House Dems can forestall coalition

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Sen. Dede Feldman (Photo by Heath Haussamen)

The results of the recent election present tough choices for Democratic legislators, adding to the majority party’s task in dealing with a huge budget shortfall. The double whammy of lost seats and a slow recovery isn’t as bad as in some states, but it could make for some dramatic moments in the session to come.

Ten years ago, in 2001, after another heartbreaking election in which Democrats felt cheated by a Supreme Court that handed the election to Bush, the New Mexico Senate opened with a bang. A coalition of three Democrats and the entire Republican delegation united to overthrow President Pro Tempore Manny Aragon. The surprise move came after several days of standoff, broken when then-Gov. Gary Johnson convinced Republicans to support Sen. Richard Romero.

This year, with the loss of eight Democrats in the N.M. House, and the immediacy of a Republican administration, things are looking a little shaky for current Speaker Ben Luján. Unlike the New Mexico Senate, Democrats in the House usually vastly outnumber Republicans, so there is little chance of a coalition. But this year the numbers are close – 37 Democrats to 33 Republicans – which means it takes only a shift in three Democratic votes to allow the Rs to elect a different speaker.

The south rises again

Newly elected Susana Martinez is not the only southerner in the spotlight. Three southern Dems say they want Las Cruces Rep. Joseph Cervantes to be speaker. A few years ago, Cervantes was ousted as House Judiciary chairman when Rep. Ben Luján successfully fought off a challenge from the young Turks, who then included Reps. Ken Martinez and Cervantes.

For Democrats, surviving the 2010 election, with all its rhetoric about taxes, the deficit, and the “horrors” of the Richardson administration, was an achievement. Elsewhere, it was even worse. Republicans took control of 19 more legislative chambers, and gained approximately 680 seats. They took back 10 governors’ seats from the Democrats, including the one here in New Mexico.

Even liberal bastions like Maine flipped entirely, with Republicans now controlling the Legislature and the governor’s mansion.

One question for the Dems in the N.M. House (and the Senate) is whether they want to unite to fight for their core principles – education, health care, a decent safety net – or whether they want to cooperate in the downsizing of government that will surely be coming from the fourth floor of the Roundhouse. The leadership struggle may be an indication that there are some who want to go right.

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Or not. It may simply be a personality battle, or a geographic split. Either way it might be useful to recall what happened to us in the Senate 10 years ago. Here’s the short version:

‘Odd men out’ force change

For 13 years, Sen. Manny Aragon controlled the N.M. Senate with a combination of charm, brilliance, and, in the final years, secret deals and unpredictable outbursts. His combative style during the Johnson administration drew cheers from supporters and howls from detractors, with the divide growing steadily. It also led to gridlock, with veto after veto, and special session after special session.

The divide was especially painful to Democrats, who took a regular drubbing from Republicans who decried the “Manny and Ray show” in what many felt was almost a racial slur. The attack was especially intense in the wake of Aragon’s controversial consulting contract with Wackenhut Corrections, a private prison corporation then bidding to operate N.M. prisons.

On the opening day of the 2001 session, as expected, Manny Aragon was nominated by Sen. Joe Fidel, on behalf of the Democratic caucus, and Sen. Joe Carraro was nominated on behalf of the Republican Caucus. Sen. Cisco McSorley, long discontent with Sen. Aragon, nominated Sen. Richard Romero, and, in a surprise move, was seconded by Sen. Leonard Tsosie of Crownpoint. That made three votes for Romero. With the absence of Sen. Linda Lopez, then in the hospital with complications from childbirth, it was clear that the “odd men out” had deprived the other two parties of the majority needed to win – 21 votes. And then the jockeying for votes began.

The results are well known. Aragon lost the presidency to Romero by one vote, but Romero did not allow a Republican-controlled coalition. Democrats maintained their committee chairs, and a budget based on Democratic values – but accomplished in a more inclusive and compromising fashion – was passed, and not vetoed by the governor.

But Democratic division persisted for the next four years and was only dissipated when newly elected Gov. Richardson insisted that Manny and Richard hold hands.

‘Coalition’ could have been forestalled

Could the “coalition” have been forestalled? Yes, if the Democrats had dealt with their differences over leadership openly in their caucus and chosen a leader that might not be the first choice, but with whom we could all live. But pride and personality intervened and Sen. Aragon, in particular, was not willing to step down, even though he knew, in the end, that he did not have the votes.

Fortunately, for House Democrats, there is ample time to come to an agreement on leadership and maintain the power of the Democrats before the session. But it will take an honest discussion of where Democrats want to go from here and not just a calculation of who can garner the most votes (from whatever direction) to be speaker of the House.

Senator Dede Feldman has represented District 13 since 1997.

10 thoughts on “House Dems can forestall coalition

  1. I agree with you ched. The idea that the process works better, for us, when some things take place behind closed doors just doesn’t sell.

