New Mexicans will have a chance on Tuesday to observe one of the first dramas in this brave new, scandal-ridden epoch of the Richardson administration. the choices could not be more stark in the election of the President Pro Tempore on the Senate floor, a position once occupied with great flair by Manny Aragon, soon to be photographed with numbers across his chest as he enters jail.
On the one hand there is Tim Jennings, a conservative Democrat, elected to replace the late Ben Altamirano. Jennings rules with moderate-to-conservative Democrats: Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, from Belen; Sen. Finance Chair John Arthur Smith, from Deming; New Mexico Finance Authority Oversight Chair Mary Kay Papen, from Las Cruces; and Education Chair Cynthia Nava, from the South Mesilla Valley. Jennings gave a speech on the floor of the Senate in 2003, complaining about the use of abusive language by the governor in his office in front of a roomful of people, including Jennings' wife. Michael Sanchez (already elected Majority Leader for the next session), while loyal to the governor, has nevertheless maintained a dignified independence on many issues. John Arthur Smith has been dubbed "Dr. No" because he has consistently challenged the governor's lavish spending habits, arguing, accurately, that we could not afford the raids he made on our treasury. Mary Kay Papen has steadfastly refused to play cheerleader for the governor's spending projects, for which she has often been punished. Only Cynthia Nava has been a loyal Richardsonista, perhaps in part because of her close personal relationship with Ron Curry, one of the governor's cabinet officers.
On the other hand you have a faction of liberal Democrats, headed by Carlos Cisneros, from Taos, who would become President; Cisco McSorley, from Albuquerque, perhaps the most liberal of all senators, currently Judiciary Chair, who would be in a position to control reapportionment; Pete Campos, from Las Vegas, currently a member of the Finance Committee, who would become Finance Chair; and Phil Griego, from San Jose, Chair of Conservation, possibly a candidate for a future leadership position. Without exception this faction, and other senators siding with Cisneros (e.g. Richard Martinez, Peter, Wirth, and Bernadette Sanchez) have been steadfast supporters of the governor through thick and thin. And Richardson has made no secret that he supports the Cisneros faction. In December he called in several members loyal to Jennings, asking them to reconsider their support.
But that was six weeks ago. Given: the governor's humiliating withdrawal from the cabinet position; and the potential problems in the U.S. Attorney's office over CDR; and the new accusations from a former chief investment officer about alleged pay to play which cost the state $90 million in lost pension and State Investment Council monies; and a state auditor's report sent to federal and state prosecutors revealing egregious abuse of state funds; and a quote in the Wall Street Journal from Attorney General Gary King on January 17 who, when asked how many case of corruption he expects to bring in from his investigations, replied, "more than a handful," do senators really want to hand power over from a leadership that remained appropriately independent from the governor to the faction that was most closely associated with him? Consituents in 42 Senate districts are watching.
But there is more to watch than the Senate. In the next few days and weeks many political futures will be determined by the choices political actors make about their loyalties: to the governor, to the publics they serve, to what they think is right. They will be forced to live with these choices. People remember what happens in a crisis. President-elect Obama stated that he hopes in his inaugural address to capture, define, the spirit of the moment--a moment of crisis--in his speech. In New Mexico it is the opposite: the moment--also in crisis--is capturing us, defining us, telling us and everyone else who we are. When the moral authority of a regime is questioned a crisis results. People in positions of authority (but not tainted) must judge whether the old patterns of loyalty to the boss should be over-ridden for the common good, or to avoid the wrath of the public. And there is never enough information or certainty. Some will answer yes, others no. Some will do their duty as they see fit, others will strive to protect their future political careers. But people will remember who we were.
Who is Diane Denish in this crisis? Does she help the governor circle the wagons, or does she make a clean break and, if so, how much and for what purposes? Who is Senator Michael Sanchez, Denish's potential opponent in the primary election for governor next year? Does he vote with the party caucus or does he support Jennings? How seriously will Attorney General Gary King pursue these cases, after two years of seeming inaction? Will he really risk alienating portions of the Democratic Party? How well did State Auditor Hector Balderas investigate the housing scandal? How clear was he about tracing lines of responsibility, connecting dots? How will House members react to the crisis, after years of submission? And in our own South Mesilla Valley, who is Cynthia Nava? Will she ignore her constituents (who are not fond of the governor) and her colleagues from the South and vote for pro-Richardson faction from the North? None of these are easy choices. But we are about to find out what some of our elected officials are made of. And we will remember.