Friday, January 17, 2014

The Dems Newfound Feistiness: Party Chairman Bregman Calls Out Conservative Sen. John Arthur Smith, Plus: Senate Committee Plans Hearings On ABQ Downs Racino Deal 

The NM Democratic Party--or at least a segment of it--made a U-turn Thursday. Gone was passivity, replaced by a new found feistiness that was quite stunning if only because of the quietude that's preceded it these past three years.That the awakening included an intra-party public squabble made it all the more compelling.

First up was Dem  Chairman Sam Bregman who had disappeared for months from the political radar, but popped back in sight in a big way--by dropping a bomb on conservative Democratic State Senate powerhouse John Arthur Smith.

Bregman's message was dramatic. He gave it at a news conference at party headquarters and later reiterated it in a phone conversation with us:

I hope legislative Democrats are able to unify and pass the constitutional amendment in support of early childhood education, but if {Senate Finance Committee Chairman} John Arthur Smith again refuses to hear the amendment in committee, he ought to join Governor Martinez's Republican Party.

And pressing Smith more, Bregman pledged if Smith of Deming continues to bottle up the measure "he will get a Democratic primary challenger" in 2016 (Smith had one in 2012 but he was easily dispatched).

Sen. Smith
The early childhood amendment would tap into the multi-billion dollar NM Permanent Fund to address the social conditions crisis that has seen the state plummet to 50th in child well-being. It has become a rallying cry for change advocates.

The reformers say only by investing heavily in the very young will the state ever see long-term educational improvement. The conservatives, as represented by Senator Smith, are equally adamant that going into the Permanent Fund and '"raiding it" will endanger the financial prospects of future generations.

The amendment has passed the House but Smith has corralled a group of what we've dubbed "Martinez Democrats" and thwarted the measure from advancing in the Senate.

Frustration has built among non conservative Dems as the state continues its economic and social descent which has been exacerbated by a brutal and stubborn recession/stagnation.

If the amendment passes the Legislature and is placed on the November ballot, it could drive the debate in this year's Guv election in which Martinez is seeking a second four year term. She is against the proposal, but it would not go to her desk for approval--but straight to the voters.


Sen. Lopez
Then there's the shady deal over the lucrative 25 year ABQ racino lease awarded by Martinez's State Fair Commission to the ABQ Downs. For several years the story has been like a submarine. It dives deep out of sight only to resurface.

Still, state Dems have shied away from addressing this possible pay to play deal, even as the national media, this blog and others have followed the trail. But with the National Journal hit in November being followed by the ABQ Journal taking another bite out of the Downs apple this month, the issue is now finally heading into the political arena.

ABQ Senator and Dem Guv hopeful Linda Lopez, who spoke out critically of the deal last year, is chair of the Senate Rules Committee and comes with the surprise announcement:

 The Senate Rules Committee, which has statutory authority to evaluate and approve the Governor'€™s appointments to the State Fair Commission, will convene a hearing in the upcoming legislative session to question board members of their knowledge and actions pertaining to the multi-million-dollar contract. . . .

 €œThe administration is claiming that everything in the bidding process was conducted above board, but the new behind-the-scenes information revealed in the media accounts points to the contrary.

Of course, we will also invite {Martinez political adviser} Jay McCleskey, who was apparently deeply involved in the awarding of the lease, and Governor Martinez to come talk to Senate Rules Committee as well," Senator Lopez said. "€œI'€™m sure that if everything is as above board as they say, they will be more than happy to explain to the public and the Legislature their side of the story.

Well, Jay and Susana are going to get about as close to that Senate hearing as a cat would to a cold bath. Lopez, is already being accused by R's of grandstanding and she apparently won't be using the legislature's subpoena power but she will force the issue into the public limelight €in an attempt to give the Dems  more  ammo to fire on the campaign trail.


Bregman also said state Democrats want to see a constitutional amendment raising the minimum wage in the state to $10.

Bregman and Lopez are sure to fire up the demoralized base of the Democratic Party and satisfy special interests clamoring for action. The down side will likely be having Governor Martinez join hands with Senator Smith and paint themselves as "moderates" and Sam, Linda and the gang as out-of-touch liberals.

But with the Governor favored to win re-election and the state House bring threatened by a GOP takeover,  Dems have to throw long. They have done very little to erode the power of Martinez or Smith the past three years or to give their party's base much in the way of legislative satisfaction. They still might not get that legislation for their base, but they may finally get their attention.

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