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Thursday, January 03, 2008

Guest Blog: Reminiscence on the Passing of Senate President Ben Altamirano

This is a guest blog by Stephen Fox, founder of New Millennium Fine Art in Santa Fe. He is working towards a ban on aspartame and the establishment of a New Mexico Nutrition Council, with powers to question and even challenge the FDA. He is presently the Managing Editor of the weekly Santa Fe Sun News.

A Truly Great Statesman
For two years, he endorsed and volunteered to sponsor the bill to create a powerful new Nutrition Council for New Mexico, of which I was the author, and he saw the need to have express powers to challenge the FDA when it was wrong. He spoke of the need to have viejos and comadres serving on the council, if it was really going to help the people improve their health, not just industry apparatchiks. He told me many times that although he didn’t have a lot of confidence in the accuracy of newspapers, he had never gotten such good press nor such positive feedback from constituents in his entire legislative career than he had gotten from taking on the Nutrition Council legislation and its related issues.

Then the corporate lobbyists who had nothing to gain and everything to lose if the Nutrition Council ever were passed by the Legislature, turned on him and forced the bill's evisceration in a couple of Senate Committees.

He always had time to talk and always saw deeply into matters of ordinary people and the problems deriving from poverty, stemming from his own experiences growing up somewhat poor in Grant County. He was no "hack" like some of the very powerful in the Roundhouse; I think the main reason he rose to power was his even handedness as Senate Finance Chairman for 18 years, disbursing the state's money even handedly, fairly, judiciously, and without the faintest hint of scandal or dishonesty!

Michael Sanchez noted in his personal eulogy that Ben got the Pro Tem job after he asked the Democrat Caucus after Richard Romero resigned to run for Congress if anyone objected to his being Pro Tem, because he wanted it to be unanimous, and of course, no one objected and he got the job. I was in his office a day or two later and he was beaming with happiness and saying “By golly, President Pro Tem of the New Mexico Senate: it sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?”

All of New Mexico will miss him profoundly. House Speaker Luján noted that legislation sponsored this year by Altamirano took effect on New Year's Day, to increase minimum wage benefiting the lowest-paid workers in New Mexico. "He was a gentleman in a place that does not always treat gentlemen kindly. He was a statesman in a place that too frequently rewards those with more narrow concerns," said Luján. "He brought a calm, reasonable voice to a place that needs more calm and more reason."

What Killed Benny Altamirano?
At the Memorial Service in the Rotunda, his son Paul briefly touched on the “negative” aspects of what 36 years of public service in the New Mexico Senate really means: the 4:00 A.M. calls asking him to come to Santa Fe, the very long trip starting with the tortuous winding road over the Black Range, the 1 and 2:00 A.M. sessions in Senate Finance, the stress, the cumulative fatigue (all of which led his doctors to recommend that he “cut back and slow down.” Not Benny . . . no one was as driven as he was by a love of public service and legislating.

After visiting him in his office, I noticed several perpetual cans of diet Coke in his office refrigerator. I was horrified for his health: the sweetener Aspartame is metabolized as methanol and formaldehyde, obviously two horrible effects on anyone, particularly someone recovering from cardiac surgery and on a later occasion, from a severe bout with bronchial pneumonia. I gave him dozens of bottles of Organic Apricot Nectar from the Italian firm, BioNaturae, but he kept drinking the Diet beverages. His physicians were right to be alarmed. Anyone would suffer from the grinding schedule of New Mexico’s Senate President.

In retrospect, maybe he shouldn’t have gone to Santa Fe in the later years, and shouldn’t have carried on those 100 hour weeks. Someone suffering from cardiac impairments and later a total knee replacement, the last of his surgeries, should have retired and told stories of his accomplishments to his eight grandchildren and five great grandchildren. But not Ben Altamirano ...

It was almost as if he believed his personal powers of civility and persuasion would allow him to prevail over the Grim Reaper himself. After all, he had conquered a divisive and even embittered Legislature and six different Governors with his civility, decency, and wit. Alas, that was not to be. My own theory is that a disproportionately large number of aged and ill people die after our gluttonous holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, much as Halloween is bad for all of the children goring on sugar, candy, and junk food and much as hundreds die in auto wrecks after imbibing on New Year’s Eve.

Ben and his family no doubt welcomed the lighter load as Pro Tem, compared to the 18 years of physical draining as Senate Finance Chairman. Having grown up in the Depression in New Mexico made him glad to accept the travel and perks offered the Pro Tem, like a trip to the Netherlands to examine nuclear fuel reprocessing, and international legislative conferences in China and in California. I even warned him several times about the impact of such travel on his health.

Altamirano’s Service to New Mexico
His service to New Mexico was profound and ongoing. I won’t baste his memory with any more honorifics than those already accorded to him by his sincere and grief-stricken colleagues speaking in the Rotunda, except to say that his enduring gift of Collegial Civility will almost be everlasting, and I hope Governor Richardson will find some buildings in both Santa Fe and Silver City to name after him. Richardson prefers to bestow such honorifics on the living, when the person is still alive, and we all know that Ben Altamirano deserves this as much or more than some of those already deemed to be so worthy. He touched every single area of state government. There is housing named after him at New Mexico universities, and there is the Altamirano Leadership Conference at Luna Community College, which might be developed at all of the New Mexico state universities, in the Political Science Department or at UNM Law School. Ben would have liked that ...

