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No Jackpot for Bucking Gov. on Casino Deal

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I am at the Starbucks at Louisiana and Indian School to meet Charlotte Rode, the state fair commissioner who has gone rogue over the deal for a new casino between the Martinez administration and the Downs at Albuquerque.

Rode, 46, is wearing blue jeans and a black hoodie. She has long brown hair, brown eyes and a thin face.

She says she was born and reared in a home near the state fairgrounds, one of nine children. Her father had an office equipment supply company. She played basketball at St. Pius X High School.

Rode and her future husband went to the fairgrounds racetrack on their first date. The couple have been married 25 years and are the parents of seven and the grandparents of two. They now live in the same home near the fairgrounds where she was raised.

Rode doesn’t work; her husband is a partner in a communications hardware and services company. She is a volunteer youth basketball coach and has been active in schools and her neighborhood. She goes to church and is a registered Republican.

Rode has been the most vocal critic of how the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez sought proposals for a new racetrack and casino lease at the fairgrounds, the administration’s evaluations of the proposals and its plan to give the lease to the Downs at Albuquerque, which now runs the racino.

“I think they have violated the public trust,” she says. “If you look at all the relationships involved in this, it’s inbreeding.”

Rode is referring to the many political ties (and money) that link the governor, the Downs and Downs representatives.

She was appointed by Martinez, a Republican, in August as the neighborhood representative on the State Fair Commission.

“It doesn’t make me happy to say this about my own party,” Rode says.

GOP businessman Tom Tinnin also has been a public critic of the Downs deal and resigned a Martinez appointment to the state Board of Finance last month after a meeting with the governor on the issue.

Other prominent Republicans are critical in private but won’t repeat the criticism in public.

State Rep. Nate Gentry, who has become a designated hitter for the administration on the Downs deal, has requested all of Rode’s written communications and other emails concerning the request for lease proposals and the racino lease.

Gentry made the request under the state Inspection of Public Records Act and on his official House stationery.

“It feels very retaliatory,” Rode says.

Not so, Gentry says.

The Albuquerque Republican says he is pursuing concerns that Rode may have violated state law by talking with other commissioners about the lease deal outside of public meetings and by having bid documents in her possession.

Rode worked as a volunteer in state Sen. Mark Boitano’s office this year, and Boitano, another Albuquerque Republican, was a reference on her application to be appointed by Martinez to the State Fair Commission.

Ryan Cangiolosi, deputy chief of staff to Martinez, has contacted Boitano to discuss Rode.

Neither the Governor’s Office nor Boitano would comment about the discussion, but Boitano sent Cangiolosi an email saying Rode understands she serves at the pleasure of the governor and isn’t trying to grandstand or create problems.

The senator described Rode as a hard worker who asks intelligent questions and said, “She has valid concerns, and I think someone should be listening to her. … She has told me that if her questioning or concerns will hurt the governor, she will resign.”

Expo New Mexico, the agency that runs the State Fair and is headed by a Martinez appointee, issued a request for proposals in July to lease the track and casino for 25 years.

Expo gave interested parties 30 days to submit proposals. It got two responses: one from the Downs and the other from the Laguna Pueblo company that operates its casinos. Both proposed building a new casino.

Martinez appointed a three-member evaluation committee, which selected the Downs as the winner. The administration then negotiated the final deal.

The State Fair Commission approved the new lease 4-3 last month. The Board of Finance, controlled by Martinez and her appointees, must give the final OK. That is scheduled for this month.

Rode has complained that the administration suppressed competition for the lease by giving companies only 30 days to submit proposals and by not advertising nationally for proposals.

She also says State Fair commissioners were cut out of the deal until being asked to rubber-stamp it.

“The Governor’s Office took over,” Rode says.

The Governor’s Office and the Downs have launched an effort to try to paint the woman as anti-casino.

Rode says she doesn’t believe a casino is a best use for the fairgrounds property but says that, as a fair commissioner, she recognizes the need to have it as a revenue source for the State Fair.

The deal with the Downs calls for a $20 million casino to be built near Louisiana and Central.

Rode says she opposes the casino relocation from next to the racetrack because of the effects on the neighborhood but says she would have abided by the Downs plan if the process of issuing the new lease had been more open to fair commissioners and the public.

She supports development of a master plan for private and public development at the fairgrounds and is particularly interested in creating year-round educational opportunities for youths.

The administration says the Downs lease proposal was the best one submitted and that the administration complied with state purchasing laws in the selection process.

Here’s the official statement about Rode from the Governor’s Office:

“The Governor intentionally appoints members to boards and commissions with diverse opinions and backgrounds to ensure all voices are heard, as is evidenced by the fact that Charlotte Rode was appointed to the Fair Commission even though she previously stated her unequivocal opposition to a casino at Expo. As long as members adhere to the law, this diversity of opinion provides for a robust and healthy debate.”

Rode says her offer to resign still stands, if Martinez requests it in writing.

“But it’s not going to get me to stop talking,” she says. “My obligation to my community isn’t going to change.”

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Thom Cole at tcole@abqjournal.com or 505-992-6280 in Santa Fe. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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