Inside the Capitol

Friday, August 18, 2006

8-28 Mary Skeen Congrats

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- Congratulations to Mary Skeen on her appointment to fill the state Legislature vacancy left by the death of Rep. Avon Wilson of Roswell.
Skeen is the widow of the late U.S. Rep. Joe Skeen, who represented southern New Mexico in Congress for 22 years. Mary stayed home and ran the family's 15,000-acre sheep ranch in Picacho while Joe went to Washington.
But Mary didn't just stay on the ranch. She was frequently out about the area helping Joe's constituents. My first encounter with her was at a Lincoln County Republican Women's luncheon. It was 1987 and I had just started writing this column.
As the guest speaker, I had the place of honor, sitting next to Mary. She was gracious and charming. We had a pleasant conversation, which I no longer remember. But I do remember her final words. "You tell that Bill Richardson to stay out of my husband's congressional district."
Rep. Richardson had visited the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant project near Carlsbad the weekend before. By 1987, Richardson was in his third term and his campaign slogan had changed from "Fighter for the North" to "Fighter for New Mexico." Mary had him pegged.
She may feel a bit more charitable toward Gov. Richardson now that he has appointed her to a legislative seat. But Skeen knows that it isn't Richardson to whom she owes her gratitude. It is the Chaves County Commission that recommended her in a controversial vote.
Normally when a legislative seat becomes vacant, the appointment depends on the political makeup of the county commission. This district is spread over three counties, so each county makes a recommendation to the governor.
Otero and Lincoln counties, both Republican controlled, recommended Nora Espinoza, who won a close GOP primary election for the seat. The expectation was that the Chaves County commission would do the same and Gov. Richardson would have to appoint Espinoza.
But a political rift in Chaves County surfaced. That close Republican primary for the vacant legislative seat exposed two factions in the county that are not going away. In fact, they are likely to go statewide and could affect next year's selection of a new state GOP chairman.
Apparently three of the four Republicans on the five-member Chaves County Commission are aligned with the faction that did not support the winning candidate in the GOP primary.
By recommending someone other than Espinoza, the commission gave Gov. Richardson the opportunity to not appoint the Republican candidate in the November general election for the legislative seat.
It is assumed that an appointment to a vacant seat gives a candidate an advantage in the upcoming election. Espinoza would have been able to call herself the incumbent, but she couldn't have claimed any legislative experience that would make her better qualified.
That's because there are only a little less than five months remaining in the term and no special session is contemplated between now and then.
So the interim appointment actually was not that big a deal. It appears this really was just another test of strength between the rival factions.
Espinoza is not really hurt by not being appointed to the vacancy. She still is highly likely to be elected to the seat in November. The only thing she loses is the head start in seniority she would have had on the class of new legislators next January. And a few months seniority doesn't count for a whole lot in the New Mexico House.
The Chaves County commissioners kept the playing field level, as they phrased it, by appointing Skeen, who is not a candidate for the seat.
So why not let Mary Skeen see this as an honor for past service rather than being cast as an unwitting participant in a coup?
Gov. Richardson may have taken pleasure in appointing someone other than the Republican House nominee, but he may also have enjoyed honoring the wife of a longtime colleague.
MON, 8-28-06

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)

I'll be out of office thru 8-25. 8-30 column will be sent 8-28. Cell 505-699-9982.m I'll have my computer but won't turn it on often.


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