There’s A Red Light Blinking On The NM Political Machine

And Bill Richardson seems content to ignore it

June 7, 2004 in New Mexico Politics | Comments (0)

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Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico is a miracle politician who, because he represents the Hispanic minority, can shmooze with Rush Limbaugh while flashing his impressive credentials as a Bill Clinton Democrat. New Mexicans will share his spotlight as chair of the Democratic National Convention in August, just as many basked in the warmth of his self-promoting tax cut ads last year in the Wall Street Journal.

Everybody in this misunderstood thinly populated Democrat-dominated state loves its star politician, it seems. And yet. . .

He had to have seen it: that little red political warning light in the results of the state’s Democratic primary election. But he ignored it, or seemed to. He diverted the attention of the state’s adoring media elsewhere, but, still. . . that little red light, it keeps blinking– over the name Roman Maes.

Maes is the powerful state senator (committee chair, among the top seven in Senate seniority) who was rejected in his bid for reelection by Santa Fe Democrats. The Santa Fe real estate broker reported over $70,000 to campaign for another four years in the no-salary part time job. He placed handsome ads everywhere — in the state employee newspaper, in the healing arts promoting weekly, in the two dailies.

He said politically correct things in interviews. (Although it was dumb to say Clinton’s “My Life” was his favorite book, before it was published, and the dueling restraining orders with an also-ran opponent were dumb.) He waged a slick campaign, then sat back and waited for reelection to a sixth term.

And he lost. The winner by a margin of 4 percentage points in the four-way race was John Grubesic, a political unknown with only $11,000 in contributions. While the election cost Maes around $25 a vote, it cost Grubesic roughly $3 a vote.

Oh. And Richardson had endorsed Maes, heavily.

This was no surprise, because the governor plays Washington hardball, supporting friends and torpedoing enemies without much regard to ideology. In his drive to control the Legislature, Richardson endorsed 10 other opposed incumbents who were on his side. Maes, among other favors, had sponsored the bill giving the governor power to fire highway commissioners at will.

So Richardson endorsed Maes, and the business-suited senator’s Democratic constituents received in the mail a color portrait of the two of them gripping and grinning. The governor’s national PAC for Hispanic candidates threw in $9,000 worth of “in-kind” political help.

Then the election and the little red light. Richardson was quick to tell the media that he called Grubesic to congratulate him. The governor said the main reason the government lawyer won was “he was a good candidate.” And the news coverage of the primary election focused on Richardson’s success in endorsing the other 10. A young Albuquerque Journal writer even called him the Shaquille O’Neill of politics. But. . .

Blink. Blink. Remember Maes?

The little red political warning light is not about the governor’s popularity or his mistaken endorsement. It’s about the malfunction of the quirky black box in the New Mexico political machinery that makes Anglo liberals think all Hispanic Democrats are liberals too.
Maes blew the black box with his arrogance of power. Close observers of the Legislature knew that he voted like a Republican on most issues, but the liberal voters in the district for 20 years had not paid attention.

But of late Maes, secure in the governor’s camp, seemed to feel free to do and say whatever occurred to him. He began partaking in the joy of conservative rhetoric soon after the new administration took office. And he declared war on the Santa Fe City Council.

Now, the Santa Fe government does a lot of dumb things, but it happens to represent a majority in the City Liberal. And Maes suddenly was reveling in his war against the majority, as if he had been placed under some sort of conservative spell by his Republican Senate colleagues – or as if he were restoring his youth as a member of a Las Vegas Republican family.

I happened to see him take the floor of the Senate one evening in February 2003 when the media were off on deadline. He ranted, apropos of nothing, that the Santa Fe City Council had lost support of the people. He ranted that the council’s “living wage” ordinance would destroy the economy and that its policies of restraining high-density subdivisions would eliminate worker housing.

He said the situation in Santa Fe was “dangerous.” And he went on to advocate, in so many words, a legislative overthrow of this perverse local government that, in his view, had become illegitimate.

One of the cooler election reporters, Wren Prop, got a quote from one of the offended city councilors, Karen Heldmeyer, who explained Maes was defeated because he had lost touch with the voters.

It was not a fuzzy issue, not just a matter of Maes saying the wrong things. He expressed his newfound sentiments legislatively. Probably his most publicized act was an amendment, late one night, that added Santa Fe to a bill by Sen. Manny Aragon aimed at Albuquerque.

The bill put a leash on city powers to control development within a five-mile-wide extraterritorial zone. The zone in Albuquerque is more of the same. But the zone in Santa Fe includes the scenic mountain backdrop.

The Aragon bill was supported by the Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce and other business groups complaining about the city’s Planned Growth Strategy. A companion bill by Aragon diluted Albuquerque’s power over its water system. The Santa Fe amendment was removed in the House.

Richardson signed Aragon’s bills, endearing himself to the Albuquerque business community, just as he endeared himself to KKOB centerpiece Rush Limbaugh, who had already praised his tax cut, with an unsolicited letter supporting the right to privacy of medical records in drug cases. Yes, Republican radio loves Bill Richardson too. . .

Blink. Blink. Remember Roman Maes, the Democrat who apparently thought he could talk and act like a conservative without alienating the liberal base of the Democratic Party.