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A couple of months after Susana Martinez took office, I ran into an old friend who was once active in Republican party affairs and asked him whether he thought the new governor was up to the job.
“Not yet,” he replied with a chuckle, “but give her a year and she should be.”
My friend’s tempered response came in the wake of Martinez’s nomination of former Republican U.S. Sen. Harrison Schmitt to be her secretary of the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department.
Schmitt accepted the nomination but shortly bowed out after it became known that he had previously characterized environmentalists as “communists” and had dismissed renewable energy as incompatible with “real economic environment.”
Schmitt’s stated reason for declining the nomination was his unwillingness to undergo a background check preliminary to Senate confirmation hearings, leaving onlookers to wonder just how thoroughly the governor and her aides had investigated Schmitt’s appointment before announcing it.
Had they not familiarized themselves with his record of provocative public statements? Was he not told to expect a background review?
Midway through this year’s 30-day legislative session, variations on those questions emerged anew during hearings on more recent appointments the governor had submitted for confirmation.
The most confounding of the governor’s confirmation stumbles at this session centered on four individuals she had nominated for berths on the State Fair Commission.
Constitutionally, the governor nominates, but the Senate must confirm before a nominee assumes the office to which he or she was appointed.
And so it was last week that Martinez’s State Fair nominees appeared before the Senate Rules Committee where the questioning inevitably turned to issues surrounding a controversial 25-year lease of the Fair (Expo New Mexico, it’s called), valued at over $1 billion
It is inconceivable that this (or any) governor could have submitted for Senate confirmation a group of nominees to the Fair Commission without knowing full-well that this 25-year lease would become the centerpiece of intense questioning.
This is a brouhaha that has consumed headlines for months. By all accounts the lease was pushed by the governor. The winning bid turned out to be the Downs at Albuquerque, which was already operating Expo New Mexico.
The Downs owners, it seems, contributed heavily to the governor’s 2000 campaign and subsequently donated $70,000 to her political action committee (PAC).
What’s more, critics of the lease have objected all along to the haste with which the Martinez administration rushed to have the deal sealed.
Not least among those critics is Laguna Development Corp., which had also submitted a bid to operate Expo New Mexico.
Laguna Development subsequently filed a formal protest, which has provoked allegations of political favoritism, bid rigging and insider influence in leasing the Fair to the Downs.
Nor does it help that a Legislative Finance Committee audit found the existing contract with the Downs to be “fraught with problems,” and that the Downs already owed the state hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Small wonder the Senate Rules Committee had tough questions for Gov. Martinez’s nominees.
Nonetheless, Martinez’s spokesman came unglued and railed against “misinformation and grandstanding during the committee hearing.”
Whereupon, in a move apparently calculated to avoid her administration further unwanted questions and discomfort, Martinez managed to put the controversial lease with the Downs back in the headlines big time by announcing that she was withdrawing her nominations from Senate consideration.
The Senate was having none of it. Two days later three of her four nominees were confirmed.
As my Republican friend opined some time back when asked if Martinez is up to the job, “give her a year and she should be.”
The year is up.
New Mexico News Service