Two Views How Dendahl Became Political History

Did the drug chickens come home to roost?

May 28, 2003 in New Mexico Politics | Comments (0)

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John Dendahl reminded me that I was the journalist who, in his words, “outed me on drugs.” And his stand on drug legalization, in support of former Gov. Gary Johnson, is the issue that was used to oust him as New Mexico Republican chairman.

Dendahl went wrong, in the simplistic view, as early as 1997, when he presented a paper to a private conservative group on decriminalization of drugs.

Never mind that he proposed some strict caveats. Namely, heavy and unforgiving criminal penalties for providing drugs to children under 18 and an end to addict-coddling. For example, he suggested disqualifying drug users from welfare, from disability benefits, from job protection, and so forth.

I disclosed all this in a column for the Albuquerque Journal. The purge is not over. Republican national committeeman Mickey Barnett, who lobbied Johnson’s drug proposals before the legislature, could be next. A senior House Republican, Earlene Roberts of Hobbs, has said as much.

In 1999, Johnson’s ideas about drugs began to get weirder and weirder. He fell under the influence of the Cato Institute of Washington. The libertarian think tank compares the war on drugs with alcohol prohibition — the 1920’s experiement that failed for lack of public support. Johnson became a Cato poster child, enjoying several 15-minute segments of fame.

Before Dendahl’s earlier views were made public, he came out in support of the Johnson agenda. Four years later, the drug chickens have come home to roost. Dendahl was been denied another term after eight successful years as party chairman. The main talking point used against him by Ramsay Gorham was his support of Johnson on drugs.

You can bet no Republican will go there in the future. But the Johnson-Dendahl-Cato premise is still worth considering: namely, that the war on drugs is a multi-billion-dollar Democrat-inspired corruption-infested bureaucracy and that we ought to try something different.

But in politics nothing succeeds like simplicity. Democrat Gov. Bill Richardson kept his drug message simple: continue the war, keep the criminal penalties. As U.S. Energy secretary he fired a top aide whose wife was accused of growing marijuana in their basement — for her medical conditions, she said. If drugs are the only issue, Richardson is the man for conservative Republicans.

But nothing in politics is truly simple. As political writer Steve Terrell pointed out, Earlene Roberts, who told the Lovington Leader that Mickey Barnett is next, was deposed as House Republican whip by Rep. Joe Thompson of Albuquerque, and Thompson is Barnett’s law partner. A complex Republican picture thus comes into focus: traditional small-town conservatives taking up arms against younger urban professionals. Roberts versus Thompson and Barnett.
Another Republican conservative, State Sen. Rod Adair of Roswell, has a nuts-and-bolts explanation of how Dendahl got fired by the party, along with a related insight into the contentious question of how John Sanchez, groomed by Dendahl, got the Republican nomination for governor last year.

Adair should know. He was Sanchez’s running mate. But he also is a professional demographer specializing in politics and elections. In his e-mail newsletter, “Talking Sense,” Adair says the key to the Sanchez victory in the Republican primary was his showing in the Republican nominating convention.
Walter Bradley was lieutenant governor and the clear favorite in the polls going into the convention. But Sanchez won 54 per cent of the delegate votes, and Bradley was second with 28 per cent. The others failed to make it over the 20 per cent threshhold. Under New Mexico law, nominating conventions determine ballot order in the primaries. The Sanchez campaign portrayed the convention victory as a surprising surge of popularity. If so, it was not reflected in the polls, Adair notes. The relative popularity of Sanchez and Bradley was unchanged after the convention.

What the convention victory did was change direction of campaign contributions, the money, from Bradley to Sanchez. True, Bradley made some goofs on taxes and abortion that made him look “not ready for prime time,” Adair says. But the big factor, as always, was money and organization.

So everything depended on those 700 convention delegates. Adair says Sanchez won the decisive number of delegates by hard work and organization, beginning with the county conventions. Now, Dendahl was assumed to favor Sanchez, even though he stayed quiet during the campaign. But Adair in his analysis debunks the idea that Dendahl “was a kind of Svengali, holding sway over thousands, with an awe-inpsiring ability to control events.”

Sanchez won under the same convention conditions in which, a year later, Dendahl lost — to a vigorous opponent as skilled as he was in the business of wooing delegates.