Wednesday, December 31, 2008
1. Rapid Growth: The major story of the year, by far, was the continuing $5 billion expansion of Ft. Bliss, as dirt began to move and the implications for growth in the Valle became clear. Related to this is the construction of the largest maquila plant in Mexico, by a Taiwanese industrial firm, Foxconn, which began in July at San Jeronimo, next to the Santa Teresa-San Jeronimo border crossing. These two projects assure rapid growth in the Valle del Sur into the forseeable future, in spite of the recession affecting the U.S. and Mexico. That is the good news. But as we have stated repeatedly here, the political system in New Mexico is not equipped to handle this kind of growth. At the local level, the Valle del Sur has a long history of fragmentation, with little or no long-term planning at the regional (i.e., South Valley) level. Splitting up capital outlay funds from the legislature into small-scale, ad-hoc community projects--a swimming pool here, a building there, a park somewhere else--is simply not serving the interests of long-term development. County government has all-too-often treated the South Valley as a step-child, jealous of any sign of independence and anxious to impose its will with little or no consultation. Rapid growth gives us little margin for error. Either we gain control over it ourselves, or we will end up being controlled by special interests in another state or country. The political class inside the region must unite behind a regional priority agenda that is communicated to Washington and Santa Fe, and use every ounce of political leverage to make it happen.
2. The Withdrawal of Valle del Sur Rep. Joseph Cervantes from the Congressional Race: In late December, after a strong start in what appeared to be a shoo-in primary election for him, Rep. Joseph Cervantes withdrew from the congressional race, citing family obligations. This opened up the race for the other candidates, none of whom had any legislative experience, and none of whom had strong connections in the South Valley.
3. Martin Resendiz Elected Mayor: In March, after a hard-fought battle, Martin Resendiz was elected to succeed Ruben Segura as Mayor of Sunland Park. Resendiz obtained 800 votes while his opponent, Juan Fuentes, received 464 votes. Segura announced in December he would not run for re-election. In the same municipal elections, Horacio Favela was elected to replace Resendiz, who vacated his position as municipal judge to run for mayor. However, Favela was charged four days before the elections, in magistrate court, with false voting and was later suspended without pay by the New Mexico Supreme Court pending the outcome of a subsequent grand jury indictment on six felony counts, including false voting, falsifying election documents, and falsely swearing in a municipal election.
4. Teague Wins Primary: Harry Teague, from Lea County, defeated his Dona Ana County-based opponent, Bill McCamley, by 1684 votes in the Democratic primary election for Congressional District No. 2. Although McCamley won Dona Ana County by nearly 2700 votes, he lost the South Valley vote by 54 votes, largely because of dissatisfaction with his support for the Spaceport tax the year before.
5. Gadsden Independent School District Financial Mess: In October GISD officials disclosed that they had overspent by $3.9 million, a debt that had accumulated over the past four years during which time, contrary to New Mexico law, no audits of the District had been undertaken. Teachers and employees were told to choose between eliminating 97 positions or accepting a one-week non-paid vacation, to make up the shortfall. Then, suddenly, GISD officials announced they had found a better solution, acceptable to statewide education officials: GISD would be able to take $3.9 in "unspent" funds used in the construction of Chaparral High School two years ago and apply these to the deficit. This was a highly unusual financial sleight-0f-hand, which reminded other school districts that GISD is headed by a state senator, Cynthia Nava, perhaps eligible for solutions not available to other districts. When the New Mexico School Board Association presented GISD with its annual award for best school district, there was a strong outcry against what appeared to be a lack of accountability for district officials, due to what many perceived to be a strong conflict of interest between Nava's role as GISD superintendent and her other role as state senator, chair of the senate education committee.
6. Valley Environmental Groups Frustrated With State Inaction: After years of complaining about environmental disasters in the valle, such as the landfill in Sunland Park, and the Helena plant in Mesquite, environmental activists were highly discouraged by what they consider to be false promises and inaction by state agencies responsible for protecting the public. In the case of the Sunland landfill, for example, the state in 2008 allowed Camino Real a one-year extension on it's ten-year contract, permitting it to apply for a renewal, rather than shutting it down. Camino Real is basically a dumping ground for garbage from El Paso. Citizens acted out their frustration on October 18, at a rally for Presidential Candidate Obama in Sunland Park, when they organized a protest against Governor Richardson, causing him to exit with police protection before finishing his remarks.
