SANTA FE – In a rare action fueled by political bad blood, the New Mexico Senate on Friday rejected one of Gov. Susana Martinez’s appointees to the University of New Mexico Board of Regents.
The Senate’s vote to reject Matt Chandler, a former prosecutor whose work with a pro-Republican political group had prompted criticism, came hours after veteran UNM regent Jamie Koch, a Democrat and former state party chairman, submitted his resignation in protest of the chamber’s treatment of Chandler.
“In my long career, I cannot recall a lower point for the Senate,” Koch said in his letter.
Martinez, the state’s second-term Republican governor, lashed out after the vote for having a double standard for nominees.
“The decision by these extreme Senate Democrats not to confirm a decent and highly qualified man is disgusting and pathetic,” Martinez spokesman Enrique Knell said. “It’s despicable politics at its worst.”
Although Chandler had the backing of some Democrats, including Attorney General Hector Balderas, Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez of Belen said Chandler’s partisan background, along with complaints from UNM students and lawyers who knew him from his district attorney days, made him unfit for being a regent.
“I am proud of all the senators who voted against this unwise appointment from Governor Martinez,” Sanchez said in a statement. “They showed great courage.”
The vote to reject Chandler’s appointment was the first such Senate action since 2010, the final year of then-Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration. It meant Chandler was immediately booted from the seven-member Board of Regents and cannot be reappointed.
Meanwhile, the Roundhouse drama shook UNM and left university leaders expressing surprise and disappointment.
“This whole set of events is a real loss to UNM,” given the “very complicated waters the university is in right now,” UNM President Bob Frank told the Journal.
“We need these regents,” Frank also said. “We’re facing enormous financial challenges right now. Being a regent takes hundreds of hours. I have nothing but appreciation for their dedication.”
The Senate’s 23-17 vote to reject Chandler was technically the approval of a committee recommendation. Sen. Pete Campos of Las Vegas was the lone Democrat voting against the motion. The Senate Rules Committee had voted 6-4 earlier in the day – along party lines – not to confirm Chandler.
The same panel had voted earlier in the week in favor of Chandler’s confirmation, but a full Senate vote was not immediately taken. That was done out of courtesy to Senate GOP floor leader Stuart Ingle, of Portales, who did not know Chandler was headed for rejection, Sanchez said.
Chandler’s appointment was returned to committee Friday, setting the stage for a heated hearing full of political and ethical accusations.
During the hearing, Chandler told senators that his involvement in the political arena was no different from that of Koch or Javier Gonzales, also a former Democratic Party of New Mexico chairman and a former New Mexico State University regent.
“I do believe, with all due respect, that this is … political retaliation,” Chandler said in an apparent reference to his work for a pro-Republican political committee last year.
But Senate Democrats bristled at what they described as threats from the Governor’s Office and House Republicans about the repercussions of voting against Chandler’s nomination.
Specifically, Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, said a House GOP committee chair had said the Chandler situation could determine whether the panel held hearings on certain Senate bills.
“I will not be threatened, and I cannot be bought,” Candelaria said.
Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, also accused Chandler of wrongly characterizing in Friday’s committee meeting comments Ivey-Soto made during Wednesday’s hearing.
“I’m really sorry your feelings were hurt,” Ivey-Soto told Chandler.
Chandler was a Clovis-based prosecutor for 12 years before stepping down last year to open a private law firm. He also was the Republican candidate for attorney general in 2010, losing narrowly to Democrat Gary King, then the incumbent.
However, many of the Senate Democrats’ questions focused on Chandler’s role as treasurer of Advance New Mexico Now, a super PAC that spent more than $1 million during last year’s campaign, most of it on mailers and ads targeting House Democrats.
Chandler had described his responsibilities with the group as limited, saying Wednesday, “I didn’t write the checks. I didn’t send the checks. … My role was financial compliance.”
Despite the questioning from some senators, Chandler had received the backing of several prominent Democrats. Balderas sent a letter to committee members supporting Chandler, saying the two had collaborated effectively in the past. Also, former Democratic Party Chairman Brian Colón spoke in person in favor of Chandler’s confirmation Wednesday.
Koch and Chandler were among three appointments Martinez made in December 2014 to the UNM Board of Regents. Koch was unanimously confirmed by the Senate earlier this week, but wrote in his Friday resignation letter to Martinez he did not feel he could continue to serve.
“I am disappointed that the Senate descended to the partisanship it did,” Koch wrote in his explaining his resignation, which Martinez accepted later Friday.
Before Friday, the last gubernatorial appointee to be rejected by the Senate was Neri Holguin, a political consultant Richardson had appointed to a state environment board. Before that, the Senate had not voted down an appointment since 1997.
Journal staff writer Mike Bush contributed to this report.