By Denise Tessier
As an amateur historian, I’m glad New Mexico has the distinction of having elected the nation’s first Spanish-surnamed female governor.
And that’s how I would look on it – as something New Mexico can be proud of – if I were a historian of the future who knew nothing about the rest of the story, knew nothing about her out-of-state financial backing or the role the Albuquerque Journal played in wresting the first-woman distinction from Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, who had worked eight years to earn it.
Before it outright endorsed her in an editorial, the Journal had already exhibited signs it was deliberately advocating for eventual winner Susana Martinez – through Thom Cole UpFront columns, other front-page stories and pro-GOP national wire stories. Support was conveyed also via the Journal’s debate reportage, its choice of headlines, and in pertinent information left out of stories.
Before Martinez had even won the GOP primary there were indications the Journal was going to oppose Denish, no matter who the GOP nominee would be.
Rewind to March – primary election season, when Democrat Denish was unopposed and five Republicans vied for the GOP slot Martinez eventually won. That month, Denish released a plan she said would save the state $450 million over five years.
Traditionally, the Journal covered candidate platforms like this. But it didn’t cover Denish’s announcement – a significant plan, considering the Legislature had predicted a shortfall of that amount just months before. The Santa Fe New Mexican covered Denish’s plan as soon as it was released. But on the day the Journal normally would have run it, the story in the Journal instead was “Weh Sues State Over Redacted Denish Files.” Those who read the story would learn that GOP candidate Allen Weh’s beef was with the Department of Finance and Administration over some public documents from Denish’s office, rather than an issue with Denish. But the implication was that Denish had done something fishy.
The Journal held off on running Denish’s platform until July, when it packaged it together with comments from Martinez.
The Denish platform rarely was mentioned after that. Even when the Sunday Journal ran its full-length profiles of the two history-making female candidates, the only reference to Denish’s plan was three lines in the in the bullet-point list that ran at the end of her profile under the label “Budget”:
Denish has proposed a plan to cut $450 million out of the state budget over five years. Most of the savings would come from a voluntary buyout program for state employees and cuts to the number of political hires. She would also combine some state agencies and disband numerous governor-appointed commissions.
After the two candidates’ first televised debate, the Journal claimed in a second-day follow-up story that both candidates “botched it,” saying neither candidate had a plan to handle budget shortfalls. Even when acknowledging Denish’s plan, the Oct. 19 story immediately dismissed it, saying:
Denish referred during the debate to her five-year plan to cut $450 million out of the budget. The problem is that it would only cut somewhere between $40 and $90 million in the first year.
The Journal reporter deemed this a problem, even though there was no comparable plan on the GOP side.
Similarly, after the second televised debate, a story headlined “Governor Candidates Short on Specifics” made it sound like the candidates performed pretty much on a par with each other during the debate, with no standout issues or differences. Its subhead – “Denish, Martinez Clash on Ethics, Day Care, Payday Loans” – was particularly interesting in that these are the issues Denish worked hardest on as lieutenant governor, and on which Martinez, a career prosecutor, had no record. Yet, again, Denish was given short-shrift.
In sharp contrast, the online New Mexico Independent headlined its coverage of that same debate “Denish, Martinez Tangle Over Predatory Lending” and its story focused mostly on this one issue, giving readers a clearer view of the candidates’ backgrounds on payday lending. Denish devoted quite a bit of energy fighting fraud in payday lending by working with the Legislature while lieutenant governor.
One thing the Journal did well in covering the governor’s race was to contrast the experience of the two candidates in a pair of profile stories by staff writers Colleen Heild and Sean Olson, which ran Saturday, Oct. 16.
“Denish Expanded Office Role, Spending” – despite its negative headline – reported that Denish’s office came in under budget every year, and that she had returned a total of $373,000 to the state general fund since fiscal year 2004. It also pointed out that Denish, while lieutenant governor, worked to establish the Children’s Cabinet, fought closure of Cannon Air Force Base and created a micro-lending program for small businesses. Still,it didn’t specifically mention that Denish returned to the general fund all salary she received while serving as acting governor of the state, which was fairly often during Bill Richardson’s term.
“Martinez Hasn’t Had To Crunch Tough Budget” seemed a thorough attempt to examine how Martinez handled her budget as Dona Ana County District Attorney, going so far as to contact other DA’s offices around the state to confirm that Martinez’s expenditures seemed reasonable.
My main complaint about these two profiles is that they were buried inside the newspaper on B-3, instead of being given the front-page prominence the Journal routinely had given to its poll results and opinion-infused UpFront columns covering the election.
In the run-up to the election’s finish, the bias was most blatant. Columnist Thom Cole traveled to northern New Mexico to write “Winds of Change in a Democratic Stronghold,” a column focusing on interviews with New Mexicans who said they were going to vote for Martinez even though they were Democrats, including one who said a vote for Martinez would “punish” current governor Bill Richardson. (This came on the heels of the Journal’s own polling showing that Hispanics, including those in the north, favored Denish over Martinez, who had gained traction with more affluent Anglos.)
Cole followed this with a column that, on first glance, appeared to be an attempt to balance the previous by focusing on those who might be voting for Denish. At least that’s the impression I got from the headline, “Dems, Independents Sound Off,” and the front-page caption showing a Denish supporter. However, Cole cleared that impression up quickly when he explained his approach to the column:
. . . I traveled to Cibola and Socorro counties last week to talk with Democrats and independents about the governor’s race between Democrat Diane Denish and Republican Susana Martinez.
Those counties were chosen because large numbers of Democrats and independents there have demonstrated in recent years that they are open to voting for Republicans in statewide elections.
So, was Cole assigned to search out voters to validate the Journal’s polls? That’s the outrageous impression that statement left.
Especially in these recent weeks, I was reminded of the absence of the Albuquerque Tribune, and was struck by how different the election looked when reading the New Mexico Independent. It was the Independent that first disclosed that Martinez received $20,000 from a Texas oil man who had crassly joked about rape. After the Independent’s disclosure – and calls from the Denish campaign for Martinez to return the money – Martinez donated the funds to a rape crisis center. This ran two days later on the Journal’s Elections page – not unusual for a “catch up” story. But its impact would have been different if the story had run on the front page – as it essentially did in the Independent (and as it likely would have run in the Albuquerque Tribune.)
Also in recent weeks, the Journal ran a “damaging” Denish story on its front page in profiling her husband, Herb. We didn’t see any Journal profiles of Martinez’s husband, Chuck Franco. And the New Mexican just beat the Journal to the punch by running one.
The Santa Fe New Mexican’s Steve Terrell on Wednesday deftly summed up the gubernatorial results this way:
Martinez exploited Richardson’s problems and attempted to tie Denish with every bit of bad news to come out of the Fourth Floor. She and other Republicans faithfully referred to “the Richardson/Denish administration.” . . .
I would submit that the Journal buttressed that impression by running a number of stories critical of Richardson as the campaign neared its end.
Leave it to Terrell to also put historical perspective on this historic win in another light:
Although many have tried, no sitting lieutenant governor since 1916 has succeeded in winning the New Mexico governorship.
Walter Bradley, the previous lieutenant governor who attempted to become governor, said in a recent interview that the task is very difficult, if not outright impossible. “You cannot divorce yourself from the administration you’re serving,” Bradley said. “Whatever is negative — small or large — is going to stick to you. … People want a change, particularly after eight years. I think that’s the driving force.”
So perhaps the electorate would have thrown out Denish even without the Journal’s encouragement. But in the absence of an unbiased “leading newspaper” in New Mexico, that’s something we’ll never know.