Subscribe to the Journal, call 505-823-4400

          Front Page

Battle Tested

By Colleen Heild
Copyright © 2010 Albuquerque Journal Of the Journal
          Less than two years ago, Gov. Bill Richardson was headed for President Barack Obama's Cabinet, and Lt. Gov. Diane Denish was preparing to succeed him in Santa Fe.
        That was before the recession caught up with New Mexico, before a federal "pay-to-play" probe derailed Richardson's appointment, before Denish had to contend with the political mantra that she would be "more of the same" as governor.
        Today, Denish doesn't dwell, at least publicly, on how the political advantage of incumbency slipped away. And she seems unfazed that her personal story, public service and record on the issues have sometimes been overshadowed by questions about her independence, or lack thereof, from Richardson.
        "I don't see any value in looking in the rear-view mirror at all. You have to think of things as challenges and opportunities," Denish said in a recent interview with the Journal.
        "I've always believed that a day is a life in politics," she added. "One day, you may be on top of the world, and, the next day, the situation changes."
        Denish, 61, carries the Democratic banner in the election for governor on Nov. 2. Unlike her opponent, who was relatively unknown outside of Doña Ana County, Denish has had a statewide profile for many years.
        She has been running in Democratic Party circles since her father, prominent Lea County businessman and state legislator Jack Daniels, sought the Democratic nomination for governor in 1970 and lost his bid for the U.S. Senate in 1972.
        Denish worked her way through the party ranks to become state Democratic Party chairwoman from 1999 to 2001 and, outside of politics, owned and ran her own small marketing and research business for 12 years.
        She became New Mexico's first female lieutenant governor in 2002 and was re-elected four years later, both times with Richardson at the top of the ticket.
        "People that know me know me as an independent person," she said in a recent interview. "I didn't get to be lieutenant governor by just sitting around waiting to follow someone's lead."
        'Corruption' issue
        Even before Richardson's nomination as commerce secretary, Denish was campaigning for governor, emphasizing her work on early childhood issues, payday lending, and micro-loans for small businesses.
        Since that time, the state government's budget has gone into the tank. And Richardson's approval rating nose-dived, as his tenure has been increasingly plagued by allegations of cronyism, favoritism and "pay to play" deals.
        No criminal charges have been filed, despite at least two federal grand jury investigations.
        Yet, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, District Attorney Susana Martinez of Las Cruces, has made "corruption" in state government a key campaign issue.
        And Denish is the target, with the state Republican Party going so far as to launch a "Dishonest Diane" website in recent weeks.
        Denish has never been linked to any of the controversies involving Richardson, but critics say that, at the very least, she's waited too long to separate herself from the scandals.
        Does Denish find the attack on her honesty daunting?
        "I find it a little daunting that people accuse me of being responsible for Bill Richardson's actions," she said.
        Richardson ties
        Denish says she and Richardson have had a "very businesslike association," one that friends say has been strained in recent years.
        During that time, Denish has pushed for more transparency in government, reform of the scandal-ridden regional housing authorities in the state, and a state ethics commission.
        Until recently, she hadn't publicly criticized specific Richardson appointees under fire.
        But she told the Journal last week, "Every governor needs to start with a clean slate, and I would completely overhaul the politically appointed work force. I am committed to hiring the most-qualified, not the most-connected."
        Friends who know her say that, over the past three decades, Denish has cemented her political stature, honed her knowledge of state government and built a network of support that has little to do with Richardson.
        Yet, some of her backers and campaign contributors have been Democrats who have worked for and supported Richardson, such as Jamie Koch, who is president of the Daniels Insurance Co., founded by her father; and wealthy Hobbs businessman Johnny Cope, whom Denish has known since grade school.
        Cope is a Richardson appointee who heads the state Transportation Commission, and Richardson appointed Koch to the University of New Mexico board of regents.
        Denish has also received more than $30,000 in campaign donations since 2008 from firms associated with her husband, Herb Denish, who has represented Mesa del Sol developer Forest City Covington before the city of Albuquerque and the state Transportation Department.
        The development received $500 million in state-backed bonds under the Richardson administration. Denish, a member of the state Board of Finance, recused herself from votes on Mesa del Sol's financing. Meanwhile, the project has had wide support, including from Republicans.
        As she tackles her biggest political challenge yet, Denish says she's never been part of Richardson's inner circle, adding, "He's very much a boy's boy, a man's man. And many of the people who have been investigated, I have never met or come across. I've brushed with people that he's appointed as part of the agency process or the board process.
        "But have I ever been sitting out on the back porch smoking cigars at the (governor's) mansion? No."
        She added: "I worked really hard to get where I am, but I'm also decidedly different from the governor: in style, in personal history, in a lifetime in New Mexico, in my commitment to running for governor and no other office."
