Albuquerque political consultant Jay McCleskey has been called a giant killer. And a hatchet man.
He engineered the defeat of longtime House Speaker Raymond Sanchez in 2000, and a victory in New Mexico by George W. Bush in 2004. These days, his top client is Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.
He has ruffled plenty of feathers and made his share of enemies along the way, but he generally managed to stay in the background. But in recent weeks, McCleskey’s campaign tactics and his role as Martinez’s political adviser have pushed the behind-the-scenes strategist into the limelight.
McCleskey isn’t a state employee, but he works as a contract consultant for the governor’s political action committee. He is a top adviser to Martinez — who says she listens to his opinion but makes up her own mind.
Others credit him with having more clout.
“A lot of people refer to him as the fifth-floor governor,” said Sen. Tim Jennings, D-Roswell, noting there are only four floors at the Roundhouse and the governor is on the fourth.
Last week, a Democratic-leaning political action committee revealed an email showing that a state Public Education Department employee compiled a list of nonunion teachers at McCleskey’s request — with the help of budget and information technology staffers.
Last month, McCleskey became the lightning rod in a heated Republican primary election race in eastern New Mexico that pitted a candidate backed by Martinez against a rival who won the election.
Several of McCleskey’s critics, including some Republicans, declined to be interviewed for this story.
“He’s running the state,” said one Republican politico. “You can’t get anything done that he doesn’t sign off on. … That’s the belief.”
Martinez bristled at that notion.
“What’s interesting to me is anyone who says that doesn’t even begin to know me,” she said in a Journal interview last week.
“I wouldn’t get these kind of questions from reporters down south, who know me,” said Martinez, a former district attorney in Las Cruces. “They know that I’m a strong, informed executive, and I don’t win the office without having great passion for the policies that I’m pushing forward. No one tells me what to think.”
McCleskey said any suggestion that he directs state government from the Albuquerque offices of his company, McCleskey Media Strategies, is a gross exaggeration of his role.
“I don’t make decisions based on policy. She makes those decisions,” McCleskey said of the governor. “I don’t make decisions on operating state government. I have no role within state government. Simply advice. Sometimes, she follows it; sometimes, she doesn’t.”
McCleskey’s mentor, former state GOP Director Kevin Moomaw, said its not uncommon for political advisers like McCleskey to work for elected officials.
“It’s no different than the role Karl Rove played for (Texas) Gov. (George W.) Bush, and it’s no different than a lot of consultants play around the country.”
McCleskey, 37, is an Albuquerque native and 1993 graduate of Manzano High School who became active in statewide New Mexico elections early in his 20s.
His campaign consulting work has included directing former President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign in New Mexico, leading Bush to win back New Mexico after he narrowly lost the state in 2000.
A former state GOP executive director, McCleskey went on to serve as the Republican National Committee’s regional director of Southwestern states. After the 2008 election cycle, McCleskey returned to New Mexico and one year later helped Albuquerque Mayor Richard J. Berry become the city’s first Republican mayor since Harry Kinney in 1981-85.
Soon afterward, McCleskey began working on behalf of Martinez. He led her through a heated, five-way primary in 2010 and on to defeat former Democratic Lt. Gov. Diane Denish to become the nation’s first elected Hispanic female governor.
“It’s very fulfilling for me to work for this governor in my home state … and to advocate some of the changes, and to help her achieve some of the reforms she wants to do,” McCleskey said. “It’s fulfilling to help her succeed.”
Rather than being hired as chief of staff, or other high-level adviser on the state payroll, McCleskey and Martinez opted to have him stay focused on political work through Susana PAC.
According to disclosure reports filed with the New Mexico Secretary of State, McCleskey’s firm received more than $101,000 in consulting fees from Susana PAC between April 2011 and May of this year. That is in addition to the cost of mailings, travel and other expenses his firm billed to the PAC.
During legislative sessions, McCleskey has been a frequent visitor to Republican meeting places. And he’s been there to discuss state issues and push the governor’s agenda, lawmakers said.
“Jay can play any role he wants to,” said Sen. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, the Senate’s top Republican. “He comes down and talks about issues.”
Martinez spokesman Scott Darnell said McCleskey doesn’t have an office or a work space in the governor’s office.
But he does have access.
Last December, McCleskey reported a residential burglary of his home to the Albuquerque Police Department. On the list of items stolen: his governor’s office ID.
McCleskey said politics and policy sometimes get “intertwined,” but said he remains an outsider to the governor’s administration. That ensures Martinez’s political activity, including fundraising and her work with the Republican Governor’s Association, stays at arm’s-length from taxpayer-funded state business, he said.
“It’s no different than any other governor. They have a political operation, whether that’s housed in a state party, in a PAC or a (nonprofit), they’re necessary efforts,” McCleskey said. “One of the major reasons why is, when she’s pushing for the reforms she’s pushing for, you’re going to get a lot of political opposition.”
Critics, including the state Democratic Party, suggest McCleskey is granted insider access to flex Martinez’s political muscle.
