Max Coll Was A Very Good Citizen Legislator. . . A What?

Everything based on experience elsewhere fails in New Mexico

New Mexico is a small state with a native distrust of government that for years has been expressed in its unpaid, amateur and infrequent “citizen” legislature.

Rep. Max Coll, D-Santa Fe, defined the legislature, representing the people of his district without a hint of personal gain and serving the people of the state without a suspicion personal ambition for higher office. He was powerful. Chairman of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee. Key member of the Legislative Finance Committee. Negotiator in the big final annual appropriations conference committee.

Coll began as a Republican representing Roswell in the Constitutional Convention of 1969, which led to his election to the House. He took leave in about 1973, went to law school, made some big changes in his family life, stopped drinking and moved to Santa Fe, where he has represented House Dist. 47 for 24 years, the first term as a Republican. He switched to Democrat, joined the liberal House coalition, and was reelected easily. Hey, parties should not mean that much to citizen legislators, right? Max never did have a close election, D or R. Even the year when his enemies launched a brutal and well funded attack campaign, he won by a ton.

Suddenly, at age 72, a few days before election filing day, he announced his retirement and just as fast, resigned.

Immediately appropriate political figures, including former Republican state chairman John Dendahl who attacked him like Zorro for years, were in the news praising Max. All but heavily Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson. His haughty press staff said twice, No. No. There would be no comment from the governor. Reporters could not help but wonder if Bill, the fulltime politician, had driven out Max, the parttime citizen legislator. After all, Bill had been harrassing Max in all sorts of political ways ever since Max stood up to Bill’s consolidation of executive power. But Max said, no, the governor was not the cause of his retirement, and the governor eventually had something nice to say about Max. And so it goes in mysterious New Mexico.

You wonder if Bill somehow will intervene in the June 1 primary to determine Max’s successor, without really wonderying why he was so popular. Good question. Why was Max Coll so electable? Well, Dist. 47 comprises the urban east side of Santa Fe, the mountain zone along the Old Santa Fe Trail and the U.S. 285 corridor, including the huge Eldorado subdivision. For most of his tenure he lived in Arroyo Hondo on a few acres with horses, a tractor garden and “watch geese.”

With adobe-style homes now selling to retirees from elsewhere at more that $180 a square foot, the district is real estate heaven, and “not in my back yard” environmental issues are predominant. But many of the constituents also are state employees concerned about government and the state budget. And Coll, who was both an environmentalist and a master of state finances, was a perfect fit.

Coll worked hard over the years, against Santa Fe City Council and interests, to regionalize the city water system. He was author of the bill to protect “historic communities” in the extraterritorial zone from both development and the city’s land-use dictates. Coll also brought home the bacon, acquiring special funding for scores of projects from the new library at Eldorado to schools to the paving of hundreds of miles of dirt roads and bike paths.

Dist. 47 is home to a lot of professionals. Coll has a law degree. The district has more art galleries and amateur artists than most big cities. Coll, now married to an artist, used to entertain himself during boring committee hearings by drawing cartoon sketches of witnesses. He has represented artistic interests against all odds. A potential veto of funding of his 2002 legislation for arts instruction in the public schools was one of the things Bill employed to harrass him.

The logic of politics elsewhere tells us that Richardson, the Democrat standing between President Bush and the unproved gas reserves of Otero Mesa, and Coll, once accused by Dendahl of being the emblem of the cause of the oil crisis, would be natural allies because, it would seem, they would have the same enemies. Uh-uh.

See, there are more important things in New Mexico. While berated by anti-enviro Republicans as a “typical liberal,” Coll was also generally acknowledged to be a fiscal conservative – a trait that reflected his background as a Roswell oil man with a brother who would serve as Republican state chairman.

As financial leader of the House, for instance, Coll constantly fought to keep state reserves high enough to keep the state’s AAA bond rating. In reaction to former Gov. Gary Johnson’s creative highway financing, Coll once said, “The governor wants to go into debt to build all these monuments to his ego then let the subsequent governors pay off the debt. His credit cards ought to be cut up.”

