Ethics Earthquake: The old order takes a thumpin’

The earth moved on Tuesday. The June 3rd primary election left in its wake an altered legislative landscape. While the aftershocks are only just beginning, one thing is already apparent. A seismic shift has started that is substantially brightening the prospects for passage of ethics reform in the state of New Mexico.

In Albuquerque, the ground opened up and swallowed three supposedly unbeatable Democratic warhorses – and most significantly two powerful committee chairmen. All three of them were beneficiaries of a Roundhouse culture fueled by copious gratuities from lobbyists and gobs of campaign money from industry special interests. All three of them were roadblocks to reform.

Voters send a message

In Senate District 17, Shannon Robinson, a 21-year incumbent and chairman of the Corporations Committee was crushed by political newcomer Tim Keller – 66% to 34%.

In Senate District 14, James Taylor, a 14-year legislative veteran, took a thumpin’ at the hands of former Albuquerque City Councilor Eric Griego – 63% to 37%.

And in probably the biggest upset of all, Dan Silva in House District 13, a 23-year incumbent and chairman of the House Transportation Committee, was defeated by Local 1199 union organizer Eleanor Chavez – 54% to 46%.

And there were two more very close calls.

In SD 30, incumbent David Ulibarri – known as “Senator Yellowcake” for his relentless promotion of a revival of uranium mining in his mostly Cibola County district, was clinging to a five vote lead over Clemente Sanchez at the time of this post, with a recount in process. (In this three-person race, the anti-incumbent Sanchez-June Lorenzo vote combined is 63%.)

Finally, in Albuquerque South Valley’s Senate District 11, Rules Committee chair Linda Lopez barely avoided another stunning incumbent downfall by a slim margin (53%). Under Lopez’s chairmanship, Senate Rules became known as the Devil’s Island for ethics reform bills. It’s where they were sentenced to languish and rot as the session clock ran down.

During the campaign, Lopez, along with Taylor and Silva, were stung by criticism for their advocacy of a multi-multi-million dollar taxpayer giveaway to a California based developer, SunCal. A pre-election “get out the vote” picnic sponsored by SunCal to “honor” the legislators it had in the corporate tank raised eyebrows in the media.

As is the case with Congress, the incumbent re-election rate to the N.M. legislature is well over 90%. So the toppling of three such prominent and powerful legislators – in a primary election and by landslide margins no less — is historically unprecedented.

Yet voters in these five distinct districts all sent the same unmistakable message. It was a collective rebuke of the special interest money-driven way business has been conducted in at the State Capitol. It was a call for ethics reform.

Lest we forget that in February of this year, Santa Fe voters weighed in on this ethics fight by passing “Clean Elections” public campaign financing for city elections, joining Albuquerque, which adopted the same reform with 71% voter approval.

All of which leaves us with the big question: Will those lawmakers left standing get the message?

At the national level, at least one Democrat does get it:
USA Today, 6/6/08)

Barack Obama put his stamp on the party Thursday, announcing the Democratic National Committee would no longer accept donations from political action committees or federal lobbyists. That brings the party in line with his campaign’s policy… “We are going to change how Washington works,” he said.

For those New Mexico legislators and lobbyists, those “wall leaners” and “alligators” — for anyone still stuck in the mindset of deep denial, here’s a handy compendium of a few of the media and blog stories that grasp the point the voters were making so eloquently on Tuesday:

Albq. Journal Editorial: Back Lawmakers Who Support Ethics Reform (Albuquerque Journal, 5/21/08)

“Too many are comfortable with the status quo. Some argue that this is a solution where no problem exists or say raising the subject of the potential for corruption in state government is an insult. That’s an insult to voters’ intelligence.”

Progressive victories create hope for ethics reform (Haussamen, 6/5/08)

“On Tuesday, Democratic voters in Albuquerque proved that they want reform and they’re willing to vote against candidates who stand in its way. In the process, they knocked out two opponents of reform and changed the landscape in the state Senate.”

Roundhouse Roundup: New, progressive order for Senate? (Steve Terrell, Santa Fe New Mexican, 6/4/08)

“It’s easy to imagine the two newcomers banding together with fellow Albuquerque progressives like Cisco McSorley, Dede Feldman and Jerry Ortiz y Pino — plus perhaps Santa Fe’s Peter Wirth, who will be moving from the House to the Senate — and give new life to ethics reform, which for the past few sessions has withered and died in the catacombs of the Senate.”

Ethics Issue Propelled Keller (NM Independent, 6/5/08)

“Keller’s campaign focused hard on ethics and campaign finance reform, two particularly weak points for Robinson, who had been criticized for improperly diverting funds to the UNM club rugby team (which he coaches), and failing to disclose a long list of tangles with the law.”

Other Election Day Losers (Jim Baca, Only in New Mexico, 6/6/08)

“Besides the veteran New Mexico Legislators who bit the dust in Tuesday’s Primary Election, there are other losers… They are lobbyists. Quite often lobbyists in Santa Fe will latch on to one veteran legislator who chairs a committee. This is their main contact for getting things done to their satisfaction. It shows they have clout and that leads to more and more clients. Then when their guy is defeated, retires or passes away their gravy train goes with it at the same time.”

Yes, Jim. Three gravy trains went off the tracks on Tuesday. And the ethics reform train appears to be building up a big head of steam — a trainload of hope with the promise we can finally change the way Santa Fe works.

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