Ortiz y Pino
The Road to Ethics Reform
By Jerry Ortiz y Pino
Democrats are salivating over the prospect of watching Congresswoman Heather Wilson and the previously unassailable U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici struggle during their upcoming re-election campaigns.
Both will certainly be saddled with charges that they attempted to illegally influence the U.S. Attorney’s investigation into state-level corruption.
Meanwhile, the initial results of very investigation have Republicans in New Mexico entertaining visions of significant gains in next year’s legislative races—if they can paint all legislative Democrats with the tint of corruption.
They will insinuate that all Democratic candidates are constitutionally prone to using political power for personal profit the way former Democratic Senate Leader Manny Aragon is alleged to have done.
Corruption, it would seem, is an equal opportunity provider, one as available to those who fly one party’s flag as to those who campaign under the other.
Both parties are demonstrably susceptible to the virus, yet each party would like to pretend that only “The Others” are carriers. The press is advocating immunizations to prevent any spread of the malady.
But wiping out political corruption will take more than passing a handful of ethics reform measures … even if we were ever able to actually pass such measures; something that to date seems beyond the ability of our Legislature to accomplish.
Now the governor, heady with the success of having just averted, by the tiniest of margins, near disaster in 2007’s first Special Legislative Session, is talking about calling a second Special Session later this year, this one to be devoted exclusively to ethics reforms.
My unsolicited advice on this subject is—don’t do it.
Go ahead and put together a blue ribbon panel on improving ethics among public officials. Hold hearings around the state to solicit input. Create, if you must, an interim legislative committee charged with reviewing and sharpening whatever reform recommendations the panel comes up with.
Build some momentum leading up to the 2008 regular session and make this issue your No. 1 priority for that session, Governor. Get some key leaders on both sides to buy in. Then your package will have a chance. But anything short of that thorough, deliberate and strategic approach is likely to meet the same fate as the measures you tried to ram through the last Special Session: resistance, amendment, rejection.
I know this does seem at least somewhat counterintuitive. I mean, who could possibly be against strengthening public officials’ ethical performance? In light of recent scandals, is there much doubt we need to do something on the side of honorable conduct?
Public opinion surveys put the level of trust for elected officials among voters at slightly below those for used car salesmen and televangelists and just a tad above their confidence in Enron executives.
So it ought to be a slam dunk. Hammer out some confidence-restoring initiatives, call the troops back to Santa Fe for a couple days of rubber-stamping and adjourn to the collective shouts and choruses of enthusiastic appreciation from the press and public.
Listen to the Republican leadership in the Senate, in the person of Sen. Lee Rawson: “Hey, either you’re honest or you’re not. Passing a law or two isn’t going to change anything. Leave it up to the voters’ judgment. Anything else is just feel-good stuff.”
Or listen to the Democratic leadership, in the words of Sen. Michael Sanchez: “There’s a world of difference between indicting someone and convicting someone. And so far, the only corruption we’ve seen convictions on involves the executive branch, not the legislative. So why are we rushing in to solve a problem I haven’t seen evidence exists?”
The press so far has focused almost exclusively on Sanchez’ views (he’s majority floor leader, but his vote was just one of a handful of Democrats opposed to most of the proposed package) while ignoring the unanimous Republican vote against them. OK, Joe Carraro voted for one, but even that maverick toed the line on all the others.
In the House, the GOP opposition is just as united against most ethics reform bills, but the Democratic majority there is so overwhelming that the GOP can’t block it. Senate Republican opposition, however, can be effective. All it takes is three Democrats to break away and one to be absent for the Republicans’ disciplined cohort to carry the day.
Thus my final suggestion to the governor is this: Before you call another session to consider ethics reform issues, please sit down with (gasp!) the Republicans to find out what they will endorse and what they won’t.
The weasel portion of my brain suspects their opposition is founded simply on the supposed strategic advantage they think the issue of corruption gives them in state elections. I know, I know. That’s not fair to project such Machiavellian motives to one’s political foes.
But, dang it, for all their posturing about “cleaning up the mess in Santa Fe,” when given a golden opportunity to actually enact some cleanup measures, the GOP scooted in the opposite direction.
It may end up that it will rest on voters to impress on our Republican brethren a fundamental truth that should be obvious: Neither party has the honesty market cornered. Reforming public official ethics is too serious a task to play Karl Rove games. Corruption is completely bipartisan; reform has to be as well.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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