A conservative Democrat from Hatch said Tuesday that legislators seeking to oust state Rep. Ben Luján, D-Nambé, as speaker of the New Mexico House of Representatives have enough votes to carry out their plan when the Legislature convenes next week in Santa Fe.
Rep. Andy Nuñez said he believes as many as eight Democrats and 29 Republicans will join together next week to back Rep. Joe Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, for the leadership post, a change that could mean a shift of power in the Legislature to Southern New Mexico.
Others say Nuñez's count of Democrat votes for Cervantes may be high, while his count of Republicans may be low. All expect the vote to be close. It will take at least 36 votes for anyone to win the speakership, which Luján has held since 2001.
A Republican lawmaker, who asked not to be named, said last week that he also believes Cervantes will be elected House speaker Jan. 18.
Cervantes, a lawyer, on Monday declined to comment on his leadership challenge. Nuñez, however, said Cervantes is definitely running.
Luján, in an interview last week, reiterated his belief that starting off the session with a leadership fight would hurt Democrats, who for the first time in eight years will be dealing with a Republican governor — as well as facing the largest number of Republicans in the House in decades. There will be 37 Democrats and 33 Republicans in the House, compared with the 45-25 advantage that Democrats enjoyed for the past two legislative sessions.
The incumbent speaker also said he believes most Republicans wouldn't vote for a Democrat without being offered "special considerations." He confirmed that he has been talking with several GOP House members about the leadership challenge.
Veteran Republican House member Larry Larrañaga of Albuquerque said last week that he hasn't decided whether to support Cervantes. He also said he doesn't think most Republicans in the House have made up their minds.
Asked what Republicans would want out of a speaker, he said, "Just somebody who would be more fair."
House Republican Leader Tom Taylor of Farmington said last week that no decision has been made by members of his party about backing Cervantes. He said there will be a House Republican Caucus meeting on Monday, the day before the session starts.
Some Northern New Mexico Democrats have called the move by Cervantes "a southern power grab." Like Cervantes, Republican Gov. Susana Martinez is from Las Cruces. Cervantes in November scoffed at such a notion, calling it "overblown" and telling The New Mexican, "People in Santa Fe have nothing to worry about."
But Nuñez said electing Cervantes would mean more power for Southern New Mexico and less for the North. He said jokingly, "Save your Confederate money, boy, the South's gonna rise again."
On a serious note, Nuñez said he believes Cervantes would be more equitable with the allocation of capital-outlay funds.
In the past eight years, the two most powerful figures in state government have been Luján and Gov. Bill Richardson, who formerly represented Northern New Mexico's 3rd Congressional District for
In addition to Luján, two other Santa Fe area representatives, both Democrats, have amassed power in the House. Luciano "Lucky" Varela chairs the Legislative Finance Committee and is deputy chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Jim Trujillo is vice chairman of the House Taxation and Revenue Committee and in recent years has chaired the committee in charge of capital outlay.
The House speaker controls committee chairmanships. The speaker also has the power to decide how many committees a bill has to go through and what legislation gets heard on the House floor.
During a post-election caucus in November, Cervantes tried to convince fellow Democrats to endorse him instead of Luján. That move was unsuccessful. Besides Nuñez, only two other Democrats, both from Southern New Mexico, have publicly endorsed Cervantes.
Asked after that Democratic caucus meeting why he was challenging Luján, Cervantes said, "The voters told us they wanted change."
He was referring to the loss of eight Democratic House seats in the general election. Luján himself was nearly knocked off in the Democratic primary. He defeated political newcomer Carl Trujillo by fewer than 90 votes.
In 2006, House Majority Leader Ken Martinez, D-Grants, tried but failed to win enough support from fellow Democrats to wrest the speakership away from Luján.
During that attempted coup, some Democrats reported that Cervantes helped Martinez and had planned to run for majority leader if Martinez took the speakership.
After Luján survived that challenge, he took the chairmanship of the House Judiciary Committee away from Cervantes.
Contact Steve Terrell at 986-3037 or email@example.com. Read his political blog at roundhouseroundup.com.
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