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Speaker Could Face Challenge

By Dan Boyd
Copyright © 2010 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Capitol Bureau

          SANTA FE — With the dust still settling from the Nov. 2 election, longtime House Speaker Ben Lujan is trying to hang on to his powerful post in an altered political landscape.
        The Santa Fe Democrat, who has held the most influential job in the 112-member Legislature for the past 10 years, said earlier this week that he has no intention of stepping down since Republicans seized eight Democrat-held seats on Election Day, whittling the Democratic majority in the House to a narrow, 37-33 ratio.
        "We do have a very close majority, but I think after it's all over and done Democrats will stay together, or at the very least hopefully they'll re-elect me," said Lujan, who has been a close ally of departing Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson.
        The new margin — the narrowest since the House of Representatives expanded to 70 seats in 1967 — quickly gave rise to speculation about challenges to Lujan's leadership.
        Rep. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, a lawyer who has served in the Legislature since 2001, has emerged as one potential House speaker candidate.
        Cervantes has been a leading advocate of open government and was critical of Richardson in 2009 for vetoes of the Legislature's budget-cutting measures.
        He declined to disclose his plans when reached by the Journal this week. At the same time, he did not immediately take himself out of the running for a possible speaker bid.
        "I think it would be premature to comment right now," Cervantes said.
        One possibility could be a coalition arrangement in which conservative House Democrats team up with Republicans to elect a new speaker. The position is key because the speaker controls committee memberships and the flow of legislation and presides over the chamber day-to-day.
        The vote would come when the Legislature convenes on Jan. 18 for its regular 2011 session, the first with newly elected Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.
        Majority Democrats — in theory, at least — also could simply decide with their own numbers to nominate a Democrat other than Lujan as speaker on opening day.
        The Legislature's 42 Senate seats were not up for election this year, and the chamber will convene with a 27-15 Democratic majority. The House landscape, though, has shifted toward the Republican side from the previous 45-25 Democratic advantage.
        Cervantes talked last week with House Minority Whip Keith Gardner, R-Roswell, but Gardner said interpretations of their meeting have been blown out of proportion.
        Gardner said there were no deals to be made, because he didn't have instructions from the Republican caucus to make any.
        "We have not met at a caucus; therefore I have no directives," Gardner said.
        Republicans, however, will caucus today behind closed doors, with at least one leadership decision to make.
        GOP organization
        Albuquerque Rep. Larry Larrañaga said Friday that he will run for the minority leader position held by Farmington's Tom Taylor, who is seeking re-election.
        "I'll put my name in there," said Larrañaga, who ran unsuccessfully against Taylor for the post in 2006. "We're just going to have a discussion and ... go from there."
        Larrañaga downplayed any possible fracturing of the caucus because of his candidacy, saying the GOP would emerge unified.
        "What's more important is what's best for our party and what's best for our caucus and how we operate in the Legislature," he said.
        Gardner will seek re-election to the whip job, and Anna Crook of Clovis will seek to keep her job as caucus chair.
        Majority leadership
        A coalition might be formalized by most of the 33 House Republicans voting with several House Democrats for a new speaker. The organizing of such a move, however, probably would be done behind the scenes.
        The "Cowboy Coalition" that ruled the House from 1979 to 1983 was formed when a faction of conservative, mostly rural Democrats combined with the chamber's minority Republicans to overthrow Speaker Walter Martinez, D-Grants, and replace him with conservative Democrat C. Gene Samberson of Lovington. Organization of the coup was done in extreme secrecy.
        Lujan, who has served as House speaker since 2001, said he's heard rumors of an uprising in January, but has been talking with a number of House Democrats and said "it looks good."
        Meanwhile, Lujan also met recently with Cervantes to discuss election results and House Democrats' narrowed majority, but said no political promises were made.
        "He never told me that he was running," Lujan said. "He just told me that he was wanting to speak to the (House Democratic) membership. That's the extent of it."
        It wouldn't be the first time Lujan has been challenged. He prevailed in a challenge for speaker post in the 2007 legislative session from Majority Leader W. Ken Martinez, D-Grants, son of the late Speaker Walter Martinez.
        Watching from wings
        Lujan, a former ironworker, appears to be drawing support from labor unions, including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
        Carter Bundy, AFSCME's political and legislative director in New Mexico, said his organization isn't tossing its support behind any possible House speaker. But he said the group enjoys working with Lujan.
        "I think it's fair to say that most working people would love to see Ben Lujan helping them out as much as possible and, obviously, he can as speaker," Bundy said.
        Other lawmakers say conversations about a leadership shake-up are just rumors at this point.
        Rep. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, said the rumors about ousting Lujan or possible replacements for him are premature at best.
        "There are all kinds of conversations among the (Democratic) House members about how to continue as a cohesive group," Stewart said. "It changes on an hourly basis. ... Who knows what's going to happen tomorrow?"
        Lujan said that the increased number of Republican members will mean greater representation on House committees, and that a coalition wouldn't provide additional benefit to the GOP.
        "I think that with the numbers for the Republicans, I don't think it would be to their benefit or to anyone's benefit to form any kind of coalition," Lujan said. "I think the numbers are going to take care of themselves. The committees are going to be very close."
        House Democrats will caucus Nov. 20 behind closed doors in Santa Fe.
        Journal staff writers Sean Olson and Deborah Baker contributed to this report.
       

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