Inside the Capitol

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

12-22 House Dems A Happy Family

Syndicated Columnist

SANTA FE -- We Are Fam-i-ly. That was the message of House Democrats as they emerged from the caucus that shut down Rep. Kenny Martinez's bid to unseat House Speaker Ben Lujan.
There were no reports that any of the Democrats actually were singing the Sister Sledge tune, which various groups have used over the years to demonstrate their unity, but that was the message.
Many Democrats were hoping the showdown never would happen. If only both sides could get an accurate vote count and either Martinez or Lujan would back down in the name of party unity, everything would be OK.
But it didn't happen. Some House Democrats were as slippery as their national counterparts were a few weeks ago when pledging their commitment to a candidate.
And it was Lujan, who began his career in legislative leadership by serving 10 years as Democrat whip, who was the better vote counter. Both men thought they had enough votes to win, but Lujan was more experienced at sensing when his colleagues weren't giving him the unvarnished truth.
Lest anyone fear retaliation for backing the loser, it was a secret ballot, with the names already written in so handwriting wouldn't give anyone away. Lawmakers get pretty good at recognizing handwriting because they sign each others bills.
Lujan promised no retaliation but he may have had to make some commitments that will mean replacing some committee chairmen who openly supported Martinez.
Vote totals were not released, but it must have been fairly close. Two hours before the vote, Gov. Bill Richardson named a replacement for Rep. Hector Balderas, who was elected state auditor. That replacement is thought to be a Lujan supporter.
Richardson claimed neutrality in the race, but the biggest knock on Lujan was his loyalty to the governor the past four years. Even some of Lujan's supporters warned him publicly that they want the House of Representatives to be independent of the governor's office.
That should send a clear message to the governor that the House will not be as likely to march in step with him on as many occasions as they have in the past. But with Lujan still in power, Richardson can at least breathe a little easier that he won't be embarrassed during a possible presidential run.
There is good reason for Lujan not to be retaliatory. The full House votes for its speaker on opening day. The minority party usually nominates its floor leader for speaker. But if enough disgruntled Democrats want to cut a deal with Republicans, they can elect a coalition speaker. Sen. Richard Romero did that to Senate President Pro Tem Manny Aragon a few years ago.
That's why House Democrats emerged from their caucus insisting that they are one big happy family.
Essentially, this was a battle of the new guys against the old guard. But the new-guys category didn't include the House members just elected last month. Insiders figure nearly all of them supported Lujan because of the help they received from him during their recent campaigns.
Except for some donations, Martinez didn't put in much effort toward getting them elected. And when it comes to money, Gov. Richardson probably contributed significantly more.
In this case, the new guys were those who have been around for a few, two-year terms. Some of them are now rising to committee chairmanships and anxious to continue their political climb. Martinez is only in his fourth term, while Lujan has been around 16 terms, with no end in sight.
Lujan is 70, but still going strong. When asked when he'll quit, he likes to say he'll consider it as soon as Sen. Pete Domenici does. Domenici is 74 and already has announced for reelection in 2008. At the end of that six-year term, he'll be 82.
So Lujan may have a long time to go -- unless Pete decides not to run next year.
FRI, 12-22-06

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



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