This is the first of two columns examining problems both gubernatorial candidates face. You can read the second column, about Republican Susana Martinez, here.
Albuquerque Journal columnist Leslie Linthicum was right on in a column published this weekend highlighting Democratic gubernatorial candidate Diane Denish’s big problem: “What do you do when your record is linked to someone who’s turned toxic?”
Gov. Bill Richardson is toxic for Denish. The Republicans know it, and they’ve worked hard to tie Denish to Richardson by, among other things, repeatedly referring to his administration as the “Richardson/Denish administration.”
It’s a silly label – it’s not as if Richardson ever let Denish decide anything, and lieutenant governors have little power anyway. But I’ve heard a number of voters repeating the line being sold by the GOP: that Denish had to know about some of the shenanigans going on in the Richardson administration and, even if she didn’t partake in them, she did nothing to stop them.
Richardson has become the face of corruption in New Mexico – corruption that has plagued state government and the Democratic Party since two former state treasurers were indicted in 2005. The governor only narrowly avoided being indicted in his own pay-to-play scandal. His approval rating has nosedived into the ground. And there are other factors that have come together at the wrong time for Richardson’s legacy, and Denish’s candidacy.
The economy has tanked. Jobs have been lost. The rainy-day fund former Gov. Gary Johnson saved up has been spent during the Richardson years. New Mexico’s education system still stinks, despite the reforms of the Richardson years.
Though I suspect history will remember Richardson more kindly than voters currently do – if the spaceport is successful, the film industry stays in New Mexico and the system he set in place to encourage renewable energy development works – Richardson is currently Denish’s greatest weakness.
In this throw-the-bums-out climate, Denish looks to many voters like one of the bums. That’s why Republican Susana Martinez has the advantage in the governor’s race, at least at this point.
What Denish must do
Denish can win the race. But I would suggest she needs to be blunt. She must tell voters she won’t do business the way Richardson has.
She has argued that she has stood up to the powers-that-be in Santa Fe, most notably with a TV ad highlighting her work to reform the scandal-plagued housing authority system. The ad states that Denish took on “Santa Fe insiders” and “wouldn’t back down.”
That’s not enough. Denish needs to be direct. The public needs to see her stand up to the ultimate insider and the way he’s done business as governor. Even Richardson has acknowledged that Denish has to separate herself from him.
Denish could do it with another TV ad that highlights her work to reform the housing authority system. Picture an ad in which Denish says:
“Pay to play. Gov. Bill Richardson has certainly had his share of problems, including scandals involving campaign contributors who got state contracts after giving money to his campaign.
“But when corruption was revealed in the state’s affordable housing system, I fought for reforms to ensure that housing was going to the people who need it most – even though some of the men involved in the scandal had given contributions to my campaign. When those men were indicted for fraud and money laundering, I donated their contributions to a group that works on neighborhood revitalization.”
Then a narrator says:
“Diane Denish. Doing the right thing, even when Santa Fe insiders don’t want her to.”
Such an ad would be bold. It might be risky because of who it would upset. But I’m betting it would resonate with voters.
People believe their government isn’t working. They want more than policy ideas packaged in fancy TV ads. They want honesty.