Thursday, April 28, 2011

Roundhouse Roundup: A Richardson Campaign Mini-Reunion

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
April 28, 2011

For a second, in a hotel room in downtown Santa Fe one morning this week, I thought I might have stumbled into an organizational meeting of the Bill Richardson 2012 committee.

Contarino in New Hampshire, January 2008
Among those sitting at a table with me were Dave Contarino, who managed Richardson's presidential and gubernatorial campaigns and served as chief of staff for most of his first term as governor; Amanda Cooper, Richardson's former "political director" who also was a major honcho in the Richardson campaigns; and Jim Noel, Cooper's husband and Richardson's last secretary of the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department.

But no, the ex-governor wasn't there. And the meeting wasn't about him. Contarino and crew had arranged interviews for billionaire businessman and former New York gubernatorial candidate Tom Golisan, a leader of an organization called National Popular Vote.

Contarino said he's now doing public relations and political strategy work — as he did for years before hooking up with Richardson.

Flunking the electoral college: Basically, Direct Popular Vote is pushing for a compact among states that agree to cast their electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes nationally.

Eight states, plus Washington, D.C., have signed on, representing a total of 77 electoral votes. Golisan said they're working on California, which would bring in another 55 electoral votes. The compact wouldn't take effect until there were enough states signed on to reach the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House.

New Mexico, like most other states, uses the winner-take-all system to determine who gets our five electoral votes. So, if a candidate wins the state by one vote — or, say, by 366 votes, which was Al Gore's margin over George W. Bush in 2000 — he or she gets all five electoral votes.

During the past state legislative session, the New Mexico House passed a memorial asking the secretary of state and the attorney general to "study and compare the current electoral college system and the national popular vote system" and to report their findings to the Legislative Council by November.

But, as Barry Massey of The Associated Press pointed out in a story published Wednesday, the proposal to join a compact with other states won't get much traction with the current administration in Santa Fe.

He quoted Scott Darnell, a spokesman for Gov. Susana Martinez, as saying, "The current system helps ensure battleground states with independent-minded voters, like New Mexico, play a significant role in electing U.S. presidents. Currently, presidential candidates visit the state frequently and must listen and respond to the unique concerns of the state, from our national labs to our pueblos, and the governor believes that serves New Mexico well."

Though Golisan, a registered Republican, said opposition to the idea has been coming from members of his party, Darnell's argument — that the electoral college guarantees presidential candidates pay more attention to "swing" states like New Mexico — is embraced by members of both parties in battleground states.

Golisan, however, said the perceived value of such attention is exaggerated. "What has it really gotten (New Mexico)?" he said when I asked him about that argument. "That's a fleeting thing," he said, arguing that despite the past several elections, New Mexico might not always be a battleground state. "You could wake up one day and be North Dakota."

That probably sounds worse than it really is.

Another common argument is that under a direct popular-vote system, candidates would only concentrate on areas with large populations. But Golisan contends that candidates still would advertise in small markets like New Mexico because television advertising is cheaper in smaller markets.

Boy, that's a relief. I'd sure hate to have to watch fewer campaign ads on TV.

Here's a video of Golisan talking about the direct election compact.