A Tale of Political Madness for Election Day, Illustrated by El Machete

Our street dead-ends at a sprawling dog park with miles of hiking trails. It’s glorious unless you suddenly realize you’ve misplaced your pooch. Like an O.G. Santa Fean, I was Five-Finger jogging through the sandy canyon in the center of the park. Then I turned and realized my dog wasn’t behind me. I felt worried after 10 minutes, scared after 30. I spent an hour trekking up and down the entire huge park, calling my dog’s name and describing her build (medium) and color (butterscotch) to strangers. My mind started spinning. Where could she have gone? What would I tell my wife? Could an animal have attacked? Did someone take her? Her tags jingle when she runs, and she always yelps when she’s hurt. I clenched my ears and heard neither jingle nor yelp.

The day before this happened, the first issue of a free print magazine I wrote and edited called “The Candle” debuted with a 20,000-copy run. The mag has TV and movie reviews, but it mostly features informed hit pieces on Gov. Susana Martinez and her staff. Much of “The Candle” is devoted to Jay McCleskey, the governor’s campaign guru whom she calls her top adviser. His job is running political action committees which raise millions of dollars to spend on creating attack ads against candidates who oppose the governor’s agenda. That agenda could be described – with gross over-simplification – as consisting of two main items: holding back third graders who fail a literacy test and repealing the law in New Mexico allowing illegal immigrants to get drivers licenses.

I’ve written about McCleskey here before. That post was a long, unfunny joke about how McCleskey might send goons to kick my ass or worse. I’m not really afraid of anyone in politics, because they’re in politics and because I’m strapped. If you see me around town, you’ll notice I wear an assault rifle and a samurai sword, holstered and sheathed in a big “X” across my back. Flip Side Phil don’t leave home without his big “X.” Bear arms, baby. Grrrowl.

That isn’t true. What is true is that an anonymous stranger, who left the name “Jay’s Victim,” commented on that blog post to say, in part, “you should be afraid.” I had a short email exchange with Jay’s Victim, and since I still don’t know who he is I won’t reprint much of what he said, except this: “if you pop up on his radar as an enemy, i don’t think there are any lines he won’t cross.”

So “The Candle” comes out. The paper calls McCleskey a “goon” and asserts that he spins made-up, half-thought propaganda into voting power, and “undermines how democracy is supposed to work.” One article includes this line: “Republican operatives can be as dumb and dishonest as they want.” (It was labeled “Commentary.”) (The headline was “Don’t Let Stupid Affect Your Vote.”) The next day, I’m running in the park with my dog and she disappears. Could McCleskey have some Super-PAC thug tailing me, waiting for the right moment to snatch my innocent little Butterscotch Princess? Am I going to get her head delivered to me in a box, with a note that says “Your next,” (“Your” because McCleskey’s attack mailers are notorious for misspellings and bad grammar)?

Wait! Did you hear that?

I got fired one year ago this month from the Albuquerque Journal newspaper, for writing a letter to congressional spokesmen demanding an “email duel” over their 9-percent approval rating. (You can read it here.) I did not want to be fired, and when the ax came down in that morning meeting with the paper’s editor-in-chief – the first time we’d ever talked – I felt a naked kind of white-person terror that comes with suddenly losing health insurance and a regular paycheck. I had naively presumed the worst-case scenario for sending that letter was a tongue lashing. Instead, I was suddenly unemployed.

My fists wouldn’t unball as I was escorted to human resources for a post-firing debrief. Red eyes running, I interrupted the woman who was explaining COBRA and said I needed to leave immediately but would call later. I’d been fired for trying to write a column about how congress could justify the lousy job it was doing. Whoops. It was such a mistake.

Within a week, I got a phone call from a union-powered Super PAC called Independent Source PAC. It is a very small group of left-leaning shit-storm-stirrers, with the hard-core investigation skills to follow campaign donations through doors I thought were closed (or didn’t even know were doors). ISPAC digs up dirt no one is supposed to find, dirt that gets politicians into trouble. What ISPAC needed, though, was a writer.

We dug deep into the Downs Deal, a 25-year state-fair lease awarded to Louisiana businessmen who have donated at least $70,000 to McCleskey’s PACs. The deal is reportedly worth more than $1 billion over those 25 years. “The financial contributions by Racino owners to political heavyweights are substantial and the entire gaming industry is directly controlled by appointees placed there by the Governor. The tenets of good government are nowhere to be found.” That’s Charlotte Rode, a Republican appointed by Martinez to the State Fair Commission, talking about the Downs deal.

ISPAC worked to uncover what happened, and what happened is an apparently rigged evaluation, a 300-out-of-300 score for “management expertise” awarded by an evaluator who’d been hired by the governor against the advice of a long-serving State-Fair official who wound up resigning over the deal after 16 years on the New Mexico Board of Finance. (He was also a Republican.) A 300-out-of-300 score for management expertise, to a company on probation with the New Mexico Racing Commission for not paying purse money… to a company who had to be ordered by the EPA last year to clean up giant mounds of horse poop that were seeping into the Rio Grande.

