Alexis Valdez Darnell, wife of Gov. Susana Martinez’s deputy chief of staff Scott Darnell, no longer works as the governor’s operations director. Since February, she’s headed a nonprofit “social welfare” group that has run “nonpartisan” ads lauding Martinez and smiting her enemies.
She told me last week that she left the Governor’s Office in November and in February, took over as executive director of the Albuquerque-based New Mexico Competes.
Her predecessor in that job was Sara Lister, who now works for the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce. Like Darnell, Lister, a longtime GOP fundraiser, had connections to the Martinez administration. She had worked as a deputy secretary of the state Department of Workforce Solutions.
Martinez hired Alexis Darnell in May 2011 as operations director. That was an exempt position, (which means she served at the pleasure of the governor) with a salary of $75,000. At the time, her husband was Martinez’s communications director. He was promoted to his current position in December 2012.
New Mexico Competes is a nonprofit “public policy and social welfare organization,” that does not have to disclose its donors. According to information on the Secretary of State’s website, its officers and board members include Republican National Committeeman Pat Rogers, former GOP state Sen. Duncan Scott and Rich Beeson, Mitt Romney’s political director in the 2012 presidential campaign.
Last September, New Mexico Competes ran a 60-second radio ad praising Martinez’s handling of the shake-up in the state’s behavioral health system and blasting critics of the governor. This was during a time in which there were almost daily news stories about the audit, which led to a criminal investigation for possible Medicaid fraud by 15 of the state’s largest mental-health providers. And there was much vocal criticism by Democratic legislators of Martinez’s actions.
The ad said Martinez was “cracking down” on Medicaid fraud but “special interest groups” want her to “look the other way.” At the end of the ad, listeners were urged to call the Governor’s Office and tell her to “keep fighting the fraud, protecting Medicaid for the most vulnerable.”
That’s typical for ads by groups classified by the Internal Revenue Service as (wink wink, nudge nudge) nonpartisan 501(c)(4) “public policy and social welfare organizations.” They can’t say “Vote for Susana Martinez.” They can just say things like “call the governor and tell her she’s great.”
(Don’t get too self-righteous here, Democrats. You guys have these groups, too. For instance, ProgressNow New Mexico is every bit as “nonpartisan” as New Mexico Competes.)
Later last year, Competes sent fliers to Albuquerque homes attacking Albuquerque Public Schools Superintendent Winston Brooks for his opposition to some of Martinez’s education policies. “Winston Brooks is putting up roadblocks to education reform,” one mailer said.
In December, the state Democratic Party asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigate the nonprofit, claiming New Mexico Competes is illegally coordinating with the Martinez’s re-election campaign. But so far there has been no sign that the IRS is actually investigating.
An article in National Journal that profiled Martinez’s political consultant, Jay McCleskey quoted Andrea Goff, the former finance director of Martinez’s campaign and of the governor’s Susana PAC, saying that Martinez “specifically told her” that McCleskey was New Mexico Competes. McCleskey repeatedly has denied that he or Martinez have ever had anything to do with the group.
The 501(c)(4) hasn’t been very visible in recent months. I asked Darnell if the group had anything brewing in the near future.
She replied that New Mexico Competes “has and will continue to play an active role in registering voters and educating New Mexicans on important issues related to the economy and education in our state. We do not advocate for or against the election of any public official and we look forward to continuing to engage the people of New Mexico.”