousands of dollars of negative ads against him. Sanchez won handily. He defeated the Guv directly and basked in the afterglow. And now this.

If the coalition holds--and even expands--Sanchez could see some power drain from his majority leader post. That would satisfy the Governor who would like Sanchez completely out of the picture, but would settle for one limping along the Senate floor like a wounded lion.

You mean, Susana, Mary Kay and Susana's hit man Jay McCleskey could decide the make-up of all the Senate committees? Ye gads!

Give Susana credit, but not too much. It is the disarray and the distrust within the Democratic Party and its lack of strong leadership that has us on the cusp of one of those "only in New Mexico" moments--the country moving toward the center (as evidenced by passage of the Obama fiscal cliff bill) while we head in the opposite direction.


Speaker-to-be Martinez
If the coalition scores a big win--meaning it gets more than five or six Dem Senators--pressure will increase greatly on soon-to-be House Speaker Kenny Martinez to bottle up conservative legislation.

That's because majority leader Sanchez could be bypassed as balky Dem Senators do their own thing and support the Guv's legislative agenda for tax cuts etc.

A big coalition win could give Martinez of Grants more power, but also much more pressure. His room to maneuver with the administration would be under acute scrutiny.

For example, would Speaker Martinez be able to hold the line on the repeal of driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants--a pet proposal of the Guv? It has won passage in the House before but died in the Senate, but with a stronger coalition ruling there, passage in the House could mean actual passage in the Senate, too. Ditto on other portions of the Guv's agenda.

These are all more reasons why this complex battle over Senate president pro tem is so critical.

A win by either side could conceivably unlock the gridlock that has been the status quo in Santa Fe for two years. A Campos win combined with a new Senate Finance chair could mean legislation from the Dems flows to the Guv. She could veto it but she gets put on the defensive. A Papen win and maybe, just maybe, some of Susana's stuff starts making its way up to the Fourth Floor where she holds forth.


If GOP Secretary of State Dianna Duran was looking for the most partisan person possible to oversee the state elections bureau she could not do any better than ex- Roswell GOP State Senator "Lightning Rod" Adair. His appointment was not a shocker as wall-leaners previously pinpointed him as a a possible Duran appointee. But that she placed him over the elections bureau post was a jolt.

Adair, a hard-right conservative not shy about leveling personal attacks against his perceived foes, has been in the forefront of claiming voter fraud is widespread in the state, even though none of consequence has been shown.

Early in her term Duran stepped in it big time when she tried to show the state's voters rolls were riddled with ineligible voters. She referred what she claimed to be 64,000 suspicious voter registration records to the State Police. Nothing came of it except the egg that stuck to Dianna's face.

Current elections bureau chief, Bobbi Shearer, a friend of Adair's from SE NM--will stay in that post. Adair assumes the position of administrator in an office reorganization. A business services division will be overseen by Ken Ortiz, Duran's current chief of staff. His staff chief position is being eliminated.

Duran worked with Adair in the Senate when she was a Senator from Alamogordo. Adair served four terms. She will have her hands full with Rod. The most obvious danger is if he plays it too partisan and the sparks start flying. We don't call him "Lightning Rod" for nothing.

Adair is a professional demographer, but we suspect that is not a line of work with a lot of activity of late. Adair's $80,000 salary will help boost his eventual state retirement check. And, yes, he is tight--very tight--with Guv Martinez political adviser Jay McCleskey. Former State Rep. Keith Gardner, Martinez's chief of staff, is also from Roswell, like Rod.

In the last election cycle a number of Dem legislators had issues filing accurate campaign reports or following the spending rules. Adair will oversee those reports now. If there was ever an incentive for wayward lawmakers to clean up their act, that is it. Adair is going to be looking under the rocks to make news for Susana.

Duran, the first GOP secretary of state since the 30's, is up for re-election in 2014, but her chances will be poor because she won't be running against a damaged Dem incumbent as she was last time.

Meanwhile, with the volatile Adair roaming about, her office has become a much more interesting place to watch. Grab a crash helmet Madame Secretary, your ride could get wild.


As for who will challenge Duran in '14, the very early speculation centers on Dem Bernalillo County Clerk Maggie Toulouse Oliver. But others could surface. Hispanic women have held the post for the last several decades. No man has ever been elected Secretary of State.


The LA Times comes with this profile of Susana:

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez chides fellow Republicans for estranging Latinos, but she has angered some herself.

This is the home of New Mexico politics.

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