7. Anthony Takes First Steps Toward Incorporation: Late in 2008 citizens presented the county with petitions to incorporate Anthony as a municipality. This is the first step in the process of incorporation. A vote on the issue is expected to take place in July of 2009, so this story may be one of the biggest stories of 2009 for the Valle del Sur.
8. Election 2008: The South Valley's growing political clout was evident in various ways during the 2008 election. For one thing, the Obama campaign opened a headquarters in Anthony, New Mexico, the first time a presidential campaign has done this. For another, the South Valley was a prominent actor in the surrogate game during the elections, with visits by Hillary Clinton, Henry Cisneros, Rep. Silvestre Reyes, John McCain, Joe Biden, and others. With 23,918 registered voters, it is not hard to understand why. If the South Valley were a county by itself, it would be 13th in voter registration size out of 33, larger than San Miguel County, only 1800 voters shy of Rio Arriba County and 1000 voters shy of Taos County voter registration numbers. Within the next election cycle or two the South Valley will surpass both of these and begin to catch up to Lea County.
"We came as conquerors...Hispanics won't vote for a black president." (Fernando C. de Baca, Bernalillo County Republican Chair)
"I don't know a single Hispanic voter over 50 who will cast a vote for Obama." (Sen. Mary Jane Garcia, Democrat, Dona Ana County)
Moreover, the South Valley gave Obama a 68.2% margin, fully 10 points ahead of the 58% vote margin it gave to Kerry in 2004. With a population that is 84% Hispanic, this statistic alone explodes the myth that Hispanics will not vote for a black person. National statistics also prove overwhelmingly that Hispanics of all ages preferred Obama to McCain.
The task of the Valle del Sur in 2009 is to convert these important electoral accomplishments into action on the economic development front, so that we don't become pawns to special interests in El Paso and Cd. Juarez. We need to cooperate with our neighbors, yes, but on an equal footing.
Thursday, December 25, 2008
The next Sunland Park City Council meeting is scheduled for January 6 at 7 p.m. in City Hall.
Sunday, December 21, 2008
Our World in Stupor Lies
Yet dotted everywhere
Ironic points of light flash out
Wherever the Just exchange their messages
May I, composed like them of Eros and of dust
Beleagured by the same negation and despair
Show an affirming flame.
W. H. Auden
In welcoming the New Year, let us pause to acknowledge the importance of leadership. I hereby offer a toast to a few people I know who showed "an affirming flame" during the election cycle. There are many, many people who deserve a toast, so please don't get offended if I neglected someone. Use the Comment section to add other worthy people to the list of toasts.
Para Luis Avila, regional coordinator for Obama in Anthony, who taught us que si se puede. In spite of all the inflexibilities, misunderstandings, and confusion of the campaign (isn't this true of all campaigns?) Luis kept up the faith, sometimes acting alone, showing the flag with enthusiasm, energy, and good humor. And it paid off! Un brindis! Salud!
Para Pat Banegas, Anthony Sanitation District, for his mentoring of a new generation of South Valley leaders and his abiding concern for the welfare of the Valle. Un brindis! Salud!
Para Oscar Butler, outgoing county commissioner, for his passion for the underdog, his political courage, his exceptional political skills, and his long record of success as a commissioner. Gracias, Oscar: Te brindamos! Salud!
Para la familia de Chope Benavides, for your example to the world of all that a family might be, but hardly ever is. May you continue in prosperity and health! Un Brindis! Salud!
Para Rose Garcia, Tierra del Sol, for her significant achievements in housing, for her loyalty to the autonomy of the Valle, and for her quiet, affirming flame. Un brindis! Salud!
Para Manuel M. Leyva, San Miguel, for his uncompromising faith, not only to his religion, but for his devotion to the Valle and his faith in its people. Un brindis! Salud!
