Bill Richardson, politician on the make

Editor: New Mexico scion John Dendahl was the 2006 GOP nominee against Gov. Bill Richardson, recently dropped from Obama's cabinet under a cloud of scandal. We asked Dendahl, now a Coloradan, for his candid impressions of a 30-year acquaintance with Richardson. Here they are. LEAVING EMPEROR BILL'S REALM Years of Buyers’ Remorse over Richardson Lie Ahead in the Land of Enchantment

Moving away from New Mexico in early 2007 was neither easy nor fun. The state calls itself “Land of Enchantment,” an apt description in many ways. The lovely city of Santa Fe had been my family home for about 130 years. I am among the third of four Dendahl generations born in Santa Fe and had spent most of my 68 years there.

However, perhaps hearkening to the echo of Ayn Rand’s fictional hero John Galt in Atlas Shrugged, my wife and I decided to leave. New Mexico has long carried a rap for political malodor on account of corruption growing out of patronage. Under the “leadership” of Gov. Bill Richardson, political corruption had grown from several traditional pockets to envelop the entire state.

Richardson’s combination of pay-to-play and ruthless retaliation have dragged to the level of prostitute or whipped dog too many citizens who should be principled civic leaders. Something bordering on a cross between a brothel and a pound no longer felt like home!

I’ll explain how one can make such an accusation, but first an important disclaimer.

In mid-2006, the Republican candidate for governor withdrew and the party’s governing committee designated me as his successor on the ballot for the general election in November. I was decisively defeated by the incumbent Richardson. Some would like to attribute my move a few months later to that loss. I had had no expectation of defeating a man who had been in public office for most of a quarter of a century and would spend at least 40 times what I did in a 20-week campaign.

I loved my state, found Richardson disgusting, and went into this campaign determined to expose for voters the dismal conditions into which they were being plunged. Let the electoral chips fall where they may.

Richardson and I “met” via a phone call from him in 1979. I was a NM business executive whose name was periodically in the papers as a nuclear energy advocate. He was a recent carpet-bagger who picked the state as a good prospect to elect him to the U.S. House and was looking for campaign support. When that 10-minute call ended, I thought to myself the man is a pandering liar. I met him personally at a friend’s home a few weeks later, where he and his wife were passing out palm cards. The first “promise” on the palm card was directly opposite to the main point he emphasized in our earlier conversation, thus affirming my first impression. I have never encountered another individual whose bad character was so instantly obvious to me yet so apparently opaque to many others.

Richardson lost that 1980 congressional race to the Republican incumbent, but New Mexico gained a new U.S. House seat one election later. Richardson won the new seat in 1982 and remained in it until early 1997 when Bill Clinton appointed him to be the U.S. representative to the United Nations. During 16 years’ service in Congress, Richardson continued to vindicate regularly my first impression – a pandering liar.

It wasn’t until his taking office in 2003 as New Mexico’s governor, however, that he revealed himself to be a dictator as well. Illustrative of his hubris was his immediate move to replace his predecessor’s appointees on boards (e.g., university regents) to which they had been constitutionally appointed to constitutionally set terms. He simply demanded their resignations, then replaced them with appointees who, again on demand, signed undated letters of resignation which could be dated and “accepted” if, as and when the dictator chose for any reason whatsoever.

An early embarrassment was administered by a university student-regent, Felicia Ybarra. She refused to vote as instructed for chairman of her university’s board of regents, then, alone in a face-to-face meeting with Richardson and some of his staff, refused to resign and accept an alternative appointment. Richardson quietly tucked his tail between his legs and let the matter pass. It must be added that Ybarra was alone in the meeting because her mother, who had accompanied her on the 300-mile trip to Santa Fe from Las Cruces, was barred from the meeting and made to remain in a reception area.

It should have come as no surprise that a man whose privileged youth was spent in his mother’s native Mexico City would govern like Mexico’s infamous PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) which, with a minor interruption here or there, has exercised one-party control of that country for nearly a century. That Barack Obama selected Richardson for a Cabinet position is clear evidence that 1) pay-to-play is fine so long as you don’t get busted, or 2) his vetting operation, having missed something so obvious in Richardson’s M.O., is utterly incompetent.

Pay to-play

No major New Mexico news organization has had a sustained effort to focus light on, and critique, Richardson’s pay-to-play, his profligate spending, or his ruthlessness. However, isolated reports have appeared, such as an early one on the large campaign contributions made by individuals who later found their way into appointive positions in state government or choice boards. No new ground being plowed there, to be sure, but a hint of things to come.

Organized Labor represents practically no one in the private sector in New Mexico, and lost its legal right to represent public employees when the relevant statute “sunsetted” during the term of Richardson’s predecessor, Gary Johnson. The Legislature didn’t have the votes to override Johnson’s veto of its bill to extend. With direct contributions and indirect expenditures, Labor lavishly supported Richardson’s 2002 campaign for governor. One of its most aggressive bosses, Brian Condit, was soon the Richardson transition organization’s apparent gatekeeper for appointive positions.

