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Guv accused of engineering Senate leadership ouster
Did Gov. Bill Richardson go against his word and help engineer a putsch against the state Senate’s top Democrat and longtime critic?
Sen. Tim Jennings, D-Roswell, accused the governor of doing exactly that Monday, a day after Senate Democrats nominated Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa, instead of Jennings to be Senate President Pro Tem, a post Jennings has held for a year.
“Everybody tells me that he did,” Jennings said of Richardson. “Whether they have the courage to tell you I don’t know. People tell me he called people up to the office.”
Two calls to Richardson spokesman Gilbert Gallegos seeking response were not immediately returned Monday afternoon.
Tales of Richardson calling senators up to his office to lobby them on the leadership battle have circulated for weeks around the Capitol and were heard by more than a few lawmakers, including Sen. Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, a Jennings supporter. Papen said Monday she heard the same thing, although she didn’t know the names of those summoned to the governor’s fourth-floor Roundhouse office.
If the governor did inject himself into the fracas, it would contradict his statement shortly after the Nov. 4 election that he doesn’t get involved in legislative business or leadership fights.
“I don’t interfere in legislative leadership races. But I think the Sen. Jennings is going to have to answer to his caucus in how he interfered in race that the Democrat won,” Richardson said a day after the Nov. 4 general election. The governor was speaking of a robo-call Jennings made for the Senate’s second-highest ranking Republican, Sen. Minority Whip Leonard Lee Rawson. Rawson ultimately lost to Democratic challenger Steve Fischmann.
There was no love lost between Jennings and Richardson before the robo-call, but that episode escalated tensions, leading Richardson to blast Jennings for the Rawson call immediately and say he would have to answer to the Senate Democratic caucus.
Despite the Democratic caucus’ nomination of Cisneros, it appears that Jennings won’t accept the verdict. He told the Independent on Monday that he will attempt to reach across the aisle for GOP support to keep his post.
Unlike the Senate Majority Leader, who represents the majority –- in this case, the Democrats — the president pro tem post is voted on by the full 42-member Senate in January.
Whoever becomes president pro tem must secure 22 of the Senate’s 42 votes on Jan. 20, the first day of the legislative session.
With 27 Democrats and 15 Republicans expected to be in the Senate for next session, Jennings would need to get pledges of support from seven Democratic senators as well as all 15 Republicans to keep the post. And Jennings is feeling bullish about his chances.
It is unclear how many Democrats each man has lined up behind his bid for the Senate President Pro Tem post, and their supporters gave competing versions on Monday following this weekend’s caucus.
Sen. Majority Whip Mary Jane Garcia, D-Dona Ana, a Cisneros supporter, said she believed Cisneros had “the bulk of the Democratic votes in the caucus.”
“He’s a very good legislator,” Garcia said.
Papen, the Jennings supporter, meanwhile, said she felt confident “that there was a quite a large number of votes that went to Sen. Jennings.”
Coming after an election in which Democrats handily won at every level, Senate Republicans being asked to pick a top Democrat would present an irony, some say.
“The New Mexico Senate is the last stand for Republicans,” said Sen. Dede Feldman, D-Albuquerque. “They’ve lost every other office in the state, and so now they have a chance to gain the New Mexico Senate and they’re going to go for it, and they have their allies.”
NMI’s Heath Haussamen contributed to this story.