Wednesday, December 03, 2008

ROUNDHOUSE ROUNDUP: LEGISLATIVE SESSION SHAPING UP TO BE A DOOZIE

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
December 4, 2008


It’s more than a month away, but this week, the first shots were fired in what is bound to be an interesting session of the state Legislature.


I’m referring of course to the pending leadership struggle in the state Senate. Democrats decided to dump incumbent Senate President Pro-tem Tim Jennings, D-Roswell, in favor of state Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa. Jennings riled many of his fellow Democrats by recording a campaign call for Republican Whip Leonard Lee Rawson of Las Cruces, who lost in the general election despite Jennings’ help.

But Jennings says he’ll press on and try to keep his seat by soliciting help from Republican senators — apparently unconcerned about the irony of giving the dwindling number of Republicans in the Senate such a big say following the big Democratic wins in the state in last month’s election.

Leadership battles are always fun to cover. But wait, there’s more!

In addition to the pro-tem showdown, there’s the coming changes in the executive branch. With Gov. Bill Richardson going off to the Commerce Department, many wonder whether Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, who has presided over the Senate for the past six sessions, will have better luck in getting along with the Senate, which often ran afoul of Richardson.

One of my lobbyist friends this week was pondering the physical difficulty of Denish moving into the governor’s office during the middle of the session.

Nobody knows who Denish will appoint to replace her as lieutenant governor. She wouldn’t say Wednesday who that will be. And nobody knows who among Richardson’s staff will stay or go.

Another element of fun will be all the new faces in the Legislature. Democrats knocked off three Republican incumbents in the Senate and three in the House. Four Democratic lawmakers and one Republican were handed their walking papers by feisty challengers in the primary. Plus there were seven — four House members and three senators — who didn’t seek re-election, which resulted in more new faces.

One House member, Santa Fe Democrat Peter Wirth, gave up his seat so he could move over to the Senate (to replace retiring Sen. John Grubesic), newcomer Brian Egolf, also a Democrat, will replace Wirth in the House.

Some predict that a younger, more liberal, more Democratic Legislature will be more open to passing progressive social legislation such as a domestic-partnership law and abolition of the death penalty. I predicted in this column after the primary because of changes in the Senate that the Legislature might finally open conference committee meetings to the public.

Then again, with all the bad press that public campaign financing got with the Jerome Block Jr.’s state Public Regulation Commission campaign, there might be a serious bid to abolish public financing.

But topping off all the fun factors is the fact there’s no money. Because of the budget shortfalls, there’s not a whole lot of pork. In fact, we’ll be lucky to get SizzleLean.

Maybe that doesn’t really sound like fun. But it’ll lead to some interesting fights.

The age of aquarium: If you think there’s something fishy about Richardson’s appointment as secretary of commerce by president-elect Barack Obama, The Chicago Tribune’s political blog, The Swamp, spelled it out Tuesday.

Noting Richardson really wanted to be secretary of state, Frank James wrote: “Commerce doesn’t have the prestige of State. But it has very nice perks. The Commerce Secretary has one of the better physical offices in the Executive Branch, a huge space with a working fireplace and a large fish tank maintained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a Commerce agency.”

James also says, “Commerce secretaries still travel the world, helping to drum up business for U.S. companies. So Richardson will still get to travel the world on behalf of U.S. taxpayers.”

Close shave: One of the lighter moments of Obama’s announcement of the Richardson nomination Wednesday was when a Fox News reporter asked what had happened to the governor’s beard.

Although the question was asked of Richardson, Obama responded: “I think it was a mistake for him to get rid of it. I thought that whole Western, rugged look was really working for him. For some reason, maybe because it was scratchy when he kissed his wife, he was forced to get rid of it. But we’re deeply disappointed with the loss of the beard.”

Richardson began sporting a beard after he dropped his presidential campaign in January. It was his way of “decompressing,” he said at the time. Journalists around the country had fun with it. Richardson’s appearance was compared to that of Rod Steiger as Dr. Zhivago, Wolfman Jack, a Klingon from Star Trek and Justin Timberlake. (Richardson told me that the latter was his favorite.)

The governor in late March said he’d probably shave it “in the next two months.” But the beard stayed until the day before the election. Interviewed Nov. 4, Richardson insisted the shave had nothing to do with Washington job hunting. “I just got tired of maintaining it,” he said. “I’d decided to do this a long time ago.”

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