Para Victor Montoya, Anthony, for linking Anthony with the wider political system during the elections. May you be successful in the coming year in incorporating Anthony as a municipality. Un brindis! Salud!
Para Our Elected Officials--Saldana-Caviness, Butler, Garcia, Cervantes, Nava, and Papen--for the hard work they do behind the scenes, often when nobody is looking and no one else cares, on our behalf. Un brindis! Salud!
Para Harry Teague, who showed us in the Mesquite forum he could fight, and who proved to us he would work, in his quiet, unassuming way, to earn our vote. Un brindis! Salud!
Para Ruben Segura, for his years of service to the people of Sunland Park, and for his vision for an independent source of news for the Valle del Sur. Buena Suerte, y un brindis! Salud!
Para Benito Trevino, who worked tirelessly in Berino for Obama and who brought in the highest percentage for Obama in the entire South Valley. Un brindis! Salud!
Para Arturo Uribe, Mesquite, another si se puede type, for showing the Valle that collective action can bring a polluting plant to its knees, and for challenging political leadership to pay attention. Un brindis! Salud!
Para Luz Vargas and her group of activists in Sunland Park, for showing the Valle that Texas polluting plants should be held accountable for the damage they do to New Mexicans, and for upbraiding the governor for his silence on the landfill issue. Un brindis! Salud!
Finally, Para la memoria de quien fuera Leo Orona, de Mesquite: por su vision de lo que pudiera ser el Valle del Sur, y por su incansable esfuerzo para realizarla. Un bridis en silencio.
The margin of victory for Obama in the Valle was nearly 5000 votes, 41 percent of the margin of victory for Obama for the county as a whole, and double the margin for Kerry in 2004. Were the Valle a county all by itself, this would have placed it 9th among all 33 counties, not shabby at all. Turnout was higher than in 2004, and Democratic performance was better. These numbers can no longer be ignored by the political class either in the rest of Dona Ana County or in the state as a whole.
Lest anyone think 2008 was a fluke, the $5 billion expansion of Ft. Bliss is exploding into the Valle, bringing rapid growth in spite of the recession. The recession will hurt growth from Mexico, but in the long run rapid growth along the U.S.-Mexico border is inevitable. The Valle is stronger today than it was yesterday but not as strong as it will be tomorrow.
In the New Mexico Senate, two of the most powerful senators, Mary Kay Papen, Chair of the New Mexico Finance Authority Oversight Committee, and Cynthia Nava, Chair of the Education Committee, represent the Valle del Sur. At least at the moment, power is held in the Senate by persons representing the South, with Sen. Tim Jennings, from Roswell, President of the Senate, and Sen. John Arthur Smith, from Deming, Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, in addition to Papen and Nava. Citizens of the Valle should be concerned about threats to this power structure: as reported here, a group of Nortenos is hoping to overthrow Jennings and impose power from the North. Every time this has happened in the past the South has suffered.
In the New Mexico House the Valle has one of the most promising politicians in the state, Joseph Cervantes, as well as veteran Mary Helen Garcia, Chair of the Economic and Rural Development Committee. Unlike the Senate, the House is controlled from the North, often to the detriment of our interests, and Cervantes was stripped of his chairmanship of the House Judiciary Committee because he challenged this state of affairs; in the long run, however, this will help his credibility.
Congressman-elect Harry Teague got even more votes in the Valle than Obama. He spent time in the Valle, and is increasingly aware of our problems. He also seems genuinely interested in helping us out. He should be a solid asset for us and we will need him.
These are solid achievements. The Valle deserves to be proud of them, and for the moment let us celebrate. But there are serious challenges ahead.
The challenge for the Valle del Sur is to convert these gains into tangible action.
The Valle is still one of the poorest spots in New Mexico: our needs are great. But after squandering our money in the North for several years, the state coffers are empty. We need to get our share of what is left.
Out community leaders need to create a region-wide list of priorities and communicate these to our representatives. If we don't do this for ourselves, interest groups in El Paso and Albuquerque will do it for us.
We need to start thinking about our regional needs, not just local capital outlay projects. Only with a unified vision and coherence will we be able to control our future.
