Tim Jennings Is The Man For NM Senate President Pro Tem

Will Bill Richardson fight the move to restore balance to the Legislature?

The most intriguing political movida so far by New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson is the nomination of Senate boss Manny Aragon as president of New Mexico Highlands University.

Aragon’s resignation from the Senate – plus the vacancies created by the primary defeat of Sen. Roman Maes and by the Congressional candidacy of President Pro Tempore Richard Romero – sets up the next move.

Barring the unlikely election of a Republican majority in November, the next Senate president pro tem, by rights, ought to be Tim Jennings, D-Roswell. So far he seems to be unopposed for the position, but he has been at odds with the governor.

Jennings has all the conservatism, skill, intelligence and past experience in the job to restore balance to the Legislature and, consequently, the government.

Jennings is a loyal Democrat respected by his colleagues on both sides, even those partial to Aragon, who turned on him and shut him out in his own bid to retain power, with the nominal demotion from pro tem to majority leader.

Just being reelected term after term since 1978 as a Democrat from Republican Chaves County (with some of Eddy and Otero districted in) is testimony enough to Jennings’ political savvy.

But there’s the problem with Richardson, who will be deeply interested in how the Senate reorganizes. Jennings angrily denounced the governor from the Senate floor earlier this year, accusing him of using foul language and direct threats in a closed meeting.

One of the recipients of the rough treatment was Jennings’ wife, which explains why he got emotional. Richardson retaliated by vetoing capital outlay projects in Jennings’ district.

A lot is at stake in the Senate’s choice of leaders. Richardson already has a compliant majority in the House and on the Supreme Court, and, of course, he has virtually eliminated opposition in the executive branch (including boards of regents such as the one that picked Aragon).

With Aragon out, Jennings moves to No. 4 in Senate seniority, behind Ben Altamirano, Joe Fidel, and John Pinto, all of whom seem to be happy where they are. Altamirano and Fidel are chair and vice chair of the Senate Finance Committee, and Pinto is chair of the Indian Affairs Committee.

Jennings’ seniority and skills are lying fallow right now, and in the coming reorganization, he certainly will have a right to claim Romero’s position. But what exactly is that position?
Many newer New Mexicans, which includes most of the media, think the position of Senate president pro tem is the equivalent of House speaker, constitutionally. But it’s not.

In most senates, including the U.S. Senate, the pro tem is a senior senator of the majority party who substitutes in the absence of the presiding officer – the vice president or, in New Mexico, the lieutenant governor. The president pro tem of the U.S. Senate, for example, is Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.

In the 1980’s Aragon, in a complex deal, created the constitutional fiction that the pro tem is equal to the speaker. Romero himself did nothing to discourage the fiction in the subsequent rebellion against a decade of Aragon dominance, but people watching the Senate in action these days are likely to ask, who’s really in charge here? Often the answer was Aragon, not Romero.

The coming reorganization would be a good time to return to the traditional Senate where the majority leader calls the shots, and the pro tem is an honored senior member, a powerful committee chair who in the wisdom of experience has a strong voice in all appointments.

The late I. M. Smalley of Deming, an imposing silver-haired lawyer nicknamed “The Bear,” filled the pro tem position for years. He was the sort of senator who gave wisdom and stability to the Legislature and, consequently, to the government. Jennings is such a man.

With the Aragon-authored fiction out of the way, the Senate could then elect a traditional floor leader — a majority leader, not some goofy “coalition” leader like someone out of a parliament. Maes, just behind Jennings in Democratic seniority and in the governor’s camp, probably would have gone for floor leader, but Santa Fe Democrats took him out of the picture in the primary election.

Jennings would be a good floor leader, a job he has done before, but he probably doesn’t have “the horses” to get it, nor the inclination. So the next floor leader, barring a Republican majority or the goofy coalition gambit, is somewhere down the seniority list, probably 10 or 12 years behind Jennings.

The big question about the next move, which is crucial, is whether the Senate Democrats will have the guts to reorganize on their own terms or let the governor do it for them to suit his own purposes.