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.