Labor got its big reward by immediate restoration of its collective bargaining statute without a sunset, then card-check recognition (that is, no secret ballot elections) of two unions for bargaining units spread around the state, then combination of the bargaining units into such large and ungainly wholes that employees have no chance whatsoever of mounting successful decertification campaigns. It won again when the Richardson lackeys on the University of New Mexico board of regents put a provision in a $185 million hospital construction contract – a “project labor agreement” – to eliminate any possible cost savings through awards to non-union contractors.

Among Richardson albatrosses around New Mexico’s neck is a so-called commuter train, heavy rail no less, running about 100 miles in a corridor having fewer than a million people. A billion dollar boondoggle. Richardson obliged the Burlington Northern Santa Fe by buying and taking over about 300 miles of BNSF track that was probably more liability than asset (the 100-mile “commuter” corridor plus another 200 miles into southern Colorado). BNSF got $75 million taxpayer dollars from Richardson; tens of thousands came to Richardson’s campaign account from BNSF and affiliates.

A September 24, 2006 Albuquerque Journal article (I just found it again in three minutes on the paper’s Website) told the eye-popping story of approval by the Richardson administration of access to a major East-West limited access artery in Albuquerque for a real estate development by the family of Pete Daskalos. Access by other developers had been denied, as had access for a fire station. Soon, something like $130,000 made its way into Richardson’s campaign coffers from various Daskalos family interests. This fandango alone should have tipped Obama’s vetters, if they cared, that their man Richardson was too hot to handle.

PRI-style ruthlessness

The candidate I replaced on the ballot had been severely hampered in fund-raising on account of potential donors’ fear of retribution, reportedly including actual warnings to some. I was confident from my more than eight years’ chairing the state Republican Party and raising a great deal of money that I could get past that. Well, maybe not as it turned out.

Among my finance director’s first calls for support was to a close friend, a Republican real estate developer long prominent in the Albuquerque business community. She asked if he and his wife would host a fund-raising event. He called back promptly the following day to report that, much as he and his wife wished I could become governor, they couldn’t face the risk of Richardson’s retaliation when their name(s) showed up on public records as my supporters.

I couldn’t believe my ears when she reported this to me. So in a few days I called this friend. He not only confirmed, but reported a conversation that morning at a breakfast meeting of the Economic Forum (an association of Albuquerque business leaders) during which others had expressed the same intention: let someone else support Dendahl and bear the consequences meted out by our ruthless governor.

Ditto Hobbs in Lea County, an oil and gas producing area in the Permian Basin. Nearly all local officeholders are Republicans, and George W. Bush won decisively there in 2000 and 2004. However, I was told going in by a locally-prominent close friend that I would be able to raise zilch: reportedly, Richardson’s local enforcer and the chairman of his State Transportation Commission had the word out that economically important local activities – a horse-racing track/casino operation, a private prison, highway building and a budding uranium enrichment plant – could all be hurt by any showing of financial support for Richardson’s opponent. That well was dry.

So I went next door to Carlsbad, in Eddy County. When Richardson was in Congress, he was the single most effective opponent of a federal facility proposed in that county, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), designed to dispose of transuranic (TRU) waste produced by research and production in the Nation’s nuclear weapons program. The project was wildly popular in Eddy County, but miserably opposed by the usual anti-nuclear environmentalists in Richardson’s district hundreds of miles away around Santa Fe and Taos. Ironically, the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory near Santa Fe was one facility in need of WIPP to get rid of locally-stored TRU waste. But Richardson pandered to the enviros and lied to the rest of us: “I’m for WIPP as long as it’s 100-percent safe,” he said, knowing nothing, not even that lie, is 100-percent safe.

I had worked for years with the Carlsbad mayor and a couple of his predecessors, as well as the county’s delegation in the state Legislature, to counter the work of Richardson and his enviro allies. When I asked the mayor for help with my campaign, he acknowledged that Carlsbad owed me big time for all the WIPP help, “but I can’t put my city at risk,” Nothing coming from there.

In a community 25 miles north of Santa Fe is a prominent businessman known for damn-the-torpedoes, full-speed-ahead courage. During a visit shortly after my nomination, he pledged $10,000 to my campaign. After several weeks’ wait, a $10,000 check came in from a source entirely unknown to my campaign staff and me. I smelled a rat and called the pledgor to see if this were payment of the pledge and he said it was. I told him I wasn’t going to commit a felony (accepting a contribution from a donor with knowledge that the money came from another) and the check would be returned. Another day, another friend cowed by the specter of Richardson’s wrath.

And so it went all over the state. To be sure, there were principled, courageous people who provided generous support; however, the Richardson organization assured through brute intimidation that that would be a comparative trickle.

My wife and I now live happily near Denver. Since we moved here nearly two years ago, hardly a month has passed without news of some new or developing scandal among those ruling New Mexico, adding to the pile of vindication for our decision to move away.

It might be pointed out that, like New Mexico’s, Colorado’s recent electoral results haven’t favored my side, either. However, whether its governments trend left or right, I believe Colorado has the necessary critical mass of press and community leadership to squelch promptly the sort of corruption Richardson has made endemic throughout New Mexico. Sadly for New Mexico, formation of a similarly corrective critical mass seems light years away.