But he was more liberal on some things than Hillary Clinton. Coll’s notorious sponsorship of “New Mexicare” in 1993 still animates talk show Republicans, but it came out of his observation of the state budget more than his social philosophy. True, he said that medical care is a right, not a privilege. But he also predicted the Medicaid financial crisis a decade ago and also predicted that resorting to HMO management would not solve the problem.
What Coll and Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, D-Santa Fe, proposed was a New Mexico “single payer” health care system similar to Canada’s. The state was in a better position than others for such an experiment because in addition to the high Medicaid caseload, a higher proportion of its work force was already covered by government medical programs.

The opponents successfully defeated the proposal before it even had a hearing because of the implicit tax increase. But Coll argued that “cost-shifting” in the medical industry is worse than taxes. Hospital supplies like mattress pads cost ten times as much on your hospital bill, he argued, because rolled into the price of the foam is your contribution to help pay off all the hospital’s uncollectable bills.

So the ideal candidate to replace Max Coll in Dist. 47 ought to be an environmentalist-artist-lawyer-accountant with a personal understanding of Republicans. Did I mention river runner? Coll’s passion is taking his big rubber raft on float trips through wild canyons, the pursuit of which he gave as the reason for his sudden retirement.

But there’s another factor in Coll’s successful representation. Something intangible but important. It may have endeared Max to his constituents more than any of the above. It’s the ethical factor. See, the district has a lot of transplants who are fearful of the mystery and perceived corruption of northern New Mexico politics, and Max Coll at times has been a crusader on ethical issues.

Not that he’s ever been a headline hunter. In my experience, many legislators with a lot less power and knowledge flooded the media with frequent quotes on whatever was likely to become a topic of the day. But over the years I found Coll reluctant to comment on legislative issues. He was accessible, but circumspect. I attributed this to his lack of interest in higher office as well as his common-sense understanding that effective lawmakers don’t tell tales out of school.

But he often attached to ethical issues like a dog to a bone. For example, Coll was the author of 1999 legislation that prohibited investment junkets. It was in reaction to a series of expensive overseas freebies accepted by PERA board members, Coll argued that they were in a position to reward, through investments of retirement funds or hiring of consultants, the same people picking up the travel tab.

Seven years ago, Coll’s running fight with the Senate leadership got so hot that senators including Senate Leader Manny Aragon and Shannon Robinson, both D-Albuquerque, walked out of the Legislative Finance Committee chaired by Coll. There were virulent explanations why, including Shannon’s that all Max wanted was to cut state appropriations so there would be money to “save the silvery minnow.”

Coll took a lot of this kind of personal ridicule, but he was always cool. A Republican governor, Garrey Carruthers, once said curly-headed Max “had his curlers on too tight.”

The Green Party once tried to put Coll on the ballot as its candidate for the same legislative seat he was running for as a Democrat, a dual-party process that is lawful in some states and is called “fusion” candidacy. “I guess that entitles you to be buried in WIPP,” Aragon said, with reference to Coll’s opposition to the the nuclear Waste Isolation Pilot Project.

The hidden issue in the fight with the Senate leader, however, may have been Coll’s threat to take conflict-of-interest action against his consultant contract with Wackenhut Corrections Inc., which was running some state prisons under contracts funded by the Legislature.

Another was Coll’s opposition to Indian gaming. He joined conservative Rep. George Buffett, R-Albuquerque, in a law suit to invalidate the gaming compacts. So, in 1996, Coll’s reelection was challenged in acrimonious media attacks funded by Pojoaque Pueblo. And Aragon appeared at a pueblo rally, saying of his Democratic colleague: “We’re gonna fight him, and we’re gonna beat him.” Radio ads and direct mail in Dist. 47 made inferences that Coll was a racist and quite probably an “evil spirit.” The producer of the media campaign was once on Aragon’s Senate payroll.
The attack ads had little effect because the voters knew Max, who had knocked on the doors of most of them. He was reelected in a landslide over Republican Greg Bemis.

And so it goes in Dist. 47. And in New Mexico, whose motto ought to be Gov. Lew Wallace’s famous observation that everything based on experience elsewhere fails here. As Max heads for the Big Bend or Grand Canyon, if he won the lottery, somebody ought to paste a sign on the stern of his big rubber raft that says: “CITIZEN BOAT — CLIMB ON BOARD”