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.
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.