Persuade? Negotiate? Hey, This Governor Obviously Is No Republican

The billboard will be on the uptown side of Times Square, in the heart of the theatre district, probably within view of the “TKTS” island where thousands wait for hours for the daily release of discount tickets. Millions will see the 70-foot panoramic shot of northern New Mexico’s Ghost Ranch cliffs with Gov. Bill Richardson in the left foreground wearing a loose shirt and a bolo tie.

What’s wrong with this picture?

“Shameless self-promotion,” said Republican State Chairman John Dendahl, as if self-promotion at public expense were totally unheard of among politicians.

And is desert scenery enough to sell New Mexico on Times Square? Probably not, even in this weather. As they say across town on Madison Avenue, personality, personality, personality. That’s what sells things.

The Republican point, however, is that Broadway Bill is already off and running for president or vice president at our expense. Shame, shame?
There is a substantive issue here, but it is not Richardson’s presumed ambition, which he denies anyway. It is what his tremendous exposure — national TV interviews, newspaper profiles, the state-paid Wall Street Journal tax-cut ad with his quarter-page portrait — is doing for, or to, New Mexico. It’s worth examining.

The Broadway billboard will say, as if in the governor’s words, “Come visit New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment.” The print ad says, “Hey, we’ve been telling you it’s different in New Mexico.” Enchantment. Different. Tax-cut Democrat. Minority governor. Friendly-looking world-class negotiator. Hey, the themes and the personality are effective advertising, setting New Mexico apart — like a haven in a dangerous world.

The Sunday magazine of the New York Times — Yes, more New York publicity! — devoted its Jan. 26 “Questions For” page to a question for the new governor of New Mexico: How did he deal with the likes of Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro or Kim John Il? Among other things, Richardson said, “I make my points with respect and don’t overdo the ‘U.S. superpower’ angle.”

Which proves that despite the tax cut and the left-handed endorsement by Rush Limbaugh, Richardson is still a Democrat. Patient negotiation is not the Republican way right now.

Neither was it the way of Republican Gov. Gary Johnson, who, with reference to the enemy Legislature, told his second inaugural audience: “I do have four more years of fight in me, and then it’s one of your’s turn.”

Richardson by contrast opened the 2003 Legislature with — not fighting words — a consoling invitation for everybody to work together for the good of the state. “Juntos unidos,” he added. And the crowd cheered, no translation necessary.

As a journalist, I have watched seven previous governors, and Bill Richardson seems to be the strongest leader since Jack Campbell, the builder and personnel reformer. Part of Richardson’s effectiveness is the situation — he follows “eight years of gridlock,” as he called it, during which Johnson and Dendahl, to their credit, broke the cabal of senior legislators and the mild despotism of middle-level bureaucrats.

But most of Richardson’s strength comes from his experience of success — in Congress, in the United Nations, as an agent of the White House. He has political skills that New Mexico experience by itself could never perfect. But it is significant that his favorite sport is, or used to be, boxing. He was “Fighter for the North.” Boxing is not a team sport. Like Richardson, it is up close and personal.

He started strong, all at once, Machiavellian style, clearing the arena at the outset by firing about 200 state employees whose jobs were not protected by the Personnel Act and by forcing about 2,000 resignations from boards and commissions.

The constituency of museum directors and university regents, who consider themselves non-political, was crestfallen. The arts and higher education usually are usually left alone to play their own insider politics. That is one of the drawbacks of identifying a state with a strong politician, particularly one who is business oriented. Politicians seldom have time to appreciate the liberal arts. Richardson hired back four of five fired museum directors, but that might not neutralize the political reaction in museum-loaded Santa Fe.

Richardson focused on the Legislature, calling members of both parties up to the mansion, one by one. Many had never seen the place. Senate Majority Leader Manny Aragon and Senate President Pro Tem Richard Romero were among the first breakfast guests, and from all indications they were asked to patch up their bad marriage. Now!

“The governor impressed on both of us that he would like to move quickly,” Romero told the Senate. “I hope Sen. Aragon will live up to that.” So far, Manny has been kind of nice, actually.

A few days later, freshman state Sen. Clinton D. Harden, R-Clovis, made a surprising admission about the Johnson administration — surprising, considering that Harden had been a Johnson cabinet member for eight years and owed his Senate appointment to him. “We were instructed to take our initiatives to the Legislature as demands. It was ‘take no prisoners.’ No compromise. Now,” said Harden, “there is a spirit of compromise. I believe that the governor is a man of honesty and integrity.”

To which minority whip Leonard Lee Rawson, R-Las Cruces, responded, “Nice words. But if you don’t agree, get out of the way!”
This undoubtedly will be the tone of the opposition, when it develops, against Richardson’s fast-runner style of leadership. Namely, that he is not very democratic.

The observation that he is “really” running for president or vice president at our expense misses the point implicit Rawson’s comment. The message of the ads and the billboard goes deeper than that. It is an announcement that Bill Richardson is in charge here and if you want something, better call the governor’s office first.

Hey, it’s different in New Mexico. . . now. We’ve tried 150 years of colonial resistance. We’ve tried a half century of make-everybody-happy democracy. We’ve tried eight years of gridlock. Now, we’re gonna do it Bill’s way.