At first, it all seemed to come together beautifully, a near-miracle of synchronicity: President-elect Obama picked Bill Richardson for a cabinet post in the new administration. When our governor agreed to become the next U.S. secretary of commerce, we all assumed he’d quickly leave the governor’s position two years before the end of his term, just as a new year, a new Legislature and a new budget crisis would all turn up in Santa Fe, ready to confront a new governor.
Not to worry, New Mexicans; the transition would be in good hands. After all, we have a lieutenant governor, Diane Denish, who’s been preparing to take over the reins of government in just such a situation for the past six years, a powerful personality in her own right.
Everything was in place for a seamless conversion from the era of Big Bill to the era of Smooth Diane. Nothing could be simpler ... until it started falling apart. Now the possibility of a real mess is growing stronger every day.
Richardson started the downhill slide by firmly stating he won't leave his current position until he's been fully confirmed by the U.S. Senate—suggesting he’ll be hanging around until well beyond the Obama inaugural, possibly into March.
That meant the old regime, with its heart and head all focused on Washington and the dizzying possibilities inside the Beltway, was actually planning on staying here for the foreseeable future. He would stay through the legislative session scheduled to end on March 20, and he would certainly attempt to influence the direction of that session in classic Richardsonian style.
That also meant the new regime—the Denish administration, the one that will have to live with the consequences of whatever emerges from the legislative sausage grinder—is fated to sit on the sidelines, watching the decisions get made by an administration that won’t be around for the implementation of its decisions.
Richardson won’t have to eat the stew he’s so eagerly salting.
Forget about smooth transitions; this situation’s a recipe for chaos.
It is also incredibly unfair to Denish, who doesn’t deserve this treatment. She’s been an intensely loyal warrior through the past six years, grinning and bearing it when someone of lesser character might have blown up at the governor or those who serve him. What’s she ever done to deserve a setup for disaster like this?
It’s simple, really. The process of putting together a budget and crafting a response to the fiscal Black Plague facing New Mexico ought to be the prerogative of the governor who is going to have to try to make it work day to day, not of the governor who is leaving.
I don’t know about the legal or constitutional niceties. Richardson is probably within his rights to linger like this, refusing to leave the kitchen even though he won’t have to eat the stew he’s so eagerly salting. But it isn’t a matter of “legal duties”; this is an unprecedented situation, one that ought to call for some fairness and common sense in its handling.
So I would like to ask our future secretary of commerce, as a favor to the people of New Mexico who have been so supportive of his efforts to go back to Washington for these past two years, to make one final magnanimous gesture, one last act of gratuitous chivalry, and resign from the governorship of New Mexico effective Jan. 20, 2009.
That simple step would neatly resolve what threatens to be a dicey situation. It would be a generous act, not one taken under duress or under some type of legal mandate, but taken simply because it would be the right thing to do.
While you’re waiting for the confirmation hearings to begin, Bill, you might take a vacation. Clearly, you’ve earned one. Or you could take a tour of the entire state, talk to ordinary people everywhere and listen to their views on the economy, international trade and alternative energy. To get ready for the whirlwind your Cabinet position will impose, it would be a sort of fact-finding trip to the grassroots where the economic downturn has been most damaging.
But please, don’t make influencing this year’s legislative process your farewell act as governor. Let it go this time. Your years as governor will be long remembered; your victories and successes are many. Go out on top ... and let your well-prepared successor have her shot at running the show.
In large measure, this legislative session will face vastly simplified responsibilities compared to recent years. This time around, the essential question can be framed succinctly. To deal with the forecast of next year’s reduced revenues, should New Mexico cut services? Or should it find new revenue sources?
That’s not an easy dilemma to answer. But the governor who ought to frame the answer should be the one who will be working in the capital on July 1, the day the answer takes effect, and not the governor who will be negotiating international trade agreements in Malaysia or Peru.