Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Road to Pay to Play: Richardson Style

The following is scheduled to appear in on Wednesday.

There were two kinds of cautionary signals from the very beginning. One had to do with the governor's bullying style--rumors of a key staff member getting into a scuffle with the governor and being escorted out of the capitol by police; a speech that Sen. Jennings gave on the floor of the Senate, complaining about the use of abusive language; the hardball targeting in 2004 of Democrats who had challenged the governor; and other signs of obvious displeasure against legislators or lobbyists who disagreed. The governor appeared to have mastered the advice Machiavelli gave to the prince: it is better to be feared than loved.

The other had to do with money: the Richardson administration elevated fund-raising to an art form, at an unprecedented level of prominence and glamor, and the dollar amounts broke all records. There were fundraisers in-state, out-of-state, big ones, little ones, fat ones, skinny ones. And people doing business or wanting to do busines with the state were at least as encouraged to contribute as anyone else, probably more. The governor, generous about lending his presence to fund raise for others, became a money raising machine, and very quickly the word got out that the governor's promise to attend a fund raiser was a guarantee of its success. Fund raisers received appointments to powerful positions on boards and commissions and in other ways proved they could manage to get plenty of face time with Big Bill.

But the governor was hugely popular, with a personality larger than life, a great sense of humor, and a captivating speaker, perhaps the best platform speaker in New Mexico political history. Moveover, Richardson let it be known from the beginning he was planning a return to Washington, possibly in a presidential bid in 2008. In the face of such popularity, why not? In a few years Richardson and those close to him might be batting in the big leagues: rocking the boat was dangerous, and it seemed downright petty to do so in the presence of such glamor.

This combination of the governor's immense popularity, his success as a fund raiser, his future potential, and his vindictiveness against opposition, stirred and garnished with countless anecdotes, made for a powerful carrot-and-stick soup. People had misgivings from the beginning--about policy directions, about spending decisions (which tended to be lavish), and aobut the governor's accumulating power. But these were shared only with the closest of friends. Misgivings disappeared from the visible political radar screen: taBOO.

Why two critical sectors of the political class of New Mexico--the news media and legislative leaders of both parties--chose to ignore the warning signals will be debated for years. In particular, the Albuquerque Journal, one of the greatest family-owned newspapers left in the U.S. today, normally an avid reporter of the fine print of gubernatorial action, seemed always to go along, expressing virtually no concerns. One theory is that Richardson astutely hired media persons, such as Bill Hume, into his staff, providing a potential back-channel for interpreting eyebrow-raising issues. Another is that the Journal, sensing Richardson had strong national potential, simply decided to give the big guy a chance at the long shot, hoping his fine print, if ever revealed, would not contain too many disappointments. Whatever the case, in-depth reporting about the administration's downside appeared to cease.

In the legislature, especially the House, leadership abandoned all pretense of independence, casting off the role of check and balancer in favor of the role of chief enabler. For the first year or two this was normal: honeymoons are expected. After a while though, it became a habit. Speaker Ben Lujan had a highly autocratic style and tolerated little deviation from the (mostly) governor's agenda. An unsuccessful move against him surfaced in 2006, in part because of allegations Lujan had protected his friend Smiley Gallegos in spite of credible accusations of serious wrong doing in Gallegos' administration of state housing programs, but mainly because of his autocratic behavior. It is unclear why the Speaker was so devoted to the governor's agenda, but in the wake of current scandals the House will have to work hard to reestablish its credibility as an independent and serious institution, and not all of this can be blamed on the Speaker.

The unique combination of virtues and vindictiveness in unlikely to appear soon in another governor in New Mexico, nor would it be tolerated again. So taking steps to prevent another Richardson seems unnecessary. Let us remember: Richardson did not invent pay-to-play in New Mexico. State Treasurer Jess Kornegay went to jail in the late 1970s. State Treasurer Earl Hartley pleaded guilty to misuse of funds in the 1980s. State Treasurer Michael Montoya and Robert Vigil are in jail today for sins committed in the 1990s and 2000s. President Pro Tem of the Senate Manny Aragon will be sentenced to jail later this year. What Richardson did was to flaunt fund raising, suggesting his success at it was a sign he had glamorous friends and national stature, rather than a red flag to be monitored with deep suspicion.

It is self evident that party leaders in New Mexico, slurping expensive food and liquor at lobbyist-paid-for events, help create a socially acceptable infrastructure for pay-to-play. This is only in part a legacy of the Richardson years. Some partisan activists long ago lost their ability to distinguish between "pay your dues," in the sense of "prove your commitment to our community," and "pay to play," in the sense of "let financial ties to power determine the outcome of public policy." Pay to play in New Mexico would be far less serious were it not for its partisan enablers, and if ambitious state law enforcement officials worried more about public corruption and less about offending powerful enablers.

If the Albuquerque Journal and members of the House should pause to reflect on their roles in the story of Richardson, the rest of the political class in New Mexico should re-examine its increasing tolerance of and growing addiction to the unprecedented flow and influence of money into New Mexico politics. Let's face it: the state has been up for sale for several years. Unless serious action is taken now nothing will change when Richardson leaves the state.

No comments: