Thursday, February 05, 2004

Roundhouse Round-up: In Praise of Singing Politicians

As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican,

Gov. Bill Richardson promised the New Mexico presidential caucus would be fun. And he was right. Even though the candidates didn't spend as much time in this state as they did in New Hampshire and Iowa, and even though we did have to share our moment in the spotlight with six other states, New Mexico got to see a lot more of the presidential contenders than we would have had we stuck with our virtually irrelevant June presidential primary.

If I had to choose a favorite moment of the campaign, it would have to be last Friday at the Inn at Loretto, waiting for Wesley Clark.

The general was an hour and a half late, which, in his defense, seems to be typical of all the candidates. Actor Ted Danson filled some of the time by talking about Clark and taking questions from the audience.

But the Clark supporter who had the best idea on how to keep the crowd at the hotel was former Lt. Gov. Roberto Mondragon. After just a few short words, Mondragon decided to do what many people say he does best. He turned to the mariachi band that had played at the beginning of the rally and began leading the crowd in a rousing version of the local favorite "Decolores."

Mondragon and the mariachis then proceeded to sing three or four other tunes. He even got Mayor Larry Delgado to help him out in The Fiesta Song. Delgado, former Gov. Jerry Apodaca and state Sen. Mary Jane Garcia swayed along with the music, playing The Pips to Mondragon's Gladys Knight.

I'm not sure whether any national television cameras were there, but it would have been a great CNN moment showing a unique side of New Mexico politics.

(Earlier one of the mariachis had fainted on stage and had to be taken to the hospital, but that's another story.)

Mondragon of course is no stranger to music. He sang in the final scene of the 1988 movie The Milagro Beanfield War. And he has recorded at least one album. I know because he gave me a copy of the LP the first time I interviewed him back in 1980 when he was lieutenant governor.

In that interview, Mondragon said he got so tired of people asking him "Hey, Bob, where's your guitar?" that he started bringing his instrument to work. Then when someone asked, he'd say, "It's down in my truck. Want to hear a song?"

I don't mean to sound like an idealistic airhead and imply the world would be a much better place if there were more singing politicians. But, as Mondragon knows, sometimes a song is more effective than a speech.

For the record: The big-name candidates you've heard about on TV aren't the only ones to get votes here Tuesday. Political unknown and flying-car enthusiast Fern Penna received 77 votes state wide, while Uncommitted received 460.

Signs, signs, everywhere signs: The governor looked surprised on KNME's Stateline New Mexico last week when reporter Dan Vukelich asked him about a report that the governor's chief of staff, Dave Contarino, had a "Clark for President" sign in his yard.

Not so, said Richardson, who remained neutral for the caucus season. If that was the case, he said, Contarino wouldn't be his chief of staff for long.

Contarino still has his job, but apparently a Clark sign had been in his yard.

For the record, Contarino said, his wife was a honcho in the local Clark campaign. But Contarino was neutral, he said.