Our representatives need to communicate clearly and publicly to power just what our needs are and to demand attention.
If we don't have our act together we cannot convert our electoral success into concrete action for our benefit.
But for the moment, let us pause and celebrate for a job well done in 2008!
Sunday, December 14, 2008
Similarly, when statewide officials appeared to give thumbs up to the fiction that unused capital outlay funds could retroactively be applied to ongoing budget shortfalls, they were almost certainly motivated by a concern to ease the pain for Senator Nava (with powerful education committees under her control), not Superintendent Nava. Would any other superintendent in the state get such favorable treatment? And the School Board be given an award to boot?
It is unfair to the public and, as we are finding out, to Cynthia Nava herself, to allow the schizophrenia of the two hats to co-exist. Fact is, the public just won't buy the conflict of interest, not even in her own District. It is all too clear now that accountability--to the kids, the teachers, the parents, and the people of the state of New Mexico who pay the bills--has been crippled beyond recognition.
In fairness to Sen. Nava, it takes two to tango, and if state officials have winked at questionable actions by GISD officials, this is more of a commentary on their ethical make-up, double standards, and servile attitude to power than it is about Nava. Like the Sun-News editorialized the other day, "how can Auditor Hector Balderas let a district go for so long without completing an audit? And where was Education Secretary Veronica Garcia when the district was spending four years digging itself in the hole?" Are there others out there who should be questioned about this as well? These officials are paid good money to make sure taxpayer money is monitored in the best interests of the people of the state. The schizophrenia of the two hats extends well beyond the wearer of the two hats, and is in all probability more damaging to the public than the schizophrenia of the wearer.
None of this started with Cynthia Nava. Just in Dona Ana County alone, there were serious conflicts of interest, almost certainly thought out with great deliberation, when the County hired state senator Fernando Macias to be county manager. Wearing those two hats must have been a ball: could the county commissioners afford to fire a state senator? If a county elected official were unhappy with the treatment his office received from the manager, would they complain about the very person they might be lobbying in Santa Fe for favors during the session? A great deal of mischief took place under this arrangement, including the false arrest of Mayor Ruben Segura when he refused to bend to the county's efforts to monopolize the development of water resources in the Southern part of the county. Rumors of corruption still circulate in connection with some of the county commissioners of that time period.
Other counties have conflicts as well. Senator Pete Campos, from District 8, which includes Guadalupe, Torrance, and parts of San Miguel, Santa Fe, and Mora counties, was also a superintendent of the Las Vegas Public Schools until he became President of the Luna Community College in Las Vegas earlier this year, another serious conflict of interest.
The Campos story has another twist. Campos is rumored to be in line, should Carlos Cisneros succeed in becoming President Pro Tem of the Senate to replace Sen. John Arthur Smith, from Luna County, as Chair of the Senate Finance Committee. As I mentioned in a blog about this below, should Cisneros succeed, the power now enjoyed by Southern Senators--Tim Jennings, John Arthur Smith, Mary Kay Papen, Cynthia Nava--will be lost to the North. And if the books at Luna Community College start looking like they need an audit, or if he decides his campus needs special appropriations, do you really trust President Campos to restrain from using his clout with Senator Campos, Chair of Senate Finances, to make nice things happen?
The Nava case, if anything, proves that it is a bad idea to exempt public school officials from the doctrine that state government workers cannot function as state legislators. Superintendents are important state government officials and taxpayers should not have to put up with the kinds of games that can be played on all sides when state legislators wear one hat too many.
In October the District was found to have gone four years without obeying a legal requirement to conduct annual audits, and was $3.9 million in the hole. Employees were asked to choose between eliminating 97 positions or accepting a one-week non-paid vacation. Then, mysteriously, the $3.9 million was "found" in a similar amount that, magically, had not been used in the construction of Chaparral High School two years ago. The legality of spending unused capital outlay funds in this fashion is highly suspect, for various reasons, and had every appearance of an ad-hoc, politically motivated face-saving gesture by state officials who might have the power to legalize the expenditure, but not to legitimize it. Whose face was being saved? Sen. Cynthia Nava's, GISD Superintendent, who also happens to be Chair of the Senate Education Committee, co-chair of the Public School Capital Outlay Oversight Task Force, an interim committee, and vice chair of the Legislative Education Study Committee of the legislature.
