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COLUMN: Richardson's withdrawal

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By Jay Miller

SANTA FE — There is much we don’t know about Gov. Bill Richardson’s withdrawal of his nomination to be secretary of the U.S. Commerce Department.

One thing we do know is that I’ve already missed on one of my 2009 predictions. I said 2009 would be as unpredictable as 2008. That was easy, considering all the stuff coming down these days.

But I also predicted that Gov. Richardson would be confirmed by the U.S. Senate, although not as quickly as Democratic leaders were planning. Republican senators had given indication that they wanted to slow down a process aimed at beginning hearings this week and getting floor votes on cabinet secretaries soon after the inauguration.

Republican leaders said they wanted to cooperate but that the Democratic timetable would preclude adequate hearings on the nominees. It appears to me that Barack Obama’s team decided to stick with its fast-forward timetable and that the grand jury investigation involving Richardson would be a drag.

Richardson was expendable so he was thrown under the bus. It just doesn’t sound like our governor to back away from such an opportunity. Obama hinted that maybe Richardson could catch up later.

Both Richardson and Lt. Gov. Diane Denish echoed that possibility. In fact Denish couched it as a probability, saying it was only a temporary postponement in Richardson’s departure.

But what are the chances of Obama soon having an opening that Richardson would want? At this time last year, our governor wanted to be president. Then it was vice president, than secretary of state and then commerce secretary, which many saw as a consolation prize. Would he take any job just to get back to Washington? He couldn’t without hurting his political reputation.

But then Richardson’s reputation could be hurt irreparably by the investigation. My original prediction that it wouldn’t hurt him was based on knowing that the Obama camp was aware an investigation was under way into a California company that received a big contract with the state of New Mexico shortly after making large contributions to political committees Richardson had founded.

That federal investigation had been under way since July and there were no indications that Richardson was directly involved. There certainly were no indications that he had profited. If just doing business with your friends were a crime, most of the nation would be in jail.

So why is the investigation being stepped up? Was it to be able to give the Senate Commerce Committee more information? Some have drawn parallels between this situation and the apparent Justice Department effort to encourage U.S. Attorney David Iglesias to prosecute more Democrats.

We may never know. Conspiracy theories abound. Are the Clintons behind Richardson’s withdrawal? It would be the ultimate payback.

How will the Democratic Congress react? Will it blame Richardson’s withdrawal on Republicans? Some hope this will convince congressional Democrats to look into the no-bid contracts for the Iraq war awarded to Halliburton.

It is not likely. President-Elect Obama has indicated a desire to bring civility back to Washington and united action to our nation.

Richardson’s withdrawal has at least one positive aspect. We were on course for a horrendous 2009 Legislature. Richardson was going to be governor for half the session and Denish would take over for the second half.

Gov. Richardson had indicated that he was still in control and making the legislative decisions. That meant Denish would have taken over initiatives to which she wasn’t necessarily committed.

Lawmakers would have seen no value in working with a complete lame duck. As lieutenant governor, Denish presides over the sometimes rebellious Senate, which would be much more likely to work with her than Richardson.

That appears to be behind us now but relationships still will be awkward. For the past month state government has been saying good-bye to Richardson and hello to Denish. It will be difficult to undo that.

Despite being damaged, Richardson will still want to control but Denish and others may want to establish some distance from him.

Jay Miller is a syndicated columnist in Santa Fe. He may be reached by e-mail to insidethecapitol@hotmail.com.