Two Ways of Looking at a Bill Bear

Why Bill Richardson

September 23, 2003 in New Mexico Politics | Comments (0)

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SANTA FE — “A bear made a quick visit to the governor’s mansion, but left the property before game officials arrived.” — The Associated Press, Sept. 19.

Having spent a good part of my former career with the plainspoken AP, I would never accuse it of deliberate symbolism. But that news, four days before the special election, was a Santa Fe warning: Bill Richardson was visited by a bear of the negative, Stock Market kind.

No matter how Amendment No. 2 ends up, the election results say, “We trust you, Bill, with the Department of Education but not with the Permanent Fund.” There are two ways of thinking about the vote — the financial way and the political way.

On the one hand, a significant number of voters obviously did not believe the rosey assurances of Richardson, his top financial advisors and the teacher’s unions.

His loyal fighters were saying that the state’s century-old endowment from 13 million acres of federally granted land could sustain a 20 per cent increase in the annual distribution rate, from 4.7 to 5.8 per cent of a five-year average market value.

Three years ago when the bull market was roaring toward an 11000 Dow the vote might have gone the other way, according to the financial way of thinking. And though Richardson trumpeted a 12.6 per cent return on all state investments, year-to-date, the financial markets are still below their historic highs. The backers of Amendment No. 2 presented as fact the speculation that the $6.8 billion Permanent Fund will double in about eight years without noticing that two years ago the fund was worth $7.9 billion.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the bear has not yet left the grounds. But is that what half the Sept. 23 voters were really thinking? The financial markets, and trust or lack thereof, are not the same issue as Speeding Bill Richardson.

An Albuquerque Journal poll based on interviews Sept. 8-10 showed the governor-run-schools amendment, No. 1, ahead 49-32 with 19 per cent undecided. The Permanent Fund amendment, No. 2, was ahead even more, 55-28 with 17 per cent undecided.

Did something change in the ensuing two weeks? The financial markets did not. A factor might have been those radio ads that cried, “Raid!” The Republican budget for them and other activities was only 10 per cent of the $1.2 million teacher’s unions budget for slick prime-time TV ads and other activites.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who it will be long remembered was on Richardson’s side in this, was quick to congratulate Ramsay Gorham, the new chair of his very own party. But Gorham had been indecisive on No. 2 to start with — and never uncompromising and strident on the issue as was her predecessor, John Dendahl. And how many people even heard the radio spots?

Political thinking indicates something bigger also was going on, and the election tallies seem to reflect it. I first heard it at 12:30 p.m. on Sept. 6 from Ray Sadler, a New Mexico State University history professor who was in Santa Fe for a book signing (“The Anthropologist Was A Spy”).

He invited me to lunch and said that Richardson was going to lose the election and that it would be the beginning of his “implosion” as a political figure. This, bear in mind, was only a few days before the Journal polling showed everything was just about fine for Bill.

Sadler is a student of New Mexico politics going way back — and a Democrat.

He obviously had a different perspective from that of us upstream Albuquerque-media-centered urbanites. Las Cruces and the rest of New Mexico at nearly all points south and east and probably west of the Owl Bar in San Antonio, might as well be in Texas or even, Heaven forbid, Arizona.

I responded in disbelieve that, if anything, the State School Board and its peculiar constituents would defeat No. 1, but No. 2 would carry because unsophisticated people didn’t want a tax increase, or something. Sadler said the reverse was true — that No. 2 was in trouble because so was Richardson.

I checked after the election to refresh my memory, and the prof repeated his argument by e-mail. “Education is God, mother and apple pie, but Richardson made it a referendum on his governorship and a significant percentage of New Mexico’s voting population are not particularly interested in whether Bill is going to have lunch with Prince Bandar in Santa Fe. In addition, the way he treats his staff and his imperious and arrogant attitude toward appointees came back to haunt him in September for his sins in January and February.”

Even Domenici and Richardson found it remarkable in post-election interviews that No. 2 was so decisively rejected outside Santa Fe and Albuquerque, but both attributed it to financial thinking, etc., by conservatives. “Our New Mexico voters want us to be careful and prudent with that permanent fund, and that message has been heard,” Richardson said.

Of course, he thought the amendment would quit winners. A lot can happen to a 23-vote margin by the time the State Canvassing Board meets Oct. 14. But either way, he is in a tight position as the leading member of the board, whose two other members are Richardson fans.

If they certify the vote of no-confidence, how will he pay for increased teacher salaries and his income tax cut both? On the other hand, if the board certifies some sort of funny-looking turnaround on No. 2 in a way that arouses suspicions of the newly discovered non-urban New Mexico voters, Richardson will suffer a loss of credibility affecting his future career.