All of this led to severe criticism of school officials (see my blog of November 14, here) in the news media and among parents and teachers in GISD. But the granting of the award to the School Board seemed to be precisely the kind of symbolic gesture that underscored the enormous hypocrisy the state public school system establishment had put on display in dealing with GISD problems. Now, it seemed, the NM School Boards Association was currying favor with Senator Nava by giving Superintendent Nava and her School Board a badly needed lift. If so, it backfired.
In a story this morning on the front page of the Las Cruces Sun News, writer Ashley Meeks quotes Cynthia Miranda a twenty-plus year veteran of the District: This award "is an embarrassment, when we were about to lose our jobs....Where did all this money go? Because it's not in the classrooms. It is not in the classrooms....This school board has to be held accountable." Another teacher, Sabby Navarro is quoted by Meeks as saying, "We just don't think (the award) is a good thing. We're not really happy." She said she doesn't think the administration "actually understands how bad the budget is....They sort of forget about it." There are rumors circulating in the Valley that parents are meeting in parts of the District to discuss potential action against school officials.
Monday, December 8, 2008
The Jennings-Cisneros Fight as a Democrat-Republican Thing:
The most common argument I hear against Jennings is that Democrats should not be consorting with Republicans, giving them power when the public voted in three new Democrats to the Senate just weeks ago. Attractive at first glance, this argument fails the most basic test of credibility for two powerful reasons. First, should Jennings win, power will remain strictly among Democrats, whether in the form of committee chairs or key assignments. Republicans will vote for Jennings not because he promises them power, but because they prefer his leadership in the Senate to that of Cisneros and his allies, for other reasons. Second, allegiance to the Democratic Party, while it sounds good, often gets trotted out only when convenient. Manny Aragon had no qualms about joining in with Republicans when it brought him to the Presidency of the Senate in 1988, but he complained bitterly about lack of loyalty to party when Richard Romero ousted him from that position by joining with Republicans in the Senate in 2001. The Jennings-Cisneros fight is not about party loyalty, and you should be suspicious about the motives and candor of anyone who makes this argument.
The Jennings-Cisneros Fight as a Conservative-Liberal Thing:
This argument has more credibility. Jennings and his closest allies are more conservative than Cisneros and his. Thus, the argument goes, liberal Democrats would like to replace Jennings with a more liberal President. But while this may appeal to some liberal senators, whose numbers increased slightly in the November senate elections, it should not be overstated. Sen. Cisco McSorely, perhaps the most liberal senator of all (and an advocate for Cisneros) showed no loyalty toward fellow liberal President Manny Aragon in 2001 when he joined Richard Romero and conservative Republicans to throw Manny out. And Jennings was certainly not too conservative a year ago even for the most liberal of senators when they nominated him in caucus and voted unanimously for him on the floor. So the move to replace Jennings is motivated by more than this.
The Jennings-Cisneros Fight as a North-South Thing:
From what I have read in blogs and newspaper reports, several senators from the North are arguing that, with Jennings out, power would be restored to the North. This is true. The South at this time has three key positions: Jennings, president of the senate, is from Roswell. John Arthur Smith, Chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, and Mary Kay Papen, Chair of the New Mexico Finance Authority Oversight Committee, are from the south. Should Jennings lose and these two positions go to nortenos, power will in fact have been transferred from south to north. There will be no sureno left in a key position. So there are powerful north-south dynamics going on here, and Southern senators who have not yet decided whom to support for President should carefully consider the prospects of a senate controlled by nortenos. Every time this has happened in the past Southern Democrats and the interests they represent have been ignored by power structures in the north. And if nortenos feel comfortable arguing to take power away from the south, surenos should feel equally comfortable arguing to maintain power in the south.
