New Mexico Voices: Corruption killing New Mexico's economy

Milan Simonich
Santa Fe New Mexican
Guest Editorial

Before Demesia Padilla became New Mexico's latest criminal defendant in a case of public corruption, she was a politician with a hopeful campaign slogan.

"I will end the embarrassment," she said.

That's not the way it worked out.

New Mexico has three chronic problems. One is poverty. Another is an economy too dependent on government jobs and oil production, always a boom-bust proposition.
The third is corruption. It strangles progress in reducing poverty and improving the economy.

People who serve themselves instead of the public interest all too often end up in public office or appointed to government positions.

Padilla's guilt or innocence is an open question. What's clear is that she had serious character flaws but still received an important government job.

She had revealed herself when she ran what many called a racist campaign for state treasurer in 2006. Voters rejected Padilla in that election.

But she resurfaced in 2011 when newly elected Republican Gov. Susana Martinez appointed her as the Cabinet secretary of the Taxation and Revenue Department.
Now the state attorney general has charged Padilla with a series of crimes from her years in the Martinez administration. They include embezzlement and engaging in an official act for personal financial gain.

Life for Padilla has shifted 180 degrees since her race for treasurer, when she promised to end the embarrassment in that office.

A Republican, Padilla ran after two Democrats, Michael Montoya and Robert Vigil, had won the treasurer's job and then landed in prison on corruption convictions.

Padilla's slogan about ending embarrassment wasn't as upbeat as "I like Ike" or as cutting as "It's the economy, stupid," a gem from Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign. Still, she assured voters she would be a reformer, honest and competent.

How Padilla conducted her campaign was more telling than any slogan.

She distributed a mailer depicting her opponent, a black man named James B. Lewis, as a puppet on strings manipulated by then-Gov. Bill Richardson. Padilla's portrayal of Lewis as an Uncle Tom offended many voters. Facing a backlash, Padilla claimed she had distributed a harmless cartoon.

Voters chose wisely by electing Lewis. Padilla returned to her job as an accountant until Martinez gave her a Cabinet appointment.

The state Senate Rules Committee, controlled by Democrats, had a chance to explore Padilla's fitness for the job. But the committee did what it almost always does — nothing.

Padilla's rise and fall is similar to many New Mexico politicians from both major parties. 

Democrat Jerome Block Jr., late of the Public Regulation Commission, said his interest was serving the people. Instead, he fleeced them, perhaps to feed his admitted addiction to cocaine.

Former Democratic state Sen. Manny Aragon stole on a grander scale. He collected kickbacks of more than $600,000 on the construction of a courthouse in Albuquerque.
Republican Dianna Duran pleaded guilty to embezzling campaign donations while she was secretary of state. As she stole, she gambled heavily at casinos.

And Democrat Phil Griego, another former state senator, is serving an 18-month sentence in state prison after a jury convicted him of four felonies tied to his receiving a $50,000 commission for brokering the sale of a state building.

Padilla was so desperate to win a state office that she took the low road with a racially charged campaign. The governor handed her a Cabinet post anyway, and the Senate yawned when it should have objected.

That is New Mexico in a nutshell. There is more complacency than effort, and more corruption than enchantment.

Milan Simonich is a columnist fo rthe Santa Fe New Mexican.