Lieutenant governors not known for clout

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By Sherry Robinson

Here’s a little quiz: Name the five lieutenant governors before Diane Denish.

If you can recall Walter Bradley, Casey Luna, Jack Stahl, Mike Runnels and Roberto Mondragon, you get a gold star.

If you drew a blank, welcome to the club. The fact that none of them went on to higher office and some disappeared from the political radar tells you something about the office.

The lieutenant governor has so little clout, the position is almost honorary. Their only responsibilities have been to take the wheel when the governor is out of state and to preside over the Senate.

Bradley, as second fiddle to Gov. Gary Johnson, attended a great number of award ceremonies and ribbon cuttings, but he did sit in the big chair frequently when the boss was off competing in athletic events.

Mondragon, who served Gov. Bruce King twice as lieutenant governor, was memorable for serenading the Senate chamber with “Las Mañanitas” on birthdays.

Casey Luna made himself an example of how not to be a lieutenant governor. Rabid in his desire to be governor, he was such a loose cannon that King was reluctant to leave him in charge when he had to be out of state. The unkindest cut was a nasty campaign against King in 1994 that turned voters off and helped hand the race to Gary Johnson, a political unknown.

Luna should have taken a lesson from Mondragon, who was fond of the dicho, “No moleste el pelo del gato al revés,” or “Don’t stroke the fur of the cat backwards.” That pretty much describes the unwritten rule of the office: Don’t annoy the top dog and don’t steal his thunder.

Which brings us to the current lieutenant governor.

Diane Denish is the most high profile lieutenant governor in memory. Unless you count Lee Francis, who called out the National Guard in 1967 to quell the Tijerina Courthouse Raid, when Gov. Dave Cargo was out of state, an act later decried as overkill. Or Tom Bolack, who became governor in 1962 when Ed Mechem resigned. Bolack then appointed Mechem to Dennis Chavez’s vacant senate seat. Voters were so angry they didn’t return Mechem in 1964.

Denish is also the busiest lieutenant governor, but “busy” doesn’t translate into “clout.” When Gov. Bill Richardson took office, his to-do list was so long, he delegated a number of jobs to Denish – everything from saving Cannon Air Force Base to pushing education reform. She’s more the good employee than a member of Richardson’s inner circle. And she walks a fine line in getting things done without annoying or upstaging the big guy.

Republicans demand that Denish do more to stop corruption. That’s not her job. It incorrectly assumes there’s muscle in her office and it ignores the fact that many of our tarnished public servants were elected and not appointed.

There is no such thing as a crusading lieutenant governor.

The Republicans also want to change references: The Richardson administration is suddenly the Richardson-Denish administration. That would mean we also had the Johnson-Bradley administration and the Anaya-Runnels administration. In this twisted mirror, Bradley becomes co-owner of Johnson’s support for legalizing marijuana and Runnels is tied to Anaya’s bullet train.

Candidate Denish, not Lt. Gov. Denish, has offered a clear plan to attack corruption and increase transparency in government. That’s what she can do right now.

Think New Mexico, a bipartisan think tank with an admirable track record, recently offered another clear plan to attack corruption. It boils down to: Don’t feed the bears.

After long study, Think New Mexico wants to ban political contributions from lobbyists and contractors. It’s an expansion of the Gift Act, which became law in 2007.

When this reform is introduced in the next legislative session, pay attention to who opposes it and why.

© New Mexico News Services 2009