Political drama likely guest of honor in Santa Fe

By Steve Terrell: The Santa Fe New Mexican

You have a lame-duck governor who was supposed to be leaving but
then announced an abrupt change of plans, and an ambitious lieutenant
governor, who was supposed to take the reigns but now has to be content
presiding over the Senate.

You have a leadership struggle brewing in the Senate, a fight that’s
likely to be settled on the first day, but has the potential of causing
hard feelings that could linger.

Then there are all sorts of new faces in the House and Senate, many
of whom wrested their seats from long-entrenched incumbents by running
on a platform of reform.

And of course there’s that pesky budget shortage. In a year when
state revenue is scarce, there are bound to be lots of dogfights as
lawmakers fight over the scraps of funding.

All these elements add up to what promises to be an exciting time
when the state Legislature convenes on Tuesday for those who enjoy
political drama.

Here’s a look at some of those pending dramas.

The Richardson factor: Even before Richardson announced his
presidential campaign two years ago, politicians, state employees and
other Roundhouse regulars assumed the governor would be gone by the end
of 2008. If his presidential hopes fizzled, he might get tapped for
vice president or at least some cabinet position or ambassadorship.
Last month, it appeared those predictions had come true when
President-elect Barack Obama chose Richardson to be his commerce
secretary.

But early this month, that changed when Richardson announced he was
withdrawing his nomination because of a grand jury investigation into a
possible pay-to-play scandal involving a large Richardson political
contributor being awarded lucrative state bond work.

The withdrawal meant Richardson would be staying, while Lt. Gov.
Diane Denish — who already had formed a transition team in anticipation
of Richardson’s departure — had to postpone her gubernatorial ambitions.

The question is whether Richardson’s stature has been diminished.
He’s in the third year of his final term (state officers in New Mexico
can’t run for three consecutive terms). And though he’s denied at news
conferences he’s been weakened politically by the grand jury
investigation, some lawmakers might be concerned about being too
closely associated with an administration under investigation. And some
so inclined might be tempted to publicly buck a beleaguered governor.

Senators who have clashed with Richardson for the past seven years had been looking forward to working with Denish.

Richardson in the past has had few problems with the House of
Representatives, which is firmly under the control of Richardson ally
House Speaker Ben Lujan. But the Senate is a different story. Since
late 2003, when senators called a quick end to a special session
Richardson had called, little love has been lost between the Senate and
the governor.

Though at this point everyone seems to be keeping a positive public
face, some of the old bitterness between the Senate and the fourth
floor is bound to surface in the weeks to come.

One big hint came last week when Senate Rules Committee Chairwoman
Linda Lopez issued a news release to revive an old complaint that the
governor had ordered the state Department of Public Safety not to
conduct background checks of the governor’s high-level appointees.
Lopez’s statement ended with what could be seen as a threat: “If the
committee is unable to obtain good background information, it will have
difficulty in moving forward with any confirmations.”

Richardson’s office last week didn’t respond to Lopez’s statement.

The Senate battle: But the Senate certainly can’t be called a united
force. By all indications, it’ll be starting out with a battle over who
will be Senate president pro-tem.

The man who currently holds that post, Sen. Tim Jennings, D-Roswell,
angered many Democrats in the last days of the general election when he
recorded a “robo-call” for then Republican Whip Leonard Lee Rawson of
Las Cruces, who was in a tough battle for re-election. Jennings said he
thought Rawson’s opponent, Steve Fischmann, was unfair in some of his
attacks on Rawson. But Democrat Fischmann defeated Rawson despite
Jennings’ help.

In late November, Senate Democrats endorsed Taos County Sen. Carlos
Cisneros for the pro-tem job. But Jennings said he’d seek the help of
the 15 Republicans who remain in the Senate. He’s told supporters he
has enough votes, including conservative Democrats loyal to him, to
defeat Cisneros.

Several have commented on the irony of Senate Democrats putting the
Republicans in the catbird seat after the sweeping Democratic victory
in the 2008 election.

Another irony: Although he’s been embraced by progressive Senate
Democrats, Cisneros is fairly conservative. As the chairman of the
Senate Conservation Committee, Cisneros for years blocked efforts to
outlaw the controversial sport of cockfighting in New Mexico. (He voted
in favor of the ban in 2007 when the bill finally passed.) Like
Jennings, he constantly votes against opening conference committees to
the public. (Conference committees are select groups of legislators who
hammer out differences in bills that have been passed by each chamber.
The budget bill routinely goes to conference committee.)

If the governor could vote in this election, he’d almost certainly
choose Cisneros. Richardson last year contributed $5,000 to Cisneros’
campaign. As for Jennings, there’s no love lost between Richardson and
the rancher from Roswell. The two have wrangled for years. Richardson
was critical of Jennings’ help for Rawson in the campaign.

Although Jennings and Cisneros haven’t engaged in bitter public
arguments in the past, sometimes leadership battles get nasty. In 2001,
when Sen. Richard Romero ousted fellow Albuquerque Democrat Sen. Manny
Aragon from that job, the animosity between the two camps lasted for at
least two sessions.

The official responsibilities of Senate president pro-tem include
presiding over the Senate, or appointing someone to do so, when the
lieutenant governor is absent and naming members of the “Committee on
Committees,” which decides the makeup of Senate committees. The
president pro-tem also has the power to name some members to certain
boards and commissions, including judicial nominating committees.

The new kids: Both the House and the Senate are going to get an
infusion of new blood when the Legislature convenes. Democrats in
November defeated three Republicans in the House and three more in the
Senate.

Including primary defeats and retirements, there will be 11 new House members and eight new senators.

It’s going to be a more Democratic Legislature with 27 Democrats and
15 Republicans in the Senate and a Democratic edge of 45-25 in the
House. It looks like a more progressive Democratic caucus in both
chambers. In the June primary, old-guard Albuquerque Dems like Rep. Dan
Silva and Sens. Shannon Robinson and James Taylor were defeated by
opponents emphasizing reform.

Some activists have expressed optimism over legislation such as
establishing domestic partnerships for same-sex couples, opening
conference committees, tough ethics reform and perhaps even ending the
death penalty — although Richardson supports capital punishment.

But it’s still the New Mexico Legislature. Nobody’s popping any
champagne yet. There’s bound to be surprises and strange twists ahead
in the next 60 days.