Madrid Still Pondering House Race

Posted October 7, 2005 at 6:10pm

If Democrats fall short in their efforts to recruit New Mexico Attorney General Patricia Madrid into the race against Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) next year, they may have to blame their failure on the political trajectory of the state’s governor, Bill Richardson (D).

In the Land of Enchantment, most Democrats are convinced that if a Democrat retakes the White House in 2008, Richardson will either be the next president, vice president or secretary of state.

So the question of who serves as his lieutenant governor has become a topic of intense discussion — something that may explain why Madrid is contemplating running for that post in 2006 instead of for Congress, even though there already is a Democratic incumbent in the No. 2 slot.

Nevertheless, Democrats in Washington, D.C., are becoming increasingly optimistic that the heavily recruited Madrid ultimately will choose to challenge Wilson. And a key Madrid political lieutenant hints that an announcement could come as soon as this week.

“She hasn’t made any decisions yet, though a decision should be imminent,” said the aide, Caroline Buerkle.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokeswoman Sarah Feinberg said committee officials believe that Madrid, who is term-limited in 2006, “is leaning toward” a Congressional run.

Her entry into the race certainly would qualify as a recruiting win for the DCCC. Democrats have tried a variety of formulas to knock off Wilson in the Albuquerque-based 1st district, which preferred Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) to President Bush by 3 points in 2004. But they have never run a Hispanic woman against her, or a candidate with two statewide wins under her belt.

But despite all the entreaties from national Democratic leaders — House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) all but begged her to run at a Democratic National Committee rally in early summer — Madrid has appeared reluctant to make the leap.

“I know she feels as if she gets a lot of attention in her current position out there, and doesn’t feel as if she needs to announce quickly,” Feinberg said.

Still, Madrid’s foot-dragging could hurt her party’s ability to find a viable alternative should she ultimately take a pass on the race.

Several weeks ago, sources said, Madrid began telling associates that she was considering a 2006 run for for state land commissioner, a post currently held by a Republican. But those plans were evidently scrapped when a popular former Democratic land commissioner, Ray Powell, signaled his interest in running for his old job.

And there have been persistent rumors that Madrid really wants to challenge Lt. Gov. Diane Denish (D) next year. There is no love lost between the two: They competed for the lieutenant governor nomination in 1994, with Madrid winning that primary, but losing in the general election on a ticket headed by then-Gov. Bruce King (D).

In New Mexico, candidates for governor and lieutenant governor run separately in the primaries, and the winners are paired for the general election, with the fate of the No. 2 candidate tied to the results in the gubernatorial race. Richardson is the overwhelming favorite to win a second term next year, and even if he does not become part of the next administration in Washington, his lieutenant governor would be a leading contender to succeed him when his second term ends in 2010.

While Richardson and Denish are not close, they have become allies — and a veteran of state politics said it makes sense for Richardson, as a Hispanic male, to have an Anglo woman as his running mate. Denish, who hails from the oil town of Hobbs in the southeastern corner of the state, has a political pedigree and vast contacts as the daughter of the late Jack Daniels, a leading business and political figure in New Mexico for decades.

Madrid, on the other hand, has prided herself on her independence from Richardson, and is the rare Democrat in New Mexico who has not shown complete fealty to the powerful governor. Madrid, in fact, is close to a potential rival to Richardson in the next presidential race, former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), though that is just one source of the tension between her and the governor.

Richardson has been mum on the prospects of a bloody primary fight between Madrid and Denish. But his formidable political team is likely to aid Madrid if she challenges Wilson — in part for the political bounce Richardson would get if he helped knock off a perennial DCCC target.

Combine that with the promises of help from the DCCC and a national political climate that seems more favorable to Democrats than it did even a month ago, and Madrid’s renewed interest in the Congressional race starts to make sense.

Wilson, however, is no pushover. She is a prodigious fundraiser and top-notch campaigner. On June 30, she already had $613,000 in her campaign account.

And Republicans in New Mexico, who are unlikely to find viable challengers to Richardson or Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) next year, now have one new factor going for them: the twin indictments late last month of the current Democratic state treasurer and his predecessor for allegedly taking kickbacks from investment firms seeking to do business with the state.

While Richardson and Madrid have not been implicated in the case, their attempts to push the treasurer, Robert Vigil, into taking a leave of absence was overturned by the state’s highest court. Vigil is now back on the job, and the Legislature, which is meeting in a special session to discuss high oil and gas prices, may begin impeachment proceedings against him.

Roxanne Rivera, a spokeswoman for the New Mexico GOP, said Republicans cannot believe that Madrid did not know about the corruption in the treasurer’s office. She predicted that voters would punish Democrats up and down the ballot in 2006.

“This scandal is more far-reaching than anyone realizes,” she said.

But a top Democratic strategist in New Mexico said the party has a ready response for anyone who attempts to tie Vigil’s woes to other leading Democrats.

“At the same time you have Vigil, you have Tom DeLay,” the strategist said, referring to the influential Republican leader in Congress who recently was indicted.

Meanwhile, Democratic leaders have begun to assemble a list of fallback candidates in case Madrid does not run. The list includes Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron, state Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino and Chris Berkheimer, a mediator with the state Worker’s Compensation Administration. Vigil-Giron is not related to the state treasurer.

“We’ve got plan B’s, C’s and D’s, so we’re in pretty good shape with that,” Feinberg said.