Monday, March 16, 2015

Senate Dems Sting Martinez With Rare Rebuke Of A Regent As Chandler Hits The Mat; Battle Lines Drawn; What It Means, Plus: Jamie Koch Theatrics And Phil Griego Goes; How His Resignation Came Down And The Replacement Race 

Chandler & Martinez
Shellshock turned to rage on the Fourth Floor of the fabled Roundhouse Friday when word came that the New Mexico Senate--in a rare rebuke to a sitting Governor--had rejected the appointment of Matt Chandler to the University of New Mexico regents.

Gov. Martinez, suffering her first major political setback since assuming office in 2011, responded by having her spokesman employ language that put out front the backroom vituperativeness the rejection provoked:

The decision by these extreme Senate Democrats not to confirm a decent and highly qualified man is disgusting and pathetic. It’s despicable politics at its worst.

But in the 23 to 17 vote against the nomination all but one Democrat voted against Chandler. Well-known conservative Dems John Arthur Smith, Mary Kay Papen and Clemente Sanchez, who have often sided with the Governor on key policy issues, all rejected Chandler.  They are hardly "extreme."

As for "disgusting" and "pathetic," that borders on the personal, if not impinging on it. Even though the harsh reference is to "the decision" the Senators made, they are the kind of words that end relationships and reveal the deep-seated anger and frustration the executive harbors toward her opposition. The emotional outburst served to underline the scope of the defeat she suffered.

Clearly, the Governor and her political machine led by adviser Jay McCleskey are teeing the ball up for an attempted GOP takeover of the Senate in 2016 thus the effort to discredit the Senate. But the name calling and bullying is wearing thin with lawmakers and the political community at large. Often that presages a shift in gubernatorial popularity in a second term. We'll see. . .


Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, who held his side together on the Chandler vote with the exception of Sen. Pete Campos, said he had "never been prouder" of the Senate and left it at that. There was no need to shout. The vote was heard loudly and clearly from Taos to T or C. His foes argued that the victory would ultimately hurt the Democrats but political players of all stripes recognized it as a high-water mark in his lengthy leadership.


The Chandler debacle was accompanied by high-level political theatrics when UNM Regent and former NM Dem Party Chairman Jamie Koch announced he was resigning from the regents because the rejection of Chandler was "a low point" for the Senate. He argued that Chandler's political involvement was no reason to reject him, citing his own political tenure. If Koch and Martinez thought Koch's resignation would switch Dem votes, they were blindsided.

Koch's was a view shared by few, including it seemed Senate Republicans who voted for Chandler but did not publicly share the Governor's outrage at his defeat. Chandler--who is tied at the hip to the Governor's political machine--was treasurer for the big money PAC that helped engineer the GOP takeover of the state House last year with hard-hitting literature and media. He was simply too close to the recent political fires to be a viable nominee.

It didn't help that the Governor's operatives are openly boasting that they plan to repeat their '14 success and get GOP control of the Senate. That's what you call an existential threat.

Democrats like Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto--representing a swing ABQ district--seem to be realizing that no matter how hard they try to broker a deal the Guv's machine is going to come for them. The fight that state Democrats have put off time and again can no longer be denied or delayed. A loss of the Senate following the House loss would amount to an extinction level event. And that subtext was present in that Democratic display of unity over Chandler. Now everyone is asking if they can hold together in the final pressure-packed week as the Governor frantically tries to salvage a big win from this session.

This is not a politics that the 79 year old Koch is familiar with, having held political power in a much milder time when Democrats easily dominated, some mutual respect existed and somewhat bipartisan figures like Bruce King and Pete Domenici paraded across the state political stage. In excoriating the Senate and in trying to bail out the Governor while defending Chandler, Koch seemed like a football player running toward the wrong goal post.


The rejection of Chandler was more significant than any other such Senate rejection in living memory. That's because the Board of Regents is enshrined in the state Constitution. UNM is a state institution whose management and control are placed by the  Constitution into the hands of a seven-member Board of Regents. The spurning of Chandler will be a major marker of Martinez's tenure. Because he was formally rejected by the Senate, the Guv can't pull a fast one and try to appoint Chandler to the vacancy created by the Koch resignation.


