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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Martinez Attacks Denish Over ‘Waste’

Republican Susana Martinez bashes her opponent, Democrat Diane Denish, over unemployment, the state jet and a Christmas card in her latest ad in New Mexico’s gubernatorial campaign. While some of the accusations contain grains of truth, the ad presents little evidence to back up its broad charge that Denish, who is currently the state’s lieutenant governor, and retiring Gov. Bill Richardson "wasted millions."

The spot, which began airing July 22, opens with a shot of Richardson and Denish, the words "56,900 jobs lost" highlighted on the screen above them. We found this claim to be slightly exaggerated. The Martinez campaign provided backup documents that generated these numbers, but those documents were outdated, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The latest data show that employment fell from a peak in September 2008 of 848,800 to 793,200 in June 2010 in New Mexico. That’s a drop of 55,600.

Jet ‘Abuse’?

The next claim is that Richardson and Denish "abused the state jet." This is based on a news story in the Albuquerque Journal that ran Jan. 20. It did say that Denish took 12 flights during the last half of 2009 — including one on which she was the only passenger to an energy conference in Las Cruces, and another costing $1,482 to the Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial parade in Gallup.

The story said her office had paid $170,000 for the use of state planes since the start of 2003. The New Mexico Governor’s office confirmed that $170,000 figure for us.

In the Journal article, Joshua Rosen, Denish’s chief of staff, defended that number, arguing that Denish traveled to events meant to help small-business owners access capital. He also added that Denish frequently needs to meet with New Mexicans across the state.

Do the lieutenant governor’s travels about the state constitute "abuse"? We’ll leave that to the judgment of New Mexicans.

Christmas Cards

Finally, the Martinez ad accuses Denish of spending federal stimulus funds on campaign Christmas cards. There’s some truth to that.

Last November, journalist Jim Scarantino, writing for a watchdog website owned by the free-market Rio Grand Foundation, accused Denish of using federal stimulus funds for, among other things, "a driver to shuttle her to meetings and press events, a contractor to take Christmas pictures and write Christmas cards, a lawyer to make hotel reservations, opinion polling and public relations services." A week later the Albuquerque Journal reported that Denish would reimburse the state public relations work done in 2003 and 2004 "after her office determined the work could be perceived as unrelated to state business." The total was $790.

The newspaper said the money being repaid was for work done by contract worker Lauren Cowdrey on political press releases and some other political work — but not for work she did preparing Christmas cards. The Journal quoted Denish’s spokesman as saying the Christmas card work was for what the newspaper called "a Christmas open-house event that included homeless children." The printing of the cards — though initially billed to Denish’s state office — had been reimbursed with a check for $3,666.90 from her reelection committee, according to documents supplied to us by the Denish campaign. That was back in 2004, before public questions were raised.

Incidentally, the stimulus funds in question were not from the bill President Obama signed last year, but from an earlier stimulus bill dating back to the Bush administration: the 2003 Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act.

‘Wasted Millions?’

So what of the ad’s overarching claim that Richardson and Denish "wasted millions" running the state? That claim is unsupported.

Even if every dollar that Denish spent using a state plane could be called wasteful, that still only amounts to $170,000. Add in — for the sake of argument — all $225,000 that Denish’s office received in federal stimulus money, and the total still comes to $395,000. That’s a pretty far cry from "millions."

When we asked the Martinez campaign where its "millions" claim comes from, a spokesman responded, saying:

Martinez spokesman: The Richardson/Denish administration increased spending by over $2 BILLION. The jet itself cost taxpayers $5.5 million. The state used to own a King Air before the Richardson/Denish administration decided to upgrade to a Jet.

Even if those figures are accurate, the Martinez campaign hasn’t shown that they were "waste." Martinez’s ad, as aired, is a long way from making its case on that score.

–by Lara Seligman