        Family influence
        Denish hasn't lived in her hometown of Hobbs for 30 years. But she's still got a bit of southeastern New Mexico drawl. And after years of traveling the state and attending junior livestock shows with her father, Denish still knows her New Mexico county fairs, ie: Lea County has the biggest; Fort Sumner's has only one food stand, she attests.
        She's dined with Hillary, as in Clinton. And socialized with New Mexico's politicos in D.C., including another former grade school chum, U.S. Rep. Harry Teague, D-N.M.
        But Denish is still old school in many ways, leaning on the advice and example of her late father, a prominent banker and insurance agent, and her well-to-do Republican uncle, the late Colorado cable television pioneer Bill Daniels.
        Some of the family tenets she still takes to heart:
        • "Keep your sense of humor."
        • "The person who is your enemy today might be your friend tomorrow." (She adds: "I've found that to be true in the political arena. I'm not a bully, and I don't always have to have my way.")
        • "Treat the janitor the same way you do the president of the company. Not just because the janitor might be the president of the company someday, but because everybody deserves that."
        • "Pick your battles." (Denish said she's learned "not every battle has to be your battle. I think that depletes your credibility if you want to battle everything").
        Denish said her father was her "closest confidant" and that, these days, her "tightness" is with her three adult children, Suzanne, Sarah and Spencer.
        Her mother lives in Texas, where her older sister, Dana Daniels Reaud, also resides. Both her mother and sister filed a legal complaint in 2006, alleging Diane Denish used undue influence over her father when he executed changes in his will that they claimed unfairly benefited her. The estate was estimated at $4 million after taxes.
        Denish said she never took advantage of her father. The sealed settlement that resulted reflected "there was no basis to the allegations to begin with," she told the Journal in a 2007 story.
        Path to the ticket
        As a young girl, Denish was a cheerleader, student government vice president, and worked on the Demon Devil school newspaper, copies of which she still keeps at home.
        Her toughest job? Working for her father as a teenager. "You just always knew if you were from the family, you couldn't slack off."
        After college, she married, moved to Farmington with her first husband, started a family, but returned to Albuquerque in the early 1980s, divorced with three children under the age of 10.
        The model that had been "set for me" was to be a mother and housewife, she said. "But I think I knew pretty early on that I wasn't going to be happy with that. I was not going to be happy with someone bringing the world home to me, so to speak."
        Denish started her own business, The Target Group, which did market research and polling, and helped nonprofit groups with fundraising. She also raised campaign money for Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and was a Democratic Party precinct chairwoman.
        In 1985, she married Herb Denish, an urban planning consultant.
        She was 45 when she first ran for lieutenant governor in 1994.
        Back then, "and when I ran for party chair (in 1999), people wanted to continue to say that I hadn't paid my dues ... that you shouldn't start out running for statewide office."
        She adds without elaboration: "I got that mostly from men."
        As it turns out, two of her roughest campaigns pitted her against women: She was narrowly defeated in 1994 by Patricia Madrid for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor. The eventual ticket of Madrid and former Gov. Bruce King lost in the general election to Republicans Gary Johnson and Walter Bradley.
        In 1998, she won the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor by besting Stephanie Gonzales in the primary, and ran with Democratic candidate for governor Martin Chavez. They lost to Johnson and Bradley, who won a second term.
        Her third campaign for the office was a charm in 2002. Denish, who had been the first woman Democratic Party chairperson in the state in 1999, defeated former Farmington legislator Jerry Sandel in the primary.
        Former state Sen. Joe Carraro recalled Denish as being a different personality than Richardson.
        "I think she's a lot more soft-spoken than the governor," he said.
        Yet, Denish butted heads with at least two governors, among others.
        In 1985, when she was chairwoman of the state Commission on the Status of Women, she resigned the post, criticizing then-Gov. Toney Anaya for a lack of support and for damaging the effectiveness of the group.
        As a member of the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology Board of Regents in 1995, she and another regent filed suit against Republican Gov. Gary Johnson, after Johnson had tried to oust them both. The state Supreme Court found the removal unconstitutional but upheld Johnson's right to appoint new regents.
        Then, there was Richardson.
        In a late 2008 interview, Denish told the Journal she believed the role of lieutenant governor was much more about "being a partner. Have I disagreed with him, yes, but usually always behind closed doors. I didn't think my role was to pick a public battle."
        But she didn't keep silent after she was confronted with photos taken by a Journal photographer that showed Richardson touching or poking Denish from behind as they were seated during a Rail Runner depot groundbreaking in 2005.
        She later told the Journal that he "poked her repeatedly," while insisting the touching incident wasn't threatening or sexual.
        "Bill Richardson is a guy who has the attention span of a gnat. And he thinks things are funny," Denish said recently. "I did feel like they were inappropriate in that they were irritating.
