Thursday, June 22, 2006


A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
June 22, 2006

The silence was screaming.

Last Friday, the buzz was out that J.R. Damron would be stepping down as the Republican nominee for governor. It seemed like it should have been easy enough to get someone to confirm or deny it — or perhaps to get someone to refuse to confirm or deny it, which would have been almost as good.

But it was one of those frustrating days in which nobody who knew anything about the impending move would return my phone calls. (I know at least one other reporter who went through the same thing.)

Damron, his wife, Barbara, lieutenant governor candidate Sue Wilson Beffort, state GOP chairman Allen Weh, party executive director Marta Kramer ... the list goes on.

And, not knowing he would be the one who would get the nomination, I put in a call to John Dendahl, who usually is helpful in filling me in on what’s happening with the Republican Party. But for the first time in the six years since I’ve been covering state politics, Dendahl didn’t get back to me that day.

This made me know something big was up.

Complicating matters was the fact that President Bush made an appearance in Albuquerque on Friday to help raise money for U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson’s re-election effort. Many of those I was trying to reach were there.

One might assume that one reason no Republican wanted to talk about the gubernatorial switcheroo on Friday is they didn’t want that news to compete with the coverage of the Bush visit.

However, Damron this week said the Bush visit wasn’t a consideration, at least in the discussions he’d heard.

By Saturday, the Republican Central Committee made it official. Damron was out; Dendahl was in.

Most of the people I’d called later apologized for not getting back to me. I’m still not sure why it was so important to keep this news under wrap until Saturday.

But when we get behind closed doors ... Even on Saturday, Republican honchos were determined to keep reporters in the dark until the deal was done. Moments after Damron arrived, news hounds were asked to “excuse themselves” from the room.

They closed it tighter than a conference committee at the Legislature.

“We had a little internal business,” Weh later told reporters.

Some Republicans there weren’t sure what was going on before the meeting started. Former Gov. David Cargo noted that the written agenda for the meeting said nothing about replacing the gubernatorial candidate. The action would come under “new business,” Cargo said.

Dendahl would later apologize for the move, saying he wouldn’t have closed the meeting.

Damron said he thought party leaders were worried there might be unexpected fireworks.
But back in 2003 when the central committee voted to replace Dendahl with Ramsay Gorham, the meeting was open and somehow the GOP survived.

Apparently there were no serious fights Saturday. Dendahl was nominated by acclamation. All we could hear from the outside was occasional applause. No screaming or breaking glass.

There was one almost comical moment when Cargo, ever the maverick, came out to the lobby to tell reporters Dendahl was being nominated for governor, and we should “get in there.”

We did. The reporters returned to the back of the room as Beffort was giving a speech praising her new running mate. Several committee members shot us quizzical looks. A few moments later, a young man came back and asked us to leave again.

But the room apparently was getting hot. For a while, they opened an outside door, away from the sight of reporters in the lobby. They closed those doors, however, when reporters from the Associated Press moseyed by.

Later, someone opened the door near the podium. Several reporters gathered there for a couple of minutes and heard a little more of Beffort’s speech before someone inside closed it on us.

The Cargo train: When he’s not leading reporters into meetings where they’re not welcome, Cargo is chairman of the commission that oversees the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, which is owned jointly by the states of New Mexico and Colorado.

Cargo has been bragging a lot lately about the 64-mile railroad.

According to Cargo, there were 4,158 riders on the steam-powered train during the week of June 5, up from 3,285 the same week last year.

The ex-guv said he recently ribbed the current guv over his planned RailRunner Express commuter railroad. “I told him I bet more people ride my train than his,” Cargo said.

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