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.