        "I did caution him at the time," she said. "I said, 'Governor, you're running for president; you should quit that.' And I've said that to him more than once. Clearly, he just does that little cherubic giggle of his."
        State Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, said he had heard of instances in which Denish went to bat for legislative agendas with the governor and "the governor accused her of going native, meaning we (legislators) were the natives."
        Former DOT Secretary Rhonda Faught said Denish and Richardson were close allies early in the administration.
        "I don't know specifically when it happened. But people that know her and know the governor know that they haven't had a relationship in many years."
        The two clashed in public when Richardson vetoed State Police protection for Denish's security, leading her to hire private security guards on occasion. She spoke out when Richardson left town for travels that included the Kentucky Derby, without informing her beforehand that she was to be acting governor.
        In the Journal interview in late 2008, Denish said she had served as acting governor between 10 percent and 20 percent of the time in the prior six years, adding, "one whole year was probably 75 percent, the year he was running for president."
        During that campaign, Denish opted not to take the $250 a day stipend for filling in for Richardson, saying she wanted to save taxpayers money. She had previously donated the stipend checks to charity.
        Children's issues
        Denish describes the relationship between a governor and lieutenant governor as a "marriage of convenience. We get elected independently."
        The lieutenant governor fills in for the governor when he or she is out of state, presides over the state Senate and casts tie-breaking votes.
        Denish said she wasted no time in 2003 seeking bipartisan legislative support for a small business lending program, then sought to participate in an early childhood meeting of the National Governor's Association.
        "He (Richardson) didn't want to go. He had no interest in it. That's 'the kid stuff.' I went, and out of that was born the leadership on pre-kindergarten."
        State Sen. Dede Feldman, D-Albuquerque, said Denish "has an even temperament and likes to bring people together from the private and public sectors." For instance, Feldman said, Denish worked with the Los Alamos National Laboratory Foundation to promote an innovative program that supports home visits for newborns.
        Denish is credited with taking the lead on children and family issues in the Richardson administration, especially for her work leading the "Children's Cabinet," an interagency effort to coordinate and streamline state services and for leading the campaign for voluntary pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds.
        The legislature subsequently approved a pilot program in 2005, and approved funding to expand the program in 2006 and 2007.
        Payday lending
        She said she "got no help" from Richardson on her efforts to better regulate the high-interest loan practices of the payday lending industry. "That was a very steep hill to climb, and it continues to be a very steep hill to climb, because there are 25 lobbyists (fighting the reform)."
        Unlike some of her predecessors who presided over the Senate, Denish had no experience as a state senator.
        But Feldman said Denish showed "grace under fire" at times when presiding over the group during the legislative session. "They have not gotten the best of her; she has stood her ground when needed, and she's been conciliatory when needed," Feldman said.
        Recently, Denish chided Bruce Malott, of the Educational Retirement Board, for not disclosing a questionable $350,000 loan and complained about the state's decision to pay legal fees for banned securities broker Guy Riordan, a former Richardson appointee who is a defendant in an alleged "pay-to-play" lawsuit.
        But during her two terms, Denish has more often approached corruption issues by pressing for legislative reforms.
        Frances Williams, then a member of the Las Cruces housing authority board, became a whistle-blower several years ago on corruption within the state's regional housing authority system. She said Denish was the only public official she approached for help who came through.
        "She said, 'I'll look into it.' " The result, according to Williams: legislative reforms in 2007 and 2009 that created more oversight and accountability of the agencies. But, before that happened, Denish's office came out publicly to criticize the efforts of House Speaker Ben Lujan and another legislator to kill the legislation, according to news reports.
        That battle, Denish recalled, "really took headknocking."
        Denish voluntarily reports her campaign donations more frequently than is required by law, and she helped sponsor legislation with state Sen. Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, to establish a "Sunshine Portal" that allows the public to view public records via the Web.
        Though some critics say she could have been a more vocal supporter of ethics commission legislation, she said she did speak out when the governor and the legislature were "fighting over territory. I said it (an ethics commission) should be absolutely independent."
        But Denish adds: "I had other work to do, (involving) ethical business behavior such as payday lending. That has as much impact on New Mexico as having an ethics (commission) bill."
        Denish's own office practices have made news over the past year. Her office reimbursed the state for $790 worth of public relations work done in 2003 and 2004 after news reports about how money from a 2003 stimulus bill was spent. Some of the money was deemed to have gone to political purposes.
        Republicans alleged some of the money was improperly spent on Christmas cards. Her staff said the cards were related to a Christmas open-house event that included homeless children.
        Her use of the state jet has come under scrutiny. Her office was billed more than $170,000 for flights since 2002, with the actual cost estimated at twice that amount. The state's General Services Department picked up the rest of the cost.
