Eight years ago this month, Bill Richardson launched what will go down as the most exhilarating roller-coaster ride of an administration in this pokey state’s century-long history.
We’ve come to the end of that ride, not with a triumphant shout or even a satisfied smile but with a certain sense of relief at finally being able to climb down (however woozily) from this carnival apparatus.
It went on about two years too long, if you ask me. Those last few loop-de-loops in his tenure weren’t exciting as much as they were stomach-wrenching. I may not be very keen on a Susana Martinez term in the Governor’s Office, but the time had certainly come to bid adios to Richardson.
How did a guy who accomplished so much—who ended his first term with such an overwhelming landslide of approval in his 2006 re-election—end up upside down in the public’s esteem?
And why do I feel like I’ve got a killer hangover when I try to recount the saga of Big Bill, his rise and his ultimate fall from grace?
Those last few loop-de-loops in his tenure weren’t exciting as much as they were stomach-wrenching.
The saddest part of the entire tale is that he came so close to being able to leave while at the top of the heap, before things started falling apart. He almost joined the Obama cabinet as commerce secretary, the kind of job for which his personality, skills and experience would have been a perfect fit. If only ...
If only he hadn’t decided to make that disastrous run for president.
If only he hadn’t tried to finance his run for president by soliciting mega-buck donations from New Mexico’s few fat cats.
If only he hadn’t, in nurturing those fat cats, created such an aura of pay-to-play that—even if he managed to avoid crossing into grounds for criminal prosecution—left his every decision in the last two years subject to cynical second-guessing in the press and by the public.
If only he hadn’t insisted on taking care of those fat cats right up to the bitter end. He blocked every attempt to roll back his income tax cuts for the wealthiest New Mexicans. That has prolonged the torture of trying to balance the state budget exclusively by cutting payrolls, programs and services—just when all are needed most.
Practically every state in the country is in a similar bind (most are far worse-off than we are) and for the same reason.
I don’t know where he’ll land now. I suspect Santa Fe will quickly lose its appeal to someone with his restless energy and extra-paged passport. But I do believe that history will be far kinder to him than either KKOB radio or the Albuquerque Journal has been. He can point to a long list of solid accomplishments.
And I am confident that some of his most controversial initiatives (the Spaceport; the Rail Runner; the public school and higher education construction binges) will bear their most important fruit in the decades ahead.
In large measure the blame for the state’s financial deficit has been laid at his feet. But that isn’t an accurate reading of what went on. Practically every state in the country is in a similar bind (most are far worse-off than we are) and for the same reason.
They all rode the roller coaster to the top as the national economy boomed—then we all spun dizzily to the bottom when it tanked. It was Wall Street and the multinational banks that created the collapse—not hiring a few hundred cronies for cushy state jobs, no matter how convenient a scapegoat that clumsy maneuver provides.
We would be facing this deficit no matter who had been on the fourth floor. About 7,000 housing construction projects per year fueled the state’s boom. I can’t imagine any governor with the prescience to have known that number was going to shrink to 800 just 12 months later. That had absolutely nothing to do with what went on in Santa Fe but everything to do with the collapse of the international financial structure.
We’re climbing out of the hole, though slowly. It will take at least another two years before we get back to anything close to 6 percent unemployment in this state, and these will be a very painful two years.
It is crucial that the Martinez administration correctly diagnose the cause of our malaise and avoid the usual Republican treatments of amputation and leeches. This is not the time to be making deep cuts. That’s a strategy guaranteed to prolong the recovery time.
I don’t expect my advice will be welcomed. Martinez ran essentially as an anti-Richardson candidate (I can’t recall a single positive thing she campaigned to accomplish), one determined to erase all vestiges of her predecessor. She is importing her own out-of-state cabinet appointments. Looks like she’s planning to start all over again rather than build on what has gone before.
We, too, will begin again; another ride in another administration. It’s starting off just as dizzying as the last—so buckle up tight, folks.