Commentary: After Udall

Party Politics Pivot Toward The Center

August March
6 min read
After Udall
US Senator Tom Udall, NM Governor Lujan Grisham and US Representative Ben Ray Lujan (Courtesy NM Political Report)
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La politica is so much more exciting when there’s an election coming to bear upon the citizenry. Eyes brighten, engagement increases and, generally speaking, expectations are focused on the future, a part of the election cycle that allows other issues to momentarily fade into the background.

But even when there isn’t something like an election cooking on the political oven, a host of fire-tenders and consummate chefs keep the irons hot; intra-party politics become more visible in the absence of actual elections being held.

Though such internal machinations may seem oblique or even obscure to your typical New Mexican voter, you can be sure that they will shape the strength, constitution, dexterity, intelligence, wisdom and charisma of the battle donkeys being sent to straighten things out with Trump and company come 2020.

As it happens, the state of New Mexico will play a big role in determining what form the juggernaut takes. Will centrists guide us through the fire or will the Bernie/Ocasio-Cortez wing come alive and bring real progressive planks to the Democratic platform?

The process of figuring that all out and presenting it to voters started last week with an announcement by longtime US Senator Tom Udall that
he will not seek reelection in 2020.

The Balderas Factor

Udall’s retirement news was followed by a lot of rumbling in the Democratic party as ambitions and alliances came to the surface.

Democratic Attorney General Hector Balderas, fiercely independent and politically shrewd after surviving as one of the lone donkeys in the Martinez administration, was initially considered a frontrunner for the Senate seat.

Balderas has built a reputation as a firm and engaged leader, using his position as the state’s top law enforcement officer to advocate for many planks on the progressive platform. Though he’s notable as a loyal lieutenant in the state party, he’s never been closely affiliated with the new governor’s vast entourage and camp followers.

Soon after Udall made his plans clear, however,
Balderas told the press he wasn’t interested in serving as a Senator, pointing to family duties as a deciding factor. His graceful and humble attention in the matter could be seen as an episode of a Democratic loyalist falling on his sword to allow other options to prevail inasmuch as he probably knew that the party was hoping to swing to the center with another, more favored choice.

Ben Ray Lujan

Primary elections are all about securing funding for the long road ahead. Balderas, we assume, knew his fundraising power, awesome as it is, would have to go against another democrat whose favorability within the Lujan Grisham administration—and among power-players in Washington hoping not to be washed away by the populist leftism of Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and/or Bernie Sanders—remains indisputable.

Certainly Lujan has done an admirable job as a US Representative; he’s also the cousin of our current Governor. His father was a major player in New Mexico politics too; Ben Lujan was the speaker of the NM House of Representatives for about 37 years.

This week, Congressman Lujan received the endorsement of party super-heavyweight Nancy Pelosi, a centrist committed to keeping practical ideas alive even under pressure from a growing and very vocal left wing of the party. And not only that, but recent Washington resident and Representative Deb Haaland jumped on the bandwagon proclaiming, “New Mexicans deserve a public servant who can fill the shoes of Senator Tom Udall and continue the legacy of Dennis Chavez by fighting for New Mexicans … I believe that person is Ben Ray Lujan.”

It’s almost as if Ben Ray Lujan is the hand-chosen successor of the Democratic political machine that is quite okay with dynastic overtones. We both know Lujan’s a great guy with heaps of potential, but the too-early endorsements come off like that peculiar ritual of old Mexican party politics whereby a sitting official would publicly point to his successor, who would then handily win the upcoming election.

Though we’re sure there’s no
el dedazo involved in the current practices of the Democratic party, we’re still discouraged by the appearance of such, especially at at time when progressive and leftist factions within the party are vying for national attention as a number of other Donkeys begin to crowd the center, ahead of 2020.

Maggie Toulouse Oliver

On Friday, the spokesperson for the current Bernalillo County Clerk
confirmed that paperwork had been filed to launch Toulouse Oliver’s campaign for the Democratic nomination for US Senate.

She hasn’t gotten to the point where she must elucidate the difference between her campaign and that of the solidly backed favorite son—whose longtime political aspirations are riding on his proposed ascent to the Senate. But it’s reasonable to note that
some political observers have reported that, in order to be viable financially, Ms. Toulouse Oliver will have to embrace the ideals and hence the funding that comes from left-end grassroots organizations.

In any case, her announcement of intent is a ray of sunshine in a state that has long been dominated by Democratic party power interests that settle for the center. Yes, again we’re aware they’re decent leaders and provide a substantive contrast to the empty-headed Trumpsters. But in order to gain traction with voters in 2020, party leaders should provide voters with candidates who do not represent more of the same, whether center or right.

Other Options

Speaking of the right, only two Republicans have interest in Udall’s seat. That’s a US Senate assignment previously held by superstar centrist Republican Pete Domenici and before that conservative Democrat Clinton Anderson—
Mick Rich, a local businessman (of course, elephants, of course!) who was thoroughly thrashed in last year’s Senate contest featuring our own Athenian Burqueño, Martin Heinrich is choice one. The other is Gavin Clarkson, a former Trump operative who feels just like his boss about the border and is a lot like the chief elephant in other ways too, except with bolo tie, homies.

Other than that, we wonder if anyone’s asked
maverick visionary Jeff Apodaca if he’s interested. Dude does know what he’s talking about. Although not part of the progressive programming of the Democratic Party, his independence and his gravitas might make for good senatorial qualities.
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