  2. All this from one of the most active proponents in the NM Senate of taxing soft drinks, potato chips, gatorade, etc to extend their Nanny State control and elitist attitudes….with the operative word being control.

    Ultimately, isn’t that what your commentary’s all about, Senator?

  3. Ogler,

    Thanks for taking time to respond to my question. Though grateful, I’m not sure I agree with the argument you present; which is by the way the usual argument.

    The power is ours, the resources are ours, and the truth about how they are being spent is ours. If our public servants meet to discuss our interests, we have a right to attend. If indeed, there are times when they really must meet in secret, shouldn’t it be, only with our specifically expressed permission?

    Who gets to decide where the line is between the truth that gets told and the truth that doesn’t? those who own the truth, or those who find themselves in simple custody of it.

    If nothing else, I would like to see politicians and public servants have to meet off campus if they want to talk behind our backs and without our expressed permission. The Roundhouse, after all, belongs to the people as well.

    As far as hiding temper and outbursts; this is the least defensible excuse. If there are legislators who cannot control their tempers (even if they’re tired), why is that not our business? Perhaps we would like to cast our ballots for someone who is more even minded and less prone to ill-advised outbursts. It is like legislators arguing against webcasting by saying; “you might catch us sleeping”. Is their inability to stay awake really none of our business?

    If you don’t want to get caught doing something “wrong”; don’t do “wrong” things on our dime.

    “Handling it behind closed doors” encourages not restraint, but even more “misconduct”.

    In answer to your question; I would want everyone as fully informed as they can be. “Winning” by selective truth telling is dishonest; talk about a slippery slope. It leads to “first we have to pass the bill, then we can find out what’s in it.”

    Thanks again for a civil disagreement.

  4. “Manny and Ray show” was felt by MANY? to almost be a racial slur??????Disgusting that anyone would even mention it let alone feel that way…….Liberals like to patronize us Latinos by “reaching out” to us……Try reaching out to me because of my last name and I’d slap your hand. Maybe some who were fed by Manny and Ray required special care and feeding but I’m not one of them……..Nor my kids or grandkids…Secy of NMED claims LANL has a legacy of pollution. I told him I saw a legacy of scientific achievement and good jobs that don’t require that you be a registered Democrat.

    Best thing Johnson ever did was veto more bills than anyone before him…Legislators think it’s a sacred duty to introduce and pass bills…..Every one costs us taxpayers money or takes away freedoms……Hooray for gridlock…

    Demo values?….In this area it’s distribute the goodies and jobs and get elected over and over again…..Ignore corruption…..

  5. Ched there are any number of reasons that the caucus meeting are private and not open to the public. Normally they are strategy meeting about how to handle business on the floor, or what legislation is working through committees. Also at times, especially late in a legislative session when members are tired and the days are long, tempers can flair up between caucus members. It is best to handle things like that behind closed doors.

    But if you need an example, one would be when to use a Call of the House to force all house members to cast their votes rather than walk a vote. A Call of the House is a pretty extreme move. It basically places the house members under house arrest, forces them to sit in their chairs at all time during the debate and under house rules if you are sitting in your seat you must vote at the end of the debate. Under that situation you do not want the other side informed of what is coming and who is going to take that action. If it were an open meeting then everybody would know what is coming and the motion for a Call of the House could be blocked. By the way a Call of the House is one of the few tools that a minority party has against the majority party.

  6. I am not sure how to start but I guess I must point out that Sen Feldman fails to recognize the fact that Sen Aragon is in PRISON! Wow, she is clealry clueless as to why the democrats lost this last election and with her attitude they will continue to loose. Ben Lujan has run the House with total disregard and respct for the Republicnas in the House and across the State, if they keep him as Speaker the Republicans will pick up 3 more seats in 2 years and the Democrat control over NM will end! The democrats in NM are really in La La Land if they think their philosophy will carry them through, it is exactly what casued them to get beat.

  7. Don’t you think you are being a bit closed minded Dr. J? If you deem to comment, at least read the article.

  8. But it will take an honest discussion of where Democrats want to go from here and not just a calculation of who can garner the most votes (from whatever direction) to be speaker of the House.

    I am curious why “honest discussions” must take place in secret from the people’s whose legitimate interests are being deliberated?

    Someone explain please, why party caucuses are none of our business?

    Can someone articulate an example (hypothetical or real) of an honest discussion of our interests, and which is kept secret from us for good and ethical reasons?

  9. Exactly stever. That opening gambit sets the context for Dede’s attitudes, views, and values about everything said afterwards. Purely radical left wing partisan, and not worth the time to read.

  10. Ten years ago, in 2001, after another heartbreaking election in which Democrats felt cheated by a Supreme Court that handed the election to Bush

    Oh Good Grief! What does that have to do with anything? 2010 wasn’t heartbreaking, it was predictable and deserved and if republicans screw up it will happen to them.