The following article will appear in the January 12 edition of Capitol Report (http://capitol reportnm.com)
The year 2009 began in New Mexico with the political class lurching painfully toward the finish line of the Marathon of Uncle Bill, a six-year race so far. On the horizon for the past two years, the ending comes with a whimper, not a bang. Gone are the fantasies of Presidential glory, glamorous cabinet positions--taking Washington as triumphantly as he took New Mexico. The clock struck midnight and reality revealed itself as a pumpkin: the state is broke, the bills are coming due, the FBI is still digging through the mischief around Richardson, and it may take years for the legislature to recover from the shellacking it took from him. Are there lessons here? There should be plenty, but never underestimate the political class's propensity to forget from past mistakes.
While there is still a lot we don't know about Richardson's departure from state government (when it will happen, whether via resignation or an awkward sticking it out to the bitter end) this much is clear: Richardson has lost the capacity to control, once his strongest asset. He started losing touch with New Mexicans when he decided to run for President two years ago and lost interest in local affairs. He lost control over the political agenda as the state's financial situation turned sour last summer and the true costs of his projects (e.g. the Rail Runner) became known. Now the humiliating withdrawal from the Commerce job under the withering glare of the U.S. Attorney's office in Albuquerque has made closeness to Richardson a net drag, not an asset. This severs him even more from the already-flimsy political base he had left in New Mexico at the end of 2008, just as the political class fixes on the elections in 2010. All in all it is hard to imagine Richardson recovering enough legitimacy to be able to lead or govern with any degree of effectiveness. Think back to the last few months of the Anaya administration, with an approval rating of 17: this situation is worse.
In the state legislature, after years of slavish adulation and rubber-stamping for Papa Bill, the House, in particular, needs to rebuild its credibility as an independent and serious organ of government. How this is handled, and by whom, will help determine which legislators end up with strong political futures beyond 2010. How long the current House leadership, which depended heavily on pleasing Richardson, can hang on to power is unclear, but it is certain to face severe challenge. For the past few years the Richardson presence has sucked the oxygen away from most politicians, and there is a backlog of talented, ambitious politicians hoping to step into the vacuum. Richardson's misfortunes present an opening. At least in the short run, one's former relationship to Richardson--strong or weak--is likely to be a major fault line in legislative politics.
In the Senate Richardson's troubles may have an immediate impact on leadership. As it stands now, power is held in the South with: President Tim Jennings, from Roswell; Senate Finance Chair John Arthur Smith, from Deming; Chair of the New Mexico Finance Authority Oversight Committee Mary Kay Papen, from Las Cruces; and Education Chair Cynthia Nava, from Southern Dona Ana County. These four hold the keys to the room where the pie-to-be-split is held. Not a lot of money slips through without their tacit consent. But in November, openly proclaiming they wish to remand power to the North, a faction of Democrats close to Richardson openly challenged Jennings' leadership, which has been characterized as relatively independent of the Governor. If successful, Sen. Carlos Cisneros, from Questa, would become President. Sen. Pete Campos from Las Vegas would, it is rumored, replace Smith in Senate Finance, and Papen would be replaced as well. In the secret caucus vote on December 2 the Cisneros faction, it is rumored, won the fight 18-9. But Jennings immediately announced he was prepared to ask Republicans to vote for him on the floor for the Presidency in January. If they do, it will only take 7 votes among Democratic Senators for Jennings to retain his leadership of the Senate.
Unfortunately for the challengers, the Cisneros faction is composed of senators who were hightly deferential toward Richardson and in December, Richardson apparently called several Senators associated with the Jennings faction, asking them to reconsider their support. Given the governor's severely weakened status in January, however, it seems unlikely the Senate will hand power to the faction of Democrats most closely associated with him.
At the start of 2009 New Mexico is in bad shape--a challenge and an opportunity. As the public cries out for leadership at every level, in the face of economic strife, conflicts of interest and multiple public scandals, the challenge for the ambitious is to satisfy through good deeds. For the foreseeable future, though, the environment will be difficult for good deeds that cost money. With ethical standards at a dismal low point, perhaps a period of serious reform, which doesn't cost money and is badly needed, would be the strongest option. Let's clean up the state. Si no ahora, cuando?