Politics in Northern New Mexico a Family Affair

Posted March 19, 2007 at 6:21pm

Suddenly and unexpectedly, New Mexico is gripped by political intrigue.

The fallout over the calls that Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) placed to a U.S. attorney to inquire about the status of federal investigations, coupled with the presidential candidacy of Gov. Bill Richardson (D), have plunged the state’s political class into an unprecedented period of uncertainty and anticipation. [IMGCAP(1)]

How far will Richardson’s presidential ambitions take him? Could Domenici’s and Wilson’s re-election prospects be dramatically altered as critics accuse them of tampering with federal investigations when they called then-U.S. Attorney David Iglesias? Will Domenici, who will be 76 in 2008, retire? Could all three of the state’s House Members jump into the Senate race if there is a vacancy? Could Richardson, who is term-limited in 2010, decide to run for Senate if his White House bid fizzles?

“Everything could happen, or nothing,” said Joe Monahan, an Albuquerque, N.M.-based political and business consultant who has worked for both Democrats and Republicans. “It’s weird. You’re waiting to see if anything boils over.”

In a curious way, the political landscape for 2010 is a little clearer than it is for 2008. Right now, Lt. Gov. Diane Denish and Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez are preparing to compete for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Rep. Steve Pearce is the Republican mentioned most frequently when talk of the gubernatorial race surfaces.

But a lot could happen between now and then.

If Domenici retires, Pearce and Wilson could compete for the Republican Senate nomination — though the steely Wilson’s political armor may be dented by the U.S. attorney controversy. Former state Rep. John Sanchez, the GOP’s standard-bearer in the 2002 gubernatorial race, also may consider a Senate run.

On the Democratic side, a Domenici retirement could lure Chavez into the Senate race. Rep. Tom Udall (D) probably also would take a long, hard look if there is a vacancy. And don’t forget about Richardson — though he is insisting, for now, that he has no interest in a Senate bid.

Although Richardson and Udall ran against each other in a Democratic House primary in 1982, don’t expect history to repeat itself if Domenici retires. The two have become allies, and Udall’s stepdaughter, Amanda Cooper, has long been part of Richardson’s inner circle.

For New Mexico pols with statewide ambitions, there could be another tantalizing opening in 2012, when Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D) is up for a sixth term.

That’s the same year the state’s Congressional boundaries will change, and if Democrats still control all the levers of state government, as they do now, they may work to make Wilson’s Albuquerque-based district and Pearce’s district in the southern half of the state less friendly territory for the GOP.

Right now, the Democrats — after devoting huge resources to ousting Wilson in 2006, only to fall 900 votes short — are struggling to find a top-tier challenger this election cycle. National party leaders would love to convince Chavez or Denish to run. If they don’t succeed, other possibilities include Terry Brunner, Bingaman’s state director; Louis Caldera, a former University of New Mexico president who served as former President Bill Clinton’s secretary of the Army; former Albuquerque City Councilor Eric Griego; Albuquerque Councilor Martin Heinrich; and state Rep. Al Park.

Should Wilson choose not to seek re-election to the House — either because she’s in political peril or she’s running for the Senate — potential Republican candidates in the 1st district include Sanchez; state Sen. Kent Cravens; state Rep. Justine Fox-Young, who is just 28 years old; Doug Turner, a seasoned GOP political strategist; Bernalillo County Sheriff Darren White; and state Rep. Teresa Zanetti, a leading social conservative.

White has endeared himself to Republicans by openly criticizing Iglesias’ unwillingness to prosecute liberal groups that attempted to register ineligible voters in New Mexico before the 2004 presidential election.

Iglesias himself once was considered a Republican rising star — he was the 1998 GOP nominee for attorney general — until he was sacked by the Justice Department at the end of 2006. How he will emerge from the controversy, and whether he still hungers for political office, remains to be seen.

When the 2nd district seat became open in 2002, Democrats competed heavily for it. Yet Pearce won fairly easily that year and racked up 20-point victories in 2004 and 2006. Al Kissling, the retired Presbyterian minister who was the Democratic nominee in 2006, is gearing up to try again next year.

But Heath Haussamen, a former political reporter at the Las Cruces Sun-News who runs a New Mexico political blog, said several better-known Democrats are poised to get in the race if there is a vacancy.

“There’s so much uncertainty right now, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of these people wait a while longer before deciding what to do,” Haussamen said.

Many Democrats believe their strongest candidate in the southern New Mexico district would be state Rep. Joseph Cervantes. Doña Ana County Commissioner Bill McCamley (D), a 29-year-old graduate of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, also is highly regarded. State Rep. Jeff Steinborn (D), a former aide to Richardson and Bingaman who ran unsuccessfully for the 2nd district Democratic nomination in 2004, also is mentioned.

On the Republican side, possible contenders if there is an open seat include Phelps Anderson, the son of a well-known New Mexico oil executive, state House Minority Whip Dan Foley and Ed Tinsley, owner of a steakhouse chain. Tinsley and Anderson were the runners-up to Pearce in the 2002 GOP primary.

“An open seat is like Easter for these guys — they rise again,” Monahan said.

But a vacancy in Udall’s 3rd district in northern New Mexico could produce the biggest scramble of them all — on the Democratic side, because Republicans are unlikely to compete for the seat the way the lines currently are drawn.

The 3rd district also is where many New Mexico Hispanics would hope to elect a Member of Congress, because Hispanics dominate the political scene in the northern part of the state. Although the state population is more than 40 percent Hispanic, the Land of Enchantment has not had a Hispanic Member in its Congressional delegation since Richardson resigned his 3rd district seat in 1997 to become Clinton’s U.N. ambassador.

The first name mentioned when a vacancy in the 3rd district is discussed is former Santa Fe County Commissioner Javier Gonzales (D). Gonzales was a political wunderkind who was elected to the county commission in 1994 at the age of 27. He is now the president of the Board of Regents at New Mexico Highlands University, works for a national lobbying firm and also runs a popular bilingual radio station. He father is a former mayor of Santa Fe.

But Gonzales is unlikely to have the Democratic field to himself. Two other ambitious young Hispanic politicians in northern New Mexico are Public Utilities Commission Chairman Ben Ray Lujan, son of state Speaker Ben Lujan (D), and attorney Geno Zamora, a former aide to both Udall and Richardson who lost a Democratic primary for attorney general last year.

Political observers also would not be surprised to see the media-savvy Santa Fe County sheriff, Greg Solano (he has his own blog), run for Congress. And ex-state Sen. Roman Maes (D) always has expressed an interest in the 3rd district seat.

But the primary field would not be limited to Hispanic candidates. State Rep. Peter Wirth (D) — the nephew of former Sen. Tim Wirth (D-Colo.) — is mentioned as a possible candidate. And lawyer Brian Egolf Jr., the son of a powerful New Mexico oil man and Democratic donor, is seen as rising political star in the state.

“He’s definitely positioning himself for things,” said a Democratic operative from northern New Mexico.