A version of this will be published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
November 21, 2010
A majority of state House Democrats voted Saturday to reject a challenge from a Las Cruces lawmaker and keep House Speaker Ben Lujan of Nambe in what’s been called the most powerful position in the state Legislature. But the battle might not be over.
Lujan’s challenger, Rep. Joe Cervantes , though he lost on Saturday, has not rejected the idea of forming a coalition with House Republicans to win the speaker’s post when the Legislature convenes Jan. 18.
And some of his supporters from southern New Mexico indicated Saturday they might support such a coalition.
“The voters told us they wanted change,” Cervantes told reporters following the near-four-hour caucus meeting behind closed doors at the state Capitol.
One change brought by this month’s election is a loss of eight Democrats in the House. There will be 37 Democrats and 33 Republicans in the chamber when the new Legislature starts next year .
Cervantes, a lawyer by profession, declined to say directly whether he’d pursue a coalition. Saturday, he said was a day to congratulate Lujan for his victory. But asked if he had closed the door to trying to build a coalition with the House Republicans, Cervantes said, “You never close the door to anything.”
A House member since 2001, Cervantes declined to tell reporters how many of the Democrats had voted for him Saturday. Caucus votes traditionally are kept secret.
As Cervantes was making his way out of the building, Lujan called to him and asked him to “keep in touch.”
Lujan said he believes it’s important for Democrats to keep an experienced leader in the speaker’s chair because of the state’s budget crisis and revenue shortfalls.
A former iron worker, Lujan was first elected to the House in 1974. He has been speaker since 2001.
Lujan, who was Gov. Bill Richardson’s most important ally in the Legislature, noted there will be a new Republican governor when Susana Martinez takes office. He said a leadership battle would create unnecessary rancor and animosity that would detract from doing important legislative work.
Lujan downplayed any party disunity. “As far as I could see today we, like a family, expressed some concerns,” he said. “To me it seemed like a family getting together and ironing things out.”
But two of Cervantes’ supporters said after the vote that building a coalition with Republicans might be the best course.
Rep. Mary Helen Garcia of Las Cruces — who is Cervantes’ aunt — was clearly disappointed that the insurgency had failed Saturday. “As usual, the North and Albuquerque controls everything,” she told reporters.
Indeed some have seen the Cervantes challenge as a possible power shift from the northern part of the state to the south. Gov.-elect Martinez also is from Las Cruces. However, Cervantes told a reporter last week that such talk has been overblown.
Garcia said she’d encourage Cervantes to continue his challenge. She said Cervantes had worked with Martinez. “He knows she is a bold leader, but he can be very bold himself.” Garcia said.
Rep. Andy Nunez of Hatch, who nominated Cervantes Saturday, said he probably would support forming a coalition with Republicans for Cervantes to win the speakership.
Like Cervantes, Nunez said the voters indicated they wanted change. He said he didn’t want the state House to be like the U.S. House of Representatives, which kept Nancy Pelosi as their leader despite major Democratic losses in the elections.
But it’s not certain whether Republicans are eager to back a Democrat for speaker in a coalition. Earlier this week House GOP Whip Keith Gardner of Roswell said that Republican House members have not yet committed to backing anyone for speaker. “We want to see what the options are,” he said.
Nunez, who is chairman of the House Water & Natural Resources Committee. Asked if he thought he could lose that chairmanship by backing Cervantes, he said, “It depends on who wins in January.”
Lujan, however, later told reporters he wouldn’t seek retribution against those who supported Cervantes.
Four years ago, after Cervantes backed an unsuccessful challenge against Lujan by Majority Floor Leader Kenny Martinez of Grants, Lujan removed Cervantes as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
The speaker appoints committee members and influences the outcome of legislation by deciding which bills are referred to which committees and which bills get floor hearings.
Besides the Speaker’s position, House Democrats voted to keep Kenny Martinez as majority floor leader and Sheryl Williams Stapleton of Albuquerque as majority whip. Patricia Lundstrom of Gallup was elected caucus chairwoman. She replaces John Heaton of Carlsbad, who was defeated in the general election.