The deal went through after the Downs barely outscored another bidder in evaluations. Martinez’s donors will make a lot of money off it.

When the governor’s chief of staff, Keith Gardner, was caught on tape saying “That’s why I never use my state email… I don’t want to go to court or jail,” ISPAC helped make the recording public and then begged many news outlets to run the story. (They were reluctant, for mysterious reasons.) Last year, Gardner’s wife got a $67,000 job at the Public Education Department after the job requirements were changed to make her the lone applicant of five finalists who qualified. On the “don’t want to go to court” tape, Gardner actually offers his friend a job running the State Fairgrounds! Government can’t create jobs… for outsiders?

Gardner, it turned out, was right to worry about his emails. He was involved in a string of private-email conversations with other members of the governor’s staff and a lawyer for the Downs. ISPAC obtained those private emails and outed them. Government officials are not supposed to use private email for public business, and these messages seemed to demonstrate that the lawyer was ordering Martinez’s staff around during the evaluation process. (The lawyer also made a lot of bad jokes, including one that got him fired, about the governor dishonoring Col. Custer by attending a tribal leaders summit.)

We even helped get the word out when a young woman who lobbies for public schools accused Gardner of grabbing her arm in an “extremely threatening manner.” The woman said Gardner yelled at her that “the bowels of hell were about to open up upon” her boss if he didn’t get behind the governor’s education agenda.

Ah yes, education. It’s been a mini mission of mine to understand education policy for my ISPAC writing. I covered Santa Fe’s schools for the Journal, and while there’s a lot of minutia in the education beat – on issues like funding formulas – there’s also a lot of soul. I’ve seen parents, teachers and students all crying at school-board meetings, over things like councilor case loads and small-school closures to save money. School board members’ jobs are mostly boring, but shrinking money resources force these people to grapple with huge questions, like how important art is to a young child’s education.

The governor has hired a Public Education Department cabinet secretary who is obsessed with teacher evaluations and letter grades for each individual school. Both are based on standardized test results, and here’s what I’ve learned from research: Children who come from poor households are terrible at tests because their brains are harmed by the out-of-school stress that comes with living in poverty. If you’re homeless, your mom or dad does drugs, you’re hungry all the time, the kids in your neighborhood are trying to recruit you into a gang… these things are a direct, demonstrable reason for plummeting test scores. Study after study – the ones I find come from college professors – have shown this. Government has a role in fixing education, but it requires community-based programs like parent training, and an approach to reforms that doesn’t involve more testing.

When schools are bad so is the state, because education hugely impacts the economy. Yet the governor plows onward with a reform agenda science says won’t work. And third-grade retention? Here’s one of those studies, from the regents professor of education at Arizona State: “Research is quite clear that on average, students left back do not improve as much as do students who are allowed to advance to a higher grade with their age mates.” He says the state should do what rich parents do, and put the money we’d spend on an extra school year for the student into tutoring and after-school opportunities instead.

I have tried, repeatedly and obnoxiously, to engage the PED in a debate about what works best for children. The subject is actually fascinating when you get away from funding formulas. At first they wouldn’t talk to me because of who I work for. Now they won’t talk to me because I bash them on the internet for being opaque and corrupt and kinda evil. The newspapers, meanwhile, don’t seem interested in asking how the governor’s approach accounts for poverty, or what reasoning or specific research helped state authorities decide holding back slow-reading third graders and assigning grades to schools were worth-while reforms.

My point is this: Government is a fantasy land populated with opportunists and liars. The inmates have escaped the asylums and learned to win elections. I’ve been watching in angry awe. Susana Martinez was a district attorney and now she is a governor. Both jobs are paid for with tax money, yet she doesn’t blink in claiming the government can’t create jobs. When she had an opportunity to lower the overall corporate tax rate in New Mexico by signing a bill that closed a tax loophole allowing corporations like Best Buy to avoid paying a state tax that’s assessed to local companies like Baillos, she vetoed the measure because it would hurt job creators. Government is never closing loopholes.

My dog was waiting at home. She’d wandered up a hill, down our street and into our driveway, alone the whole way. She was waiting for me when I arrived back home panicked. She was fine, wagging her stupid tail.

I’m not fine, though. Watching politics up close has jacked up my mind. Government should be manned by big-hearted idealists who want to harness their Constitutional powers to collaborate and make our state a stronger, better place. Instead it’s become a sick game, a professional sport where egomania substitutes for athleticism. Having no soul is like being able to run a 4.3 40-yard-dash. Jay McCleskey gets donations to his Super PAC at a quarter-million bucks per clip, from oil companies and casino moguls. Then he creates commercials accusing Democrats of “siding with child killers.”

These greedy lunatics lie to get elected, then use their power to benefit themselves and their friends. Politics sucks. It makes me angry and it makes me crazy. Happy election day.

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