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          Front Page  news  state

Dems Pick New Senate Leader

By Dan Boyd
Journal Capitol Bureau
          SANTA FE — Senate Democrats set the stage for a shake-up in the body's leadership Sunday, picking a northern New Mexico lawmaker to be the Senate's new president pro tem.
        However, the body's current leader said he thinks he's still the best man for the job and expressed his intent to fight for it.
        During a closed-door caucus meeting that lasted nearly four hours, Democrats nominated Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa, to fill the president pro tem position currently occupied by Sen. Tim Jennings, D-Roswell.
        The voting was done by secret ballot.
        The president pro tem, who presides over the Senate in the lieutenant governor's absence, won't be officially elected until the entire Senate votes on the matter in January.
        However, since Democrats now outnumber Republicans by a 27-15 margin in the Senate, Sunday's nomination makes Cisneros the odds-on favorite to oust Jennings, a fiscal conservative who has waged an ongoing battle against more restrictive environmental regulations.
        Cisneros, who represents a four-county area and has served in the Senate since 1985, said he'll be in close contact with fellow senators during the coming weeks to campaign for the official position.
        "Nothing's done until it's done," he said Sunday. "(A coalition between Republicans and disaffected Democrats) is a real possibility, and I don't discount it."
        Such an effort could be in the works. When asked Sunday if he intends to fight to retain his seat, Jennings told the Journal, "Yes, I do."
        But Jennings said he wouldn't make any Republicans committee chairmen if the minority party helps him stay in power.
        "All I've ever done is be a Democrat and that's all I'll do," Jennings said. "I haven't made any deals with anybody for anything."
        The person who holds the president pro tem position can weigh in on which legislation is heard and which isn't and also plays a key role in appointing lawmakers to committees.
        Jennings drew the ire of fellow Democrats last month when he recorded a robocall in defense of a Republican, Senate Minority Leader Leonard Lee Rawson, R-Las Cruces, who ended up losing his re-election campaign.
        He's defended his actions repeatedly, however, and said Sunday that the pro tem shouldn't be a partisan position.
        "I think I'm the best one suited for stopping the negative stuff that's going on," said Jennings, who has served in the Legislature since 1979 and became the Senate's president pro tem in 2008 after the death of Ben Altamirano.
        Cisneros downplayed the implicit message sent by Sunday's vote, saying whoever leads the Senate will have to work with the executive branch to help the state climb out of a budget shortfall that's expected to exceed $500 million.
        "I think it means stability, experience and the desire to do the right thing over anything new," he said of the caucus vote.
        Democrats also voted Sunday to retain Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, and Majority Whip Mary Jane Garcia, D-Doña Ana.