New Mexico’s campaign for governor still has five months to go, but already we’ve had a bellyful of bragging and blaming.
It’s too bad that both contenders are in the business of salesmanship instead of statesmanship. They claim to be different, yet their shared tactic is to take credit for doing ordinary work and to blame the other side for whatever is wrong.
Gov. Susana Martinez, the Republican nominee, patted herself on the back because she said she inherited “the largest deficit in history” and then fixed it. Gary King, the Democrat challenging Martinez, resorts to guttersnipe language when railing about her performance and the sorry state New Mexico is in.
Martinez, a lawyer and a former prosecutor, knows that New Mexico’s constitution requires a balanced budget. She also should know that the Legislature has never approved a budget written in red ink, so she could not have inherited a deficit. The state budget was balanced when she took office in 2011.
But the carefully crafted fiction of a deficit was bedrock in the early stages of Martinez’s re-election campaign, a way for her to carp about Democrat Bill Richardson’s years as governor and to showcase how much adversity she faced.
Recently, though, Martinez has adjusted her claim, instead boasting last week about how a future budget was balanced with team play.
“And when we confronted the largest deficit in state history, in the middle of a national recession, and while facing massive, federal budget cuts, many said there was no way to balance the budget without raising taxes, no way a Republican governor could come together with a Democratic Legislature. But we proved them wrong,” she said.
Once you wade through all the clauses in her speech, one fact remains: New Mexico had balanced its budget for 98 consecutive years before Martinez became governor, no matter how bad the economy was.
As for King, he simultaneously delivered the worst speech of the year and showed off his vast vocabulary in an attack on Martinez.
“Governor, our economy sucks,” King said to an audience in Santa Fe when he was still competing with four others for the Democratic nomination. “Governor, our education system sucks. … We need a governor who will stand up and say it sucks to be 50th as a place to raise kids.”
You get more thoughtful analysis from those sitting in a bullpen or the corner bar. But this is what passes for oratory from King, the state attorney general. When not blaming Martinez for everything but the drought, he likes to talk about his late father, Bruce, reminding everyone that he was raised by a three-term governor and ate his cereal with a silver spoon.
Because today’s campaigns are more about attack ads than ideas, not much is likely to change between now and the November election. Martinez and King could even argue that they are just following inglorious tradition. Long before Bruce King was governor, campaigns were just as apt to take a low road, and the consequences could be devastating.
In 1950, Republican Edwin L. Mechem ran for governor of New Mexico on the promise of reopening the stalled investigation into the high-profile murder of an 18-year-old waitress named Ovida “Cricket” Coogler of Las Cruces.
Mechem won. Six months later, the state tried Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerry Nuzum for Coogler’s murder. Nuzum, who grew up in Clovis and played college football at New Mexico A&M (now New Mexico State University), had already been cleared of Coogler’s murder in one investigation. No matter. Mechem’s campaign promise turned Nuzum into a defendant.
The government’s case was so weak that state District Judge Charles Fowler ordered a verdict of acquittal for Nuzum on the fourth day of his murder trial. The murder was never solved. Nuzum spent 20 years paying off his legal bills and a lifetime trying to restore his reputation.
Governors who stand tall in history are not the ones who overstated what they did or let blind ambition carry them down the wrong road.
They are defined by courage under fire. The governor who may be easiest to admire is Ralph Carr of Colorado, a Republican who served from 1939-42. His story is still legendary on the Pacific Coast, far from the Colorado Capitol.
Soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government decided to round up Japanese Americans who lived on the West Coast and hold them in camps, supposedly because these citizens were a threat to national security.
Various governors applauded the plan. Carr denounced it. In a time of fear and hysteria, he called for reason and fair treatment of all people, regardless of ethnic background.
The federal government, under President Franklin Roosevelt, plunged ahead with internment camps for Japanese Americans. New Mexico camps housed some of the 120,000 Japanese Americans who were robbed of their homes and businesses. To Carr’s dismay, the federal government created Camp Amache in southern Colorado. It held about 7,000 Japanese Americans during the war, making it the 10th-largest “city” in his state.
Carr’s profile in courage seems even more remarkable in today’s climate of boasting and attacking.
Modern-day governors would not be inclined to stand against injustice the way Carr did. Most would be so worried about attack ads alleging softness and tyranny that they wouldn’t dare put themselves in the center of a national controversy.
Perhaps the bravest governor of the last 25 years is also among the most disgraced.
He was Republican George Ryan of Illinois. Investigations in his state, notably by students at Northwestern University, proved that a handful of men on death row actually were innocent.
So broken was the justice system that Ryan in 2000 ordered a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois. He followed with stronger action in 2003, commuting the death sentences of 163 men and four women to terms of life or less. Ryan left office two days later.
No governor had ever emptied so large a death row. New Mexico Gov. Toney Anaya in 1986 commuted the death sentences of five prisoners, a decision that, at the time, was almost as controversial as Ryan’s would become.
Ryan’s stand, motivated by fear that innocents would be executed, was not enough to save him in the history books. Convicted of public corruption, Ryan served more than five years in federal prison.
As a governor, he took on the mammoth issue of injustice, even as he broke the law.
King and Martinez would have plenty of important topics to talk about if they stopped dwelling on the budget process of three years ago or the legacy of one’s father.
New Mexico has no shortage of poverty. Good jobs are lacking. Better schools are necessary to improve the state’s economy. Controversial tax cuts for corporations, championed by Martinez and approved by the Legislature just as the 2013 session ended, have not created any economic momentum.
Problems are everywhere. So what are Martinez and King going to do about them? Five months should be enough time for them to provide answers. Meanwhile, expect more attacks, even as each camp describes itself as positive.