Apparently subscribing to the belief that if you can’t beat ’em, defeat ’em, Gov. Bill Richardson has gotten involved in the June 3 Democratic Party primary races for the state Senate in a big way. Money and influence from the executive branch are being openly employed to shape the makeup of the next state Senate, particularly of the Democratic majority.
It is South Valley independent Democratic Sen. Linda Lopez who is feeling the heaviest blow from the back of the gubernatorial hand, payback for her impertinence in distancing herself from the Fourth Floor and for using (accurately) the pejorative “lame duck” in describing the current occupant of that floor.
Meanwhile, a couple of progressive challengers to Richardson allies are finding that the governor has made large donations to their opponents. Most candidates in Senate primary races are hard-pressed to raise even $25,000 in total, so $5,000 checks from Richardson are comparatively enormous and designed to elicit vast gratitude from the recipients. But the governor has to know he is playing a risky game. Entremetidos (meddlers) are tolerated only when they succeed; if the results don’t go his way and it becomes clear he’s overplayed his hand, Richardson could find the already headstrong Senate Democrats more independent than ever, and the challenges to his ambitious agenda more numerous.
Lopez is campaigning hard to hold on to the seat she’s held for eight years. Ever among the most progressive of lawmakers, she has wielded considerable influence over the gradual liberalization of the Senate, sponsoring dozens of measures that have increased opportunities for women and children; improved the functioning of health and welfare systems; pushed for economic development projects; and overhauled the state’s electoral system.
Ordinarily one would figure the governor’s agenda and Sen. Lopez’ agenda would be so similar that the two would be close, effective allies. But Lopez has a streak of independence that doesn’t endear her to a chief executive who wants compliance, not questions. She puts her constituents, who comprise one of the poorest districts in the Metropolitan area, ahead of loyalty to the governor.
Thus she was outspoken four years ago in opposing Richardson’s tax cuts for the upper tax brackets. This year, that chicken is coming home to roost as the state is faced with big-time belt-tightening resulting from New Mexico’s serious slow-down in tax revenues. That belt-tightening threatens to leave many South Valley residents in Lopez’ district unable to access needed education, health and social services, or even face cutbacks. She’s angry about this turn of events and isn’t willing to grin and pretend all is peachy.
Her colleagues are following the results of her race closely. If she survives, the lesson for others will be clear: Defiance doesn’t necessarily spell disaster. Conversely, if she is defeated, Richardson will have secured one more supporter ... and planted an important message about the consequences of wandering from his prescribed path.
Following the trail of gubernatorial $5,000 checks leads one straight to Sens. James Taylor and Shannon Robinson, incumbents who face tough races against more progressive challengers, Eric Griego and Tim Keller, respectively. The governor has decided to jump in on Taylor and Robinson’s behalf and his influence (and campaign funds) could be the shove that moves them across the finish line first. If so, you can expect these two veteran legislators will be keen supporters of all legislative matters originating in the gubernatorial imagination.
On the other hand, wins by the challengers in these races would have the effect of cementing their independence from a governor who is, undeniably, in the last two years of his tenure—the classic definition of a lame duck. It would also have the potential of spreading the spirit of independence like a dread contagion throughout the senior chamber, and that must be an unsettling thought for a governor who still has several major initiatives requiring action.
This is the last legislative election Richardson will be able to influence from the Fourth Floor. He has a lot at stake. The results in those three races next week will, for better or worse, go a long way in determining his legacy—and the fate of his agenda during the next two sessions.