        Republicans have made hay that cost-efficiency regulations governing such flights have been interpreted to exempt the governor and lieutenant governor.
        Denish said she relied on the General Services Department to interpret the rules and that much of the $170,000 tab for her office was spent to fly the state's smaller King Air plane, not the jet.
        On one of the most publicized flights, Denish attended a Inter-Tribal Indian ceremonial parade in Gallup.
        Overall, Denish says her travel benefited New Mexicans and produced results.
        "When I go to Las Cruces with one person on there, 74 jobs were created as a result of microlending."
        Leadership style
        How would she govern?
        Former state Sen. Leonard Lee Rawson, R-Las Cruces, is no fan of the Richardson administration, but he said Denish "is not as vindictive."
        "I think she would hire fewer political cronies. She is more sincere about her actions," said Rawson, now a member of the state Investment Council. He said he still believes Republican Martinez would vet her appointees better than Denish would.
        Several people who once worked in the lieutenant governor's office of about six employees said Denish is sometimes demanding but in a good way.
        Judith Espinosa, a former Denish chief of staff, said she wanted to work for her because she isn't a political opportunist.
        "It's not about her. She looks at this as an opportunity to do some really good things for New Mexicans."
        Former state Rep. Max Coll, D-Santa Fe, the longtime chairman of the legislature's finance committee, said he believes Denish is a "straight shooter. She's scrupulously honest."
        Coll echoes others who believe Denish should be distancing herself from Richardson if she wants to win in November.
        "She should have done it at the outset," he said. "I think she can still do it, but it's pretty late."
        Denish said she wants to rely on her record, her experience and her integrity.
        "What I'm concerned about is that people know that I am working hard for them. There's no value in trying to hoodwink the voters that there's any magic to solving our problems."
        She adds: "Anybody that wants to talk about the responsibilities of lieutenant governor will know that I have taken what could be an insignificant office and made it very purposeful."
        The Basics
        Party: Democratic
        Residence: Albuquerque
        Age: 61
        Place of birth: Hobbs, N.M.
        Education: University of New Mexico, bachelor's degree, political science, 1971
        Profession: Lieutenant governor
        Work, professional experience: Elected lieutenant governor, 2002; re-elected, 2006; chairwoman, New Mexico Democratic Party, 1999-01; president and member of board of regents, New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, 1992-97; chairwoman, New Mexico Commission on the Status of Women, 1983-85; Farmington Planning and Zoning Commission, 1979-82; executive director, New Mexico Democratic Party, 1976-77; member, National Woman's Political Caucus/New Mexico; founder and former chairwoman, New Mexico First
        Personal: Married to Herb Denish, urban planning consultant; three children, three grandchildren
        THEMES: Diane Denish has cast most of her focus on job creation and education plans. Her approach would be to use government programs to stimulate the economy. She notes that she is a native of Hobbs, in the southeastern corner of the state, and that she ran her own small business for 12 years. Obviously, she has been lieutenant governor for the past eight years, and that job entails presiding over the state Senate. She is critical of opponent Susana Martinez's office spending as district attorney in Las Cruces, as well as Martinez's primary election campaign remarks in support of school vouchers.
        BUDGET: Denish has proposed a plan to cut $450 million out of the state budget over five years. Most of the savings would come from a voluntary buyout program for state employees and cuts to the number of political hires. She would also combine some state agencies and disband numerous governor-appointed commissions.
        TAXES: Denish says she would not approve any tax increase during the first year she is in office. She wants to offer more tax credits to businesses that create new jobs in New Mexico. She would review other tax credits already offered and said she would ax any that were not showing an economic benefit to the state.
        JOBS: Denish would use government incentives, such as lending programs and tax credits, to encourage job creation by private businesses. She supports government programs that retrain unemployed workers for fields in high demand of workers.
        SCHOOLS: Denish would continue programs from the current administration, especially those with an emphasis on early-childhood education. She said those programs will take a few more years to reach their full potential. She does not support school vouchers.
        ETHICS: Denish supports a state ethics commission with subpoena power that would investigate ethics violation complaints for government officials and employees.
        IMMIGRATION: Denish has said the federal government is responsible for making any changes to immigration law. She does not support the New Mexico law that allows illegal immigrants to receive driver's licenses.
        DEATH PENALTY: Denish opposes the death penalty and encouraged state officials to vote for a repeal of the death penalty in 2009. However, she would not commute the death sentence of anyone sentenced before the repeal.
        DOMESTIC PARTNERSHIPS: Denish would sign a domestic partnership law that would give most of the same rights to same-sex or opposite-sex couples that are enjoyed by married couples.

Profile of Republican Susana Martinez from Sunday, Sept. 12, 2010

Call 505-823-4400 to subscribe
Submit a news tip | E-mail reporter