Harvey Yates Jr. is a wealthy oilman and looks the part — a tall, lean, white-haired son of the Southern New Mexico plains. And like many of his counterparts in the industry, he is unabashedly conservative, unapologetically Republican.
He’s contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the GOP cause. And four years ago, he was state party chairman, presiding over the party during an election when a little-known district attorney from Las Cruces named Susana Martinez seemingly came out of nowhere and won the Republican primary and later the general election.
Yates contributed $25,000 to Martinez through his company and lined up friends in the oil business to do likewise. Oil and gas became the largest single source of Martinez’s campaign donations that year.
Oil and gas is again at the forefront of Martinez’s re-election campaign, contributing nearly half a million dollars to her war chest through June. But Yates hasn’t given a nickel.
What changed between now and then?
The trouble stems from a feud that has been brewing since the 2010 election between Yates and Martinez’s close political adviser, Jay McCleskey. Yates has laid out some of his feelings in a string of op-eds accusing the political operative of having too much power in the Martinez administration and running dishonest ads. In his latest opinion piece, published last month in The Las Cruces Sun News, Yates accused McCleskey and his allies of using the “PC [for politically correct] MUTE” button to silence Martinez’s critics by implying they are racist and or sexist.
“If you have never had a PC MUTE button aimed at you, but you want to add that experience to your life’s resume, here is a suggestion,” he wrote, “Ask our governor, Susana Martinez, why she granted her political operator, Jay McCleskey, inordinate authority to affect state government, or suggest that McCleskey is using her as a profit center. Or alternatively, you could say to her, ‘You ran on effectuating bold change in New Mexico. Where is the bold change?’ ”
McCleskey didn’t take that sitting down. In an email to The New Mexican, McCleskey said of the op-ed:
“The ramblings of a bitter man who is accustomed to buying influence and power with donations, and in this case, he found sharp rebuke from an administration committed to cleaning up the good old boys club.”
Some pundits have called the feud a battle for the “soul” of the state’s Republican Party, a struggle between the old guard and the new. Yates is in his 70s and comes from the state’s traditional well of Republican influence. McCleskey is 39 and has climbed his way up through the back channels of the party as an operative for the likes of the late party chairman John Dendahl and Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry.
Yates insists he’s not looking for power or personal influence with Martinez or any government official. He just wants to “turn around” the state. “There’s more to be done,” he said.
Issues, not power
Look around in his Jalapeno Corp. offices in Albuquerque, and you’ll find no pictures of Yates with prominent Republican politicians — as one might expect of a past party chairman.
But in his conference room, the walls are covered with framed front pages of newspapers from historic events. Among them, one from Sept. 11, 2001; one with a huge headline about President Clinton being impeached; another about Gary Johnson getting re-elected governor; one about George W. Bush taking office as president; one with a headline blaring “Baghdad Falls.”
The decor suggests someone more concerned about issues and events than his personal connections with power.
His grandfather was Martin Yates Jr., who was one of the operators of the first commercial oil well in southeastern New Mexico in the 1920s. Family lore has it that Martin’s wife, following her intuition, led him to the magic spot in the Permian Basin where he struck his first gusher.
The wildcatter’s four sons followed him into the oil business, starting a company called Yates Brothers. In the 1960s, Harvey Yates Sr. left to form his own company.
The Yates family has been a major source of money for the Republican Party for generations. Harvey Yates Jr. is no exception. In the last presidential election, he contributed $30,000 to Mitt Romney and another $20,000 to the Republican National Committee. This year, his company has given several thousand dollars to GOP candidates including Congressman Steve Pearce and several Republican candidates for state offices.
The PC Mute button
While Democrats love to hear about Yates’ beef with McCleskey, it’s not an endorsement for Martinez’s Democratic opponent. When asked last week about the governor’s race, Yates said he is “likely” to vote for Martinez, adding that she is “a lot less likely to ruin the economy than Gary King.”
Yates also said, “Susana beats the hell out of Bill Richardson.” Yates is a longtime critic of the former governor. He even wrote a book called Governor Richardson and Crony Capitalism, a blistering critique of Richardson from the oil industry’s perspective.
The book, published in 2012 by Intermedia Publishing Group, is dedicated to three state senators — Republican Leader Stuart Ingle of Portales, plus two conservative Democrats, Senate Finance Chairman John Arthur Smith and former Senate President Pro-tem Tim Jennings of Roswell. The dedication said these three were part of an “informal coalition” that “attempted to erect a barricade between the public purse and the predatory instincts of the Richardson Administration.”
The fact that he’ll probably vote for Martinez doesn’t mean he’s backing away from any of his criticisms. In fact, one of the most interesting aspects about Yates’ recent op-ed is that much of the criticism was directed at Martinez herself, not just McCleskey.
In that piece, Yates said Martinez blew a good chance to “turn around New Mexico” during her first legislative session. He argued that after the 2010 election and before the 2011 session, Martinez enjoyed “an aura of goodwill.” He said some Democrat legislators had grown tired of Richardson and some of those, Yates speculated, might have actually voted for her.
