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Entry Fee May Be Cause of GOP Flap

By Jeff Jones
Copyright 2008 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Politics Writer
    A registration fee for rank-and-file Republicans to attend their county convention— a fee candidates sometimes pick up— might be the root of a behind-the-scenes political flap in Bernalillo County.
    "I can understand they need money. But it's a bad practice, because it really smells like a poll tax," said former Republican Gov. Dave Cargo.
    Cargo was talking about a $30-a-head charge to attend the Republicans' Feb. 17 Bernalillo County convention in Albuquerque, where delegates were elected to a state preprimary nominating convention on March 15.
    One candidate, Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., who is seeking the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate this year, paid the fee for five of the 500-plus people attending the county convention.
    Campaign spokeswoman Whitney Cheshire said the five people told the campaign that paying the fee themselves would be a hardship. None of them wound up being elected delegates to the state convention, she said.
    "... The rules are put in place by the county and state parties. The Wilson for Senate campaign followed all of the rules," Cheshire said.
    Cargo and state Sen. Joe Carraro, R-Albuquerque, who is seeking an open U.S. House seat, maintain they heard talk of possible vote-buying at the county event— and both have complained to the Secretary of State's Office.
    However, Cargo acknowledged in a Journal interview Tuesday that the talk he heard about vote-buying might have stemmed from confusion about the registration fee.
    The claims of vote-buying have played out mostly on blogs and talk radio. A KKOB-AM radio news anchor, citing an ethics disagreement, resigned after her station's management pulled a story she produced concerning the vote-buying allegations. The station's news director has said information in the story was not corroborated to his satisfaction.
    All of the campaigns contacted by the Journal emphatically denied paying anyone to vote their way at the Bernalillo County convention.
    In Journal interviews, neither Cargo nor Carraro provided the names of anyone who allegedly bought or sold a vote: Cargo said he had no names; Carraro, when asked for names, said he would rather leave the investigating to state officials.
    Democratic Secretary of State Mary Herrera said Tuesday her office has made some preliminary inquiries concerning the convention and has been in touch with the Attorney General's Office.
    AG's Office spokesman Phil Sisneros said his office has not started an investigation and has not committed to doing one.
    Since the convention was a party event, rather than a state-run election, it is likely that state elections laws wouldn't apply anyway, Sisneros said.
    "Right now, the office is evaluating the information we do have to determine our next course of action," Sisneros said. He said the only information the attorney general has is a letter from Cargo.
    State Republican Party executive director Adam Feldman said the county convention was run fairly and blasted Cargo.
    "If wouldn't surprise me if Dave Cargo said that aliens flew in from Roswell to vote in the Bernalillo County convention, but that doesn't make it true," Feldman said.
    Feldman maintained that Cargo in the past has had his own convention entry fee paid for him. But Cargo said that's untrue.
    "He's crazier than hell," Cargo said.
    Feldman said the cost to run such large party gatherings has become "exorbitantly high," adding the fee arrangement has been in place for years.
    However, he said the state Republican Party probably wouldn't oppose ending the fee for county conventions if party members supported the move.
    State Democratic Party chairman Brian Colón said his county parties don't charge registration fees.
    The Bernalillo County Republicans aren't the only county party that charges a convention fee, and Bernalillo County party chairman Fernando C De Baca said the county party also waived the fees for several attendees who didn't have the money.
    Bernalillo County Sheriff Darren White, who is seeking the party's 1st Congressional District nomination, said in an e-mail to the Journal on Tuesday that he's against charging a fee.
    "I believe we need to make it easier for people to get involved in the political process and strongly oppose charging people a poll tax to participate," White wrote.
    Carraro said he's against candidates being able to pick up the tab for voters, adding, "Pretty soon, it could be a bidding war."