The Jennings-Cisneros Fight and Governor Richardson
There are persistent rumors that Governor Richardson has decided to side with Cisneros. Recent op-ed pieces filled with rage against Jennings, written by John Wertheim, who has been anything but independent of the Governor, suggest this may be true. If so it raises serious questions about the motivations of both the governor and the Cisneros faction in seeking a change in the leadership of the senate. The senate, under both Ben Altamirano and Tim Jennings, while often going along with the Governor, has been relatively independent, compared with the House. It was Sen. John Arthur Smith, and fellow senators, for example, who told the Governor last summer that the state’s economic condition did not warrant a tax rebate to citizens pushed by the Governor, a stance that has proven to be right on target, and which saved taxpayers a lot of money. Why would the governor, who is scheduled to leave the state during the session, want to help control the outcome of this fight? If he has good reasons, he should come out in public and state them. And senators should make up their minds who to vote for on the basis of what is good for their constituents, rather than pressure from the Governor.
Where do we stand?
There is no single or simple explanation for the struggle to control the senate. Some senators may be motivated to elect a liberal, some to elect a northerner, some may have personal likes or dislikes among the contenders. And there are some reasons, good or bad, we may not even be aware of. There is also good old-fashioned self-interest: some senators will benefit if Jennings is overthrown, and some will benefit if he stays. A lot will boil down to a question of individual trust. Southern senators, however, had better have very powerful reasons before they vote to hand their power back to the north.
Saturday, December 6, 2008
Last Sunday state senate Democrats held a tense caucus at the Isleta Casino near Albuquerque to select leaders for the next session. Michael Sanchez, of Belen, was retained as majority floor leader, and Mary Jane Garcia, Dona Ana, and David Ulibarri, of Grants, were retained as whip and caucus chair, respectively. The interesting part of the meeting concerned the nomination for President Pro Tem of the Senate, and the casino was an apt setting for the high-stakes poker game than ensued. After a secret vote, with the ballots seen and counted only by two senators, it was announced that Carlos Cisneros, from Taos county, had beaten Tim Jennings, the incumbent President, from Roswell. No vote totals were announced and the ballots were destroyed.
The President of the Senate is a powerful position, inasmuch as the President is chair of the Committee’s Committee, which makes all committee assignments. In addition, the President has a good deal of procedural and administrative authority in directing traffic during a session, and will preside over the Senate, or delegate this job, whenever the Lt. Governor is absent. While not as powerful as the Speaker of the House, who makes all committee assignments and refers bills to committees, the President normally has a great deal of discretion over what happens during a session, and is the most powerful person in the senate.
The vote for Cisneros is not necessarily the end of the story. Unlike the other leaders, the President of the Senate is chosen by the entire body, including both parties. The selection of Cisneros in the caucus was only a nomination and the first item of business when the senate convenes in January will be to elect the President on the floor of the Senate. Each senator’s vote will be publicly recorded. Between now and then members are free to change their minds and, of course, with Republicans voting, the possibility exists that Cisneros will not win the presidency. It is even possible, although highly unlikely, that Democrats and Republicans might form a coalition to elect a Republican to the leadership seat.
Normally the party with the most votes sticks together in these affairs. The caucus nominee for President will receive all of the votes of the majority party on the floor vote, even those who opposed the nomination in the caucus. There is a logic to this unity, since it denies the minority party a role, and hence the possibility of rewards, in the selection of key members of the body. If it all works like it should, even those party members who voted against the winner in the caucus are rewarded more than the members of the minority party, so they have a stake in preserving the unity of the party even after losing out in the initial caucus nomination.
Sometimes, however, internal divisions are such that winning leaders get greedy, ignoring loyal members of the winning side, or rewarding members of the minority party instead of, say, those members who voted against the caucus winner. In these cases disgruntled senators can, if they choose, select a different leader from the majority party or they can join forces with the minority party and get enough votes to control the leadership of the whole body. The last time this latter happened, in 2001, Senator Richard Romero and 2 other Democrats joined in with the Republicans to toss out President Manny Aragon. Before that, Manny Aragon joined in with four other Democrats and 21 Republicans in 1988 to become President.
Sen. Tim Jennings has made it known he intends to hold onto his job as President by joining with the 15 Republicans who are left in the Senate. In order for this to happen he will need at least 7 Democratic votes, including his own. There are 42 members of the senate.