“Had Martinez approached the Legislature with open arms and asked them to join her in devising an intelligent plan to turn around New Mexico, she probably could have secured a majority for the plan,” Yates wrote. “Instead she, the newcomer, lectured legislators. And, during the legislative session, McCleskey engineered robo calls against Democrat legislators who did not agree with Susana’s position on [undocumented immigrants] and driver’s licenses. (These were the same legislators who would be needed to vote for any reform plan.) By the end of the legislative session, Susana and McCleskey had thrown much of the earlier goodwill to the wind.”
Yates also refers to the PC MUTE button throughout the piece, at one point referencing a text message he says McCleskey sent to a former Martinez fundraiser in which he wrote, “They’re trying to keep the brown girl down!!!”
In his emailed response, McCleskey told The New Mexican:
“I’m flattered that Harvey Yates is still thinking about me — I’d forgotten about him.”
McCleskey followed that with another email that said, “P.S. I wish him and Tim Jennings the best.”
That last barb was a reference to the fact that in the 2012 election, Yates had publicly supported and contributed to Jennings, a Democrat, who was the main target of Martinez’s political operation in 2012. Jennings, who lost his re-election bid that year, has been a major bone of contention between Yates and McCleskey.
In a recent “Web Extra” video from KNME’s In Focus program, panelists from “The Line” discussed the back-and-forth between Yates and McCleskey. Sophie Martin, an Albuquerque lawyer and frequent panelist, said, “I think what we’re seeing here is a struggle for the soul of the Republican Party … in New Mexico.”
Another panelist, former GOP legislator Dan Foley, who defended McCleskey and criticized Yates, said this was “the old guard of the Republican Party and the new guard of the Republican Party. … Is it going to be the old, wealthy oil guys making the decisions or is it going to be the new people?”
After McCleskey called him “bitter” and said Yates was sore because he was used to “buying influence,” Yates filed a public records request with the Governor’s Office, demanding any documents or other evidence that he has tried to buy influence with the administration, evidence of any policy matters over which he’d tried to buy influence, any evidence that he’d been “sharply rebuked,” any evidence of the existence of a “good old boys club” and any evidence he’d tried to “corrupt the Martinez administration.”
So far he hasn’t heard back from the Governor’s Office on this.
It’s not the first time Yates has filed such a public information request. After a news report last December in which a Martinez spokesman said Yates had “asked to be charged with developing policy for the administration and even started drafting legislation,” and that Yates “was clearly miffed by this rejection,” he filed a records request asking for any documents or evidence proving any of this, or the spokesman’s characterization of him as a “party boss.”
Yates received a letter saying that the office “does not have any responsive documents.”
When things turned sour
In an interview in The National Journal last year — for a scathing profile of McCleskey — Yates said he and McCleskey “began falling out” during the 2010 general election, when Yates refused to send out mailers from the state GOP accusing Martinez’s opponent, Diane Denish, of “giving driver’s licenses to 40,000 illegal immigrants.” (Denish supported the law that allows the licenses to be issued to undocumented residents, but as lieutenant governor had nothing to do with issuing licenses.)
The magazine said Yates had a meeting with Martinez in Santa Fe in the fall of 2012, when, Yates said, the governor wanted to hit up one of his cousins for a big campaign contribution.
Yates gave the governor a 10-page letter that laid out his problems with her administration: Basically, as outlined in The National Journal, the complaints were similar to ones Yates expressed in his recent opinion piece. Yates told the magazine that he’d asked Martinez to keep the letter confidential. But when he got home to Albuquerque, he found an email from McCleskey dismissing the complaints.
It also was in the autumn of 2012 when Yates wrote an op-ed published in the Albuquerque Journal blasting McCleskey for running “dishonest ads” against Jennings. “I do not like dishonest ads directed at Republicans. I, also, do not like dishonest ads directed at Democrats,” the column said. (McCleskey disputed that his ads were dishonest.) And, in a reference to McCleskey and another unnamed political consultant, Yates wrote, “I believe the state would be well-served if both parties severely clipped the wings of such political operatives.”
In August 2013, Yates wrote another op-ed in the Albuquerque Journal, saying, “Most voters recognize that Susana Martinez is governor today because voters were fatigued by the former administration’s corruption. … Thus, I was concerned when rumors of impropriety began to seep from the Martinez administration. But as to corruption, I was skeptical. Now, months later, I am not so skeptical.”
He wasn’t specific about the “impropriety.”
In that opinion piece, Yates also took a jab at King. “Truth is most likely to come from subpoenaed documents and from sworn testimony. No private citizen has the capacity to cause the issuance of subpoenas or to require sworn testimony. The attorney general does, but most Republicans and many Democrats agree on one thing: New Mexico’s attorney general is incompetent.”
On the In Focus segment, Foley criticized Yates for “being on the wrong side in multiple battles.”
Taking a longer view, however, the former lawmaker added, “He’s probably going to be here a lot longer than Jay McCleskey’s going to be here. He’s probably going to be a player a lot longer than Jay’s going to be. But right now is not his time.”