Jennings wins Senate clash

By Steve Terrell: The New Mexican

Although most of his fellow Democrats wanted to replace Tim Jennings as the state Senate’s president pro-tem, the Southern New Mexico conservative held on to his post Monday with the help of Republicans and a handful of Democrats.

The outcome of the leadership struggle, in which the more progressive wing of Senate Democrats had backed Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa, could make it harder for Gov. Bill Richardson to get his way in the Legislature, where the Senate has been a bottleneck for his initiatives in the past.

With virtually no discussion, all 15 Republicans in the Senate joined with eight Democrats in voting to retain Jennings, a Roswell rancher who has been a state senator for 30 years. Cisneros got 19 votes.

Even though Cisneros has a moderate-to-conservative record in the Senate, a leader of the progressives saw his defeat as a setback for that faction.

“It certainly was,” said Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque.

Ortiz y Pino, D-Albquerque, another prominent Senate progressive, agreed. But he wasn’t sure that Jennings’ election is necessarily a bad omen for progressive causes such as ethics reform, domestic-partnership legislation and ending the death penalty.

“It all depends on committee assignments and committee chairmanships,” Ortiz y Pino said. “We’ll just have to see how that works out.”

Could the retention of a conservative from the southern part of the state spell trouble for bills affecting Santa Fe, such as a proposal for New Mexico Highlands University to take over the financially ailing College of Santa Fe?

“We really won’t know until after we find out the committee assignments,” said Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe.

The president pro-tem names members of the Committee on Committees, which decides the makeup of committees that play a key role in determining the fate of legislation. The assignments aren’t expected to be known until sometime today.”There’s lots of things that could be affected,” Wirth said, “like the changing the state’s funding formula for schools, which is very important for Santa Fe.”Sen. Phil Griego, D-San Jose, was optimistic Tuesday. “Tim Jennings has been pretty supportive of education. I think he knows that bringing a four-year college under Highlands University will be of great benefit not only to Santa Fe but the whole state of New Mexico.”

Democrats who sided with Jennings were Sens. John Arthur Smith of Deming, Linda Lopez of Albuquerque, Linda Lovejoy of Crownpoint, Howie Morales of Silver City, Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces, and newcomers John Sapien of Corrales and George Munoz of Gallup.

Wirth and fellow Santa Fe Democrat Nancy Rodriguez supported Cisneros, who has been in the Senate since 1985.

Although Gov. Bill Richardson said at a recent news conference that he would not be involved in the Senate leadership fight, the election of Jennings can only be seen as a defeat for the governor, who has clashed publicly with Jennings several times in recent years.

“We’re going to see a lot more vigorous battles with the governor,” Ortiz y Pino said.

But Lopez, who nominated Jennings, downplayed the tensions between Jennings and Richardson. “I know the governor and Sen. Jennings have had some words in the past,” she told reporters Tuesday. But she said the Senate and the governor will “continue to have a dialogue.”

Jennings, she said, will “strengthen the role of the Senate.”

Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, who voted for Cisneros, also downplayed clashes with the governor. No matter who is president pro-tem, Sanchez said, “We’re an independent bunch.”

Richardson issued a written statement that said, “I congratulate the newly-elected leaders of the House and Senate. I want to extend a hand of cooperation to the newly-elected Senate President Tim Jennings.”

Lopez said Jennings’ election shouldn’t be seen as a bad development for reform legislation. “I support a progressive agenda,” she said, naming domestic partnership rights for same-sex couples as an example. She has voted in the past to repeal the death penalty.

Unlike past leadership battles in the Senate, the Jennings-Cisneros contest showed no evidence of personal animosity. All senators interviewed said they don’t expect to see anywhere near the level of rancor experienced in 2001 when Sen. Richard Romero enlisted Republicans to overthrow fellow Albuquerque Democrat Manny Aragon as president pro-tem.

Following the vote, both Jennings and Cisneros spoke to the Senate and called for unity.

“I think that was directed at Democrats,” Sanchez told reporters following the vote.

“Tim’s not the type who’ll punish those who voted against him,” Ortiz y Pino said.

Griego, who voted for Cisneros, agreed. “He’s not vindictive. He realizes those of us who voted for Sen. Cisneros were voting for the caucus choice.”

Jennings angered many Democrats — including Richardson — in the last days of the general-election campaigns 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.

Frishman voted Tuesday for Cisneros. He said after the vote that he tried to lay low in the leadership contest so it wouldn’t appear he had a personal grudge.

Jennings won election as Senate president pro-tem last year after the death of his predecessor, Ben Altamirano of Silver City.

At one time, the pro-tem position had been viewed as something of a ceremonial post. Besides naming the Committee on Committees, the pro-tem presides over the Senate, or appoints someone to do so, when the lieutenant governor is absent. Another power is naming some members to certain boards and commissions, including judicial nominating committees.

Contact Steve Terrell at 986-3037 or sterrell@sfnewmexican.com. Read his political blog at roundhouseroundup.com.