Corporate Lobbyists’ Stranglehold on Legislation
I am still angry about the way that the corporations involved and their lobbyists robbed New Mexico of the powerful new Nutrition Council sponsored by Ben in 2005 and in 2006. Actually, on the strength of his great personality and power, the bill made it all the way through in 2005 passing resoundingly in both Houses, but died on the last day as a result of a long and destructive filibuster by Roswell Republican Dan Foley which in fact killed about six bills and five memorials. Throughout both years, the lobbyists leaned on Ben about this bill: he even shared with me in 2006 that particularly Coca Cola was upset with him for sponsoring such pro- consumer legislation, reminding him that they had donated many thousands of dollars to his slate of Senators for reelection, in golf tournaments and in outright direct contributions.

Like many parents with large families, he wanted all in his Legislative family to be happy, even the lobbyists, although I told him many times that if you are going to do real consumer protection to benefit the families, the poor, and the minorities of New Mexico, you are going to make some corporation angry, perhaps even several.

Ultimately, he caved into the demands of these unscrupulous lobbyists, because they too were his long time friends. The same corporations hired “friends” of Bill Richardson to be their lobbyists one year, which resulted in a 15-day delay in putting the bill on the Governor’s “call,” and in a 30-day session, a fifteen-day delay is a death knell for even the most profoundly needed legislation.

It is a bathetic and a pathetic ghastly situation in which corporate lobbyists from Ajinomoto, a Japanese company making aspartame and monosodium glutamate, can purchase their stranglehold on government, as they do in Santa Fe, in Washington, and in every international capitol, a condition that will go on and on, even as human bodies pile up from Multiple Sclerosis, Cancer, Sudden Cardiac Death from Aspartame in Diet Cokes (please take the time to read Neurosurgeon Blaylock’s alarming article on this), mesoepithelioma cancers from asbestos, brain damage from lead paint, autism from mercury in flu shots and infants’ vaccines–the list goes on and on. Not a pretty picture, is it?

Genius of Finance and Civility That He Was ...
Altamirano couldn’t remedy all of the above, but for two years, at least he tried to establish a Nutrition Council, to advise the schools, and even occasionally challenge the FDA when it was obviously dead wrong. Ben once told me he how he passed a bill in 30 minutes for the Secretary of State on the last day of one session to pay for some voting machines the legislature had previously voted to require, but had forgot to secure funding for. He personally walked the bill through the Senate Committees then over to the House, which voted on it and passed it with three minutes to spare before noon.

Altamirano’s Last Joke
His son Paul at the Memorial Service told a joke that Benny would have liked to share with his fellow legislators: a fellow was extolling the virtues of his new hearing aid to his neighbor. “I can even hear a bird chirping across the street.” “Well, that is some hearing aid.” “Yes, I can even hear a butterfly flapping its wings on the next block.” “Great! What an amazing hearing aid. What kind is it?” The fellow looked at his watch and said: “2:15.”

What a legacy Altamirano leaves. As Lt. Gov. Denish said: "Of all the people that I thought made the Senate kind of balanced, warm and welcoming, it was Ben. He was such an even-handed, upbeat, optimistic person. Someone will be appointed, but no one will ever replace him.”

What comes next in the New Mexico Senate?
Insiders as well several un-named members of the Senate speculate that what is likely to happen next is that an Interim (or "caretaker") Pro Tem President will be chosen, and later a formal election will be conducted next November. Many speculate that if the decision were based entirely on Seniority, as occurs in Senates all over the world, John Pinto (Navajo of Tohatchi) will get the job, and it would be the first time for any Native American in the state legislatures of our nation. Others wonder if Roswell's Tim Jennings, Finance Co-Chair, will press hardest for the job, yet might not because of the time it would require away from his wife, Patty, who is being treated for cancer.

Majority Leader Michael Sanchez might also be interested, although he is quite happy with the power inherent in the Majority Leader's position. Appropriately, Sanchez declined to speak of such questions of ambition after the New Year's Eve Altamirano Memorial Service in the Rotunda concluded. Still others surmise that Deming's John Arthur Smith, Finance Co-Chair, would be a likely candidate who would be acceptable to Conservative Democrats and to the Republicans, and that more might actually get accomplished with a strong conserative in the position.

We encourage all of them, particularly one of our favorite Senators, Cisco Mc Sorley of Albuquerque, Judiciary Chairman; Linda Lopez, Rules Chair; and Dede Feldman, Public Affairs Chair, all of whom are liberals and would do the job very commendably. In due course, may the best person win, and above all, may the entire 2008 Legislature refresh the unforgettable civility of Ben Altamirano!

This is a guest blog by Stephen Fox of Santa Fe. Guest blogs provide readers with an opportunity to express their views on issues relevant to DFNM and may or many not reflect our views. If you'd like to submit a piece for consideration as a guest blog, contact me by clicking on the Email Me link on the upper left-hand corner of the page.

January 3, 2008 at 11:10 AM in Guest Blogger, NM Legislature 2007, NM Legislature 2008 | Permalink