Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Where New Mexico Stands One Year Before Gubernatorial Elections: The Transition

The following commentary written by Yours Truly will be published in Capitol Report New Mexico (, a magazine, early next week. The title is: The Transition

As the summer wears on power slips away, silently, invisibly, from the ruling structure that governed (or dominated) the state during the Richardson administration, already referred to in the past tense. Movers and shakers, fundraisers, the funded, and the wannabe funded are moving on, seeking inclusion in the as-yet unshaped ruling structure of tomorrow. The transition will be difficult.

The prestige of the political class is badly damaged as the public absorbs the depth and breadth of corruption in the state. It's not just a voracious governor granting too many favors after money is received. Equally disturbing are cozy relationships elsewhere: Smiley Gallegos, indicted for fraud, conducting business in the Speaker of the House's office; the Metro Court construction theft, which convicted former Senate President Manny Aragon and others; the Wi-Fi scandal in Sandoval county, where contracts for work never delivered were doled out to people with powerful connections but no Wi-Fi experience; the indictment of PRC Commissioner Jerome Block Jr., for embezzlement and tampering with evidence, along with his father, a former commissioner; the $17,000 party in Las Vegas that led to convictions; the sweet deal from Pat Lyons for contributor and land developer Philip Philippou; the Wackenhut contracts under Republican Governor Gary Johnson. It is not difficult to think of other examples. It was the political class as a whole--party activists, legislators, newspaper editors, etc.--intoxicated, or cowed, by the larger-than-life-image of Bill Richardson in those free-flying days of yore, which enabled such excesses by ignoring the tell-tale signs. The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves if we are underlings: Act I Scene II, Julius Caesar.

Now the state is broke, after a spending spree for which there is little to show. Education spending, which gobbles up almost two thirds of the budget, increased 40% under Richardson, while student scores languished at the bottom of the national barrel. Taxpayers, says Paul Gessing, are subsidizing $16.89 for every rider on the Rail Runner train, after forking over $400 million on a rail system losing money at an accelerating pace. The recession slashed revenues, forcing cutbacks in state agencies. But only an extremely small fraction of the political class dared to raise these issues when the governor was insisting on doing it his way. And they tended to be ostracized not only by the governor but also by the political class as a whole.

Out next governor will come to office without the personal stature Richardson enjoyed, without a strong financial cushion, and without the level of public trust state government has enjoyed for the last two decades. The 800 lb. gorilla in the room today is not Richardson: it is the potential reaction, still unknown, of the public to a ruling class that continues to insist everything is fine, really, the public doesn't care about these things.

Normally this would be roll-up-the-sleeves time for Republicans. The GOP would offer to clean up, fix the finances, and manage the state with responsibility and purpose. But Republicans in New Mexico squandered their watchdog role in recent years, focusing instead on divisive national issues just when a Republican White House was abandoning classic Republican principles, fighting an unwise and expensive war, and not managing the store when Hurricane Katrina blew in. The Republican Party is out of touch with New Mexico, as the public made clear in last year's clean sweep.

Sensing this weakness, Republican outsiders, each attractive, stepped up with what amounts to unauthorized bids for the governorship: Rep. Janice Arnold-Jones, of this year's web-cam fame, in her fourth term as a state legislator; District Attorney Susana Martinez, one of the few elected Hispanic Republicans; and Doug Turner, campaign manager for Gary Johnson and public relations specialist. The only insider is Allen Weh, Republican party chair since 2004. Will one of these find a voice that resonates with the public? Gary Johnson and David Cargo came out of nowhere to win nominations and governorships; it can be done. Not to be discounted is old-pro Heather Wilson, a Rhodes Scholar, should she enter the race.

The choice of Javier Gonzalez for Democratic chair suggests Diane Denish is sticking to her all-establishment strategy. Gonzalez, a former president of the National Association of Counties and a former county commissioner, has far greater stature than outgoing chair Brian Colon, whose major claim to fame was that he was handpicked by Bill Richardson. And Gonzalez's presence, since he has ties to Richardson and Speaker Lujan, suggests his role is to offer comforting assurances to richardsonistas they will not be ostracized if they convert, like Gonzalez, into denishistas.

The contest for governor next year shapes up to be a classic battle. Representing one camp is a party accustomed to governing, cushioned as it is by a disproportionate number of Hispanics, but recently sullied by scandals and poor leadership. Can it reassure a skeptical public it still deserves to govern? In the other camp candidates running under the flag of a locally dysfunctional party, and sullied by poor leadership at the national level, will likely argue that their very lack of insider connections qualify them, in this context to do the job at hand. A lot is riding on the nature of that conversation and given the seriousness of the problems the state faces it is likely the public will pay attention, as it did last year, if the candidates find something meaningful to say.


qofdisks said...

I am sick and tired of rule by cronyism.
I am sick of the petty ostracizing of our most competent and honest public servants.
It has been heartbreaking to watch the squander of this state's wealth and stature.
We need to wipe the slate clean but what Democrat can stand up to the machine without being mowed down?
This culture of corruption and incompetence in NM is unstoppable as the Republicans do not offer a credible alternative.

Anonymous said...

Richardson/Denish have over looked us in the valley. We can only hope the next Gov will help us in the valley.

john myers said...

It remains to be seen which view will triumph. Lumping Denish with Richardson at this point is not an accurate account of reality.