Monday, March 5, 2012

Roundhouse Roundup : Why House Members Might Like Senate Better

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican 
March 4, 2012

Since the end of this year’s legislative session, most of the buzz in political circles hasn’t been about what bills might be signed or vetoed, but which legislators aren’t going to run again.

It seems that during the past couple of weeks, there have been almost daily announcements from legislators stating their intentions. One interesting thing about this is that Rep. David Doyle, R-Albuquerque; Rep. Bill O’Neill, D-Albuquerque, and Rep. Joe Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, are giving up their House seats to run for seats on the Senate side of the Capitol.

And they might not be alone. Rep. Thomas Garcia, D-Ocaté, last week said he is considering running for the Senate seat held for two decades by Democrat Pete Campos of Las Vegas, N.M. Campos said last week that he is seeking re-election.

There also have been rumors that Rep. Eleanor Chavez, D-Albuquerque, is considering running for a Senate seat. And don’t forget Ben Rodefer, a former House member who announced last week he’s running for retiring Albuquerque Democratic Sen. Dede Feldman’s soon-to-be vacant seat (also coveted by Doyle, who defeated Rodefer for his House seat in 2010).

And for about 20 minutes last week, freshman Rep. Conrad James, R-Albuquerque, pondered running for Sen. Mark Boitano’s seat before deciding to stay in the House.

Sen. Peter Wirth
Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe
This is all interesting to Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe. In a phone conversation last week, Wirth pointed out that currently only two former House members serve in the Senate — himself and Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque.

Wirth, elected to the Senate in 2008 after two terms in the House, said it’s surprising there have been so few former House members going to the Senate.

Why should a state representative want to become a state senator? Senate districts have more people than House districts, so you work harder keeping up with constituent concerns, Wirth said. But he said there are advantages.

“The immediate thing is that you only have to run for re-election every four years,” Wirth said. “When I was in the House, it seemed like I was always running.” Another difference: “It’s smaller. You really notice the difference between 42 people [in the Senate] and 70 people [in the House].”

Wirth said he has found that the Senate tends to be more independent. He pointed out that in recent years, the Senate has stood up to both Republican and Democratic governors. Wirth didn’t put it this way, but that’s got to be more satisfying than just being a foot soldier for the chief executive’s agenda.

Despite the fact that there are some issues that will always bring party-line votes, Wirth said in the Senate, there is a lot more co-operation across the aisle than in the House. “You never know where your votes are going to come from in the Senate,” Wirth said. “I’ve had a couple of bills that wouldn’t have passed without support from some Republicans.”

He attributes that largely to the long and close friendship between Senate President Pro-tem Tim Jennings, D-Roswell, and Republican floor leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales. “It sets the tone for the whole Senate,” he said. Despite the current 2-1 Democratic advantage in the Senate, Wirth said, “Republicans are still in the game.”

When Wirth was in the House, Democrats had firm control of that chamber. But now, a shaky 36-33 Democratic advantage is even shakier because Independent Rep. Andy Nuñez of Hatch often votes with the GOP. This near-tie situation, Wirth said, creates more pressure for House members to toe the line and vote with their caucuses.

All 42 senators are up for re-election this year, and Wirth acknowledged it’s possible that voters in various districts could turn against incumbents known for compromising with “the enemy.” He hopes that doesn’t happen.