The governor’s adviser drew fire last week after he requested the names and addresses of all the state’s non-union teachers from the Public Education Department.
His verbal request was made to public information officer Larry Behrens, a Martinez political appointee, rather than to the agency’s records custodian.
Behrens responded by using staff to help compile email addresses from each of the school websites, filtering out those with known union affiliations and sending the information to McCleskey and other state employees using personal or political email addresses.
Martinez last week in the Journal interview defended McCleskey and said he didn’t get all the information he sought because the agency refused to release home addresses of the teachers.
What was furnished was data already being compiled by the Public Education Department, she said.
Democrats attacked McCleskey for mixing politics and policy.
“It is illegal — plain and simple — to use state resources for political purposes. But once again, hardworking New Mexicans are learning the hard way that allowing the Governor’s unelected, unaccountable political handler to call the shots for Susana is a mistake for New Mexico,” state Democratic Party Executive Director Scott Forrester said in a statement.
McCleskey has said he, like any citizen, can request public information without knowledge of how it will be compiled or denied by state agencies.
McCleskey also drew fire for his support of state Senate candidate Angie Spears before this month’s Republican primary for the Clovis-area legislative seat.
McCleskey’s photo surfaced in an attack ad and You Tube video from Spears’ opponent, Pat Woods, who blasted him as the “slick ABQ political consultant” directing a negative campaign. “Slick political consultants will distort the truth to get your vote,” the ad states.
The governor backed Spears, and McCleskey was a consultant to the campaign. Woods went on to win the race.
It wasn’t the first time McCleskey has come under fire in the rough and tumble world of political campaigns.
During the 2000 race for House District 15 in Albuquerque, political newcomer John Sanchez used images of then-House speaker and Democratic powerhouse Raymond Sanchez and then-state Senate President Pro Tem Manny Aragon in campaign brochures — an association the incumbent, Sanchez, objected to as unfair.
After the election, then-GOP Chairman John Dendahl called McCleskey, John Sanchez’s campaign manager, a “giant killer.”
Sanchez, now lieutenant governor in the Martinez administration, said back then, “We talked a lot about a new generation in my campaign, and I think Jay McCleskey represents a new Republican Party.”
Two years later, when John Sanchez campaigned against Lt. Gov. Walter Bradley for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, McCleskey again worked for Sanchez.
An advertisement in that race stung Bradley, accusing him of supporting liberal Democrats and doing things “Manny’s Way,” another reference to Aragon. Bradley, who lost the primary, called that reference a “bald-faced lie” and added, “when you go past embellishment to absolute nontruths, then you’ve crossed the line,” according to news reports.
McCleskey at the time defended the ad as a way to show Bradley as a “status quo candidate.” Aragon is now serving a federal prison term for corruption.
While Sanchez beat Bradley, he was soundly defeated by Democrat Bill Richardson in the general election for governor.
Three years later, campaign field director for then-Mayor Martin Chávez, Tony Pedroncelli, described McCleskey in a Journal guest column as a “hatchet man” for his tactics in an Albuquerque mayoral race in which McCleskey’s candidate, Republican City Councilor Brad Winter, unsuccessfully challenged Chávez.
These days, McCleskey draws both praise and protests for his use of negative campaigning, which he calls “contrast.”
Some say McCleskey has a knack for crafting political messages.
“Jay McCleskey is the best in the country. He is. He’s a natural. He has a natural gift for that,” said Sen. Rod Adair, R-Roswell.
His efforts, however, have not always been sanctioned by the state’s Republican Party.
In addition to his work with the governor’s political action committee, Susana PAC, in Republican legislative primaries this year, McCleskey was involved with an independent expenditure group that spent about $100,000 on eight contested Democratic primary races in the days before the primary election. All but one of the candidates was deemed friendly to Martinez’s agenda. They all won.
“Some in the Republican Party don’t appreciate that. … There are times when it conflicts, and at the end of the day moving her agenda forward trumps everything,” McCleskey said.
Former political consultant Whitney Waite, who now has a media consulting firm in Albuquerque, said McCleskey “is doing the job he’s being paid to do. He works for Gov. Martinez, and you can’t vilify him for decisions that she’s making.”
McCleskey said he prefers to stay out of the spotlight, but being a focus of attention doesn’t distract from the work he does as a political adviser.
“I’m not the candidate, and I’m not the one who was elected, and I don’t forget that,” he said.
Martinez said she speaks to McCleskey “frequently” about political matters and other topics, but also consults with others in her office. She said McCleskey doesn’t lobby and she has veto power over any political clients his firm wants to represent.
“I am hungry to bring the people to the process, and I want and need the advice and strategy that Jay McCleskey brings to take that message to the people,” Martinez said last week.
McCleskey helps her to “understand the ramifications of a decision and lays out both sides when he gives me advice so I understand ‘these are the pros and cons.’
“And at the end of the day,” she added, “no one makes decisions for me.”
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal