Campaign ‘02 echoes in campaign ‘10

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By Hal Rhodes

Thousands of New Mexicans have become eligible to vote since the election of 2002, which made a former congressman, U.N. ambassador and U.S. energy secretary governor of the state of New Mexico.

Many of those potential new voters were just kids — 10, 11, 12 years old — eight years ago, and it’s safe to assume that few were aware of the personalities and political forces that took Bill Richardson to the state’s highest office.

Nonetheless, it was one of the more interesting gubernatorial campaigns in recent state history.

Richardson came to the 2002 Democratic nomination for governor over what some observers at the time thought to be the politically dead body of his principal rival for that honor, fellow Democrat Gary King. In short order, King proved otherwise by winning election to the office of state attorney general.

Today, with but seven months remaining in his second term, the Richardson era nears its end.

Yet among the fascinations of the 2010 New Mexico election are echoes still reverberating from the 2002 campaign that started Bill Richardson’s eight-year sojourn atop the fourth floor at the Roundhouse.

And there’s the pity. For chances are, a lot of younger Republican voters this year have only vaguely heard something about how this fellow John Sanchez, who wants to be their nominee for lieutenant governor, also ran for governor at one time or another.

What they probably won’t appreciate is the extent to which John Sanchez was actually something of a political phenomenon back when this century was still getting its legs.

A little known Albuquerque roofing contractor, Sanchez seemed to have come from out of nowhere in 2000 when then-state Republican Chairman John Dendahl recruited him to run against a far better known Sanchez for a seat in the state House of Representatives.

That better known Sanchez was Raymond Sanchez who had represented his Albuquerque North Valley district in the Legislature going back to the 1970s, and who had risen to become House Speaker, a post to which he was first elected in 1983.

John Dendahl was a no-holds-barred Republican state chairman, devoted to what came to be called slash-and-burn campaigns on behalf of candidates who enjoyed his favor, and John Sanchez was the beneficiary of such a campaign in 2000.

It worked. The powerful Democratic House Speaker, Raymond Sanchez, was undone by the hitherto obscure Sanchez named John.   

“John the Giant Killer,” some Republicans dubbed him, and in January of 2001 he took his oath of office and became a newly-minted state representative.

It was a brief tenure, John Sanchez’s stint at the Roundhouse. Barely had the 2001 legislative session adjourned before talk of upward political mobility for the freshman lawmaker animated state GOP circles.

And sure enough, come June of 2002, midway through his one and only term as a state legislator, John Sanchez defeated his party’s incumbent lieutenant governor, Walter Bradley, for the Republican gubernatorial nomination that would pit him against Bill Richardson in the November election.

During the campaign that year there was brave talk about the “Giant Killer” doing to Richardson what he had earlier done to Speaker Sanchez and Lt. Gov. Bradley. But it was bravado asserting itself at the expense of savvy political analysis, and with his bruising defeat John Sanchez quickly disappeared into the political obscurity from which he emerged only two years earlier.

Now, his sights lowered, he’s seeking the Number Two spot on his party’s top-of-the-ballot ticket in November.

Is it a comeback or a come down? If he prevails, it’ll be a bit of both.