For UNM President Bob Frank and VP David Harris, it was a rock and a hard place. They chose to use the soft touch on Susana. Frank said:

This whole set of events is a real loss to UNM,” given the “very complicated waters the university is in right now. We need these regents. We’re facing enormous financial challenges right now. Being a regent takes hundreds of hours.

The university has become so political under Gov. Richardson and now Martinez you can see Frank's dilemma. He has a budget in Santa Fe to worry about but in a battle between two equal branches of government, the more circumspect response would not have been a kowtow to the Fourth Floor, but a rose to both sides. Like this:

UNM respects the constitutional process of regent selection. We are hopeful that we will soon have all vacancies filled so we can fully address the challenges facing us. 

That Frank was unable to issue such a statement shows how UNM remains drenched in politics.


Besides the aforementioned Koch, other Democrats who found themselves out of position on the big story were the tag team of Attorney General Hector Balderas and former NM Democratic Party Chairman Brian Colon who is the current president of the UNM Alumni Association. They publicly endorsed Chandler. They simply got it wrong, assuming that he would make it through and the Democratic base would not take notice. This was the first significant Democratic uprising against the Republican Governor and was a big miss for the AG who led the state Dem ticket in '14.

Balderas is not the only Democrat who has played footsie with the Governor and her political machine. Now with battle lines being drawn and the stakes much higher, such games will be scrutinized by all manner of observers--including those who nurture hopes for the 2018 Dem Governor nomination.


Sen. Griego (Bralley)
The race is on to replace Phil Griego. The ethically embattled Democratic state Senator became one of the first senators in decades to resign amid a legislative session as ethics charges over a real estate deal he brokered took him down. Now the guessing game is over who will replace the conservative Dem. Guv Martinez makes the call. But first. . .

The six county commissions in the district will send Martinez recommendations. She wants to appoint as fast as possible to get that conservative vote onto the Senate floor for the final days of the legislative session which ends Saturday. That appears doubtful.

Her insistence that the county commissions hold emergency meetings is getting stiff push back and she risks losing another political battle to the state Senate. An open government group says state law requires 72 hours notice for the county commission meetings. Martinez is trying to say an emergency exists and the 72 hours is not a requirement.

Senate Dem leaders are expected to resist seating any appointment by Martinez unless all six counties have had the chance to submit a name to her. That is not expected until at least Friday. The leaders have put her on notice that she needs to take off the track shoes.

Martinez was backing off Sunday, with her office indicating it will stop trying to rush the process.

The Torrance County Commission met Sunday and selected Republican Ted Barela, a former mayor of Estancia. Video of the Torrance commission meeting is here. The Lincoln County Commission also met Sunday and sent Martinez the name of Republican County Commissioner Tom Stewart.

In what could be seen as a sign of weakness for the Governor, Harvey Twite of Ruidoso radio station KEDU-FM reported of the Lincoln commission meeting:

The commissioners decided against the Governor's recommendation of former NM Bureau of Elections Director Bobbi Shearer. who has roots in Lincoln County.

Twite further reports that Shearer told the commission she had the support of the Governor.

A move was made at the Torrance meeting to nominate Shearer but no commissioner did.

Now to the drama over Griego that played out Friday and Saturday at the Roundhouse. NM Politics with Joe Monahan takes you directly to the floor of the Senate for the history-making hours:

Joe, the whole Senate Friday was asking: "Is today the last day for Phil Griego?" After the behind the scenes maneuvering over the ethics charges filed against him, the hope among Democrats was that he would resign by the end of the day. If he didn't it was feared the GOP caucus would move for expulsion. That would put the Democrats in an untenable position: if we vote to expel and he fights it, the caucus would be split beyond repair. If we didn't vote to expel, it would offer a golden opportunity for the Governor to paint us as protecting unethical behavior and that could help to turn the Senate over to Republican control in 2016.

For weeks Griego hunkered down with his lawyers and pretended everything would be made to go away. When he finally wised up and retained effective counsel, he had to stipulate to all the charges the investigation brought against him. If he did not resign he probably would have been expelled. 

That is some heavy duty politics and we're glad to get it out there so it's understood just what prompted that resignation in the final vote-filled days of this legislative session.

This is the home of New Mexico politics.

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