ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Politics has been described as the way government divides the pie. And in trying to understand why politics works in certain ways, it can be helpful to look at relationships.
So, today, we look more at the relationships between Republican Gov. Susana Martinez and The Downs at Albuquerque – selected by a board of gubernatorial appointees to receive a 25-year lease for the racetrack at the State Fairgrounds and a $20 million casino it plans to build on the property.
Two prominent Republicans – Albuquerque lawyer Pat Rogers and former Bernalillo County Sheriff and Albuquerque Public Safety Director Darren White – have been hired by The Downs this year.
Rogers is a member of the National Republican Committee. White filmed a Martinez TV ad for her campaign last year and was appointed by her to the state Judicial Standards Commission. White has since resigned the appointment.
They aren’t the only GOP-friendly faces at The Downs since Paul Blanchard, a Democratic fundraiser and pal of former Gov. Bill Richardson, was replaced as company president early this year.
The new president is Bill Windham, a part owner of The Downs and a campaign contributor to Martinez and national GOP groups.
Windham donated $15,000 to Martinez’s campaign. A company connected with Windham and John Turner, another partner in The Downs, gave her $45,000.
Windham and Turner are Louisiana businessmen, registered Republicans and major donors to GOP groups and candidates, both in their home state and nationally.
A Windham-Turner company gave $25,000 last year to the Republican Governors Association. The RGA, whose primary mission is to get Republicans in governor’s mansions, was Martinez’s largest campaign contributor, donating more than $1.3 million.
Windham and Turner are also heavy financial backers of the Louisiana Republican Party and GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal, who serves on the RGA Executive Committee with Martinez.
Now, don’t get the impression The Downs has relationships with only Republicans. It has friends on the other side of the aisle, too.
House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Santa Fe, called a couple weeks ago to say the lease deal with The Downs was needed, because the casino construction would provide needed jobs. I can’t recall the last time he phoned.
Lujan received $2,300 in Downs-related campaign contributions a few years back, but there’s a relationship that is more interesting.
Windham and Turner sometimes give money to Democrats. Among the recipients: Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., the speaker’s son. He has pocketed $9,600 from The Downs partners since 2008.
Lawyer/lobbyist Mickey Barnett of Albuquerque, an influential player in state and national GOP politics, did consulting and legal work last year for The Downs under Blanchard’s management.
Lobbyist Vanessa Alarid, who has been acting as a spokeswoman for The Downs, says Barnett hasn’t done any work for the company since the new management took over.
Barnett says he hasn’t represented The Downs in any discussions with the administration.
He was a fundraiser for Martinez’s campaign, helped launch the political career of her chief of staff, Keith Gardner, and at times has been aligned in intra-party Republican squabbles with Martinez political adviser Jay McCleskey.
Barnett is a former member of the Republican National Committee. He and Rogers, a lawyer for The Downs on the lease deal and current RNC member, were among those who complained to the Bush admin-istration in 2006 about the performance of U.S. Attorney David Iglesias, who was later fired.
Colin Hunter, a lawyer in Barnett’s Albuquerque law firm who served on Martinez’s transition team, registered as a lobbyist this year for Defined Fitness, a chain of gyms owned in part by Blanchard.
Traci Moore Wolf, a lawyer and president of Defined Fitness, became vice president of The Downs in May. She gave Martinez $10,000 in campaign contributions.
You should also know that Alarid, the lobbyist and spokeswoman for The Downs, is a former executive director of the state Democratic Party.
The Downs, longtime operator of the track and casino at the fairgrounds, tried but failed to get a new lease and approval for a new casino under Richardson, a Democrat who left office at the end of last year.
However, in July, about six months after Martinez took office, Expo New Mexico, the agency that runs the State Fair, issued a request for proposals to lease the land where the track and casino sit. Bidders were given 30 days to submit proposals.
Only The Downs and a Laguna Pueblo company submitted proposals, and an evaluation committee appointed by Martinez selected The Downs to negotiate for the lease.
The State Fair Commission later voted 4-3 to approve the deal, with two of the “no” votes coming from Martinez appointees. The state Board of Finance, chaired by Martinez and controlled by her and her appointees, is scheduled to give the final OK on Dec. 20.
Tom Tinnin, a former longtime chairman of the State Fair Commission, resigned a Martinez appointment to the Board of Finance because of objections to the leasing process.
Critics of the process say the 30-day window to submit proposals was too short, that Expo’s request for proposals should have been advertised out of state and that the request should have been amended and reissued to attract more bidders.
The governor’s response has been consistent: that the administration went beyond the requirements of law in issuing the request for proposals, saying it could have given The Downs the deal without seeking bids and that it had to give only 10 days for bid responses. Martinez has also said The Downs’ deal was the better of the two responses.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Thom Cole at email@example.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