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Former public servants lobby ex-colleagues

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A familiar name provided lunch for the state Senate this week.

Former Rep. Debbie Rodella, a Democrat who represented Española, lost her re-election bid last year, but she’s still a presence in the Roundhouse.

Now she’s a lobbyist for an association of community bankers, and, as many lobbyists do, she provided lunch for lawmakers as they worked on a recent afternoon – enchiladas with red chile.

Debbie Rodella

Rodella is one of a few former officials who were public servants last session and lobbyists this year – including Keith Gardner, the chief of staff under then-Gov. Susana Martinez.

Also making the immediate transition are former Reps. Bealquin “Bill” Gomez, a Democrat from La Mesa, and Jim Smith, a Republican from Tijeras, both of whom have registered to lobby their former colleagues this year.

New Mexico law doesn’t prohibit ex-lawmakers from lobbying once their terms end. Some legislators have tried repeatedly to change that – with proposals to impose a one- or two-year “cooling off” period.

One proposal passed the House overwhelmingly in 2017 but failed to make it through the Senate. No one proposed such a measure this year.

The transition from lawmaker to lobbyist is almost routine.

But Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said Wednesday that a cooling-off period of some kind would be appropriate.

“It just doesn’t feel right to immediately be in a position where you’re coming back to your colleagues – who you were an equal with – and the next day you’re lobbying them on behalf of a client,” he said.

But opponents say it isn’t right to restrict someone’s right to make a living.

Sen. Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, said that a one-year cooling-off period would be reasonable but that he’s not sure it would make a difference. It’s difficult, he said, to legislate for bad behavior.

“I’m not doing what I do as a legislator to set the stage for something afterwards,” Rue said.

Ex-Martinez aide

Gardner, a former Republican lawmaker who later served as chief of staff under Gov. Martinez, is registered as a lobbyist for the National Shooting Sports Foundation and Select Energy Services, a Texas-based company.

Martinez herself supported legislation restricting lobbying by ex-lawmakers, and she banned administration officials from lobbying executive state agencies or the Legislature for two years after leaving their jobs.

In an interview Friday, Gardner said he is compliance with state law and isn’t lobbying the Governor’s Office, where he had worked.

“I’m not working on things that I did when I was in the office, nor influencing people that I had influence over in my role previously,” he said.

Gardner said he is working as a consultant largely on regional issues but has visited the Roundhouse as part of his work.

“I just want to abide by the rules and make sure it’s open and transparent,” he said. “I love the state, I care about the state, and I want to see good policy in the state.”

The Martinez administration ended Dec. 31. Newly elected Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, took office Jan. 1.

Registered lobbyists

Rodella said she didn’t have time for a Journal interview.

But she is registered as a lobbyist for the Independent Community Bankers Association of New Mexico.

Rodella previously served as chairwoman of the House Business and Industry Committee, where proposed regulations on lending sometimes came up.

She lost her re-election bid in last year’s Democratic primary to a more liberal challenger, Susan Herrera.

Also lobbying former colleagues is Smith, the Republican from Tijeras. Smith earned a reputation in the Legislature as a bipartisan lawmaker, but he stepped down after last year’s session and joined the Bernalillo County Commission.

He lost his campaign to keep the County Commission seat. Now, he’s registered to lobby for the Gallup McKinley County Schools and four other clients.

Gomez, meanwhile, is registered to lobby for a company called New Mexico Advanced Genetics. He lost his re-election bid by 34 votes to Raymundo Lara in a southern New Mexico district.

‘Revolving door’

It’s common to see former lawmakers in the halls of the Roundhouse.

In 2013, a report released by Common Cause New Mexico identified 26 former legislators who work as lobbyists.

Former Sen. Dede Feldman, now a consultant for Common Cause, pushed unsuccessfully for legislation aimed at halting the “revolving door” of lawmakers and lobbyists.

One year, she said, a senator resigned specifically to take a lobbying job, then was greeted as an old friend in his new role.

“It’s part of this political culture,” Feldman said, “where the legislators have the antiquated vision of the Roundhouse as a village, and when their villagers come back, they’re hailed as a prodigal sons.”

Feldman, an Albuquerque Democrat and former chairwoman of the Senate Public Affairs Committee, left the Legislature six years ago.

She hasn’t taken a lobbying job.

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