What you don’t know about the governor’s right-hand woman
by Christie Chisholm, Weekly Alibi, February 28, 2008
Diane Denish may look unassuming—cropped blond hair and frameless glasses accent a face you might recognize on your neighbor, or your friend’s mom, or your real estate agent—but throughout the last year, she’s been your acting governor more than a handful of times. As New Mexico’s lieutenant governor (her first elected position), Denish takes over when Big Bill is away, and in 2010, she may be taking over for good if she wins the race she’s already entered for his office.
But how much do you know about Denish, who could be the female governor of our state? With that question in mind, the Alibi sat down with her in her fourth-floor Roundhouse office to talk about her job, her goals for the governorship and what it means to be a woman in politics.
You announced you're going to run for governor in 2010. Have you already started raising money for that?
From the time I got elected as lieutenant governor, I continued to raise money for my re-election. And then after that I continued to raise money, at first just with the idea that I'd probably run for another office, but in order to be competitive you have to continue to raise money all the time; you have to keep asking people and re-asking so that you can build up your piggy bank.
You have more than a million dollars now.
I have about a million and a half right now that I've put away.
What's your position on public financing? They were trying to get a bill through the Legislature.
Well, let me say I have been supporting the ethics bill, which is the caps on contributions. I haven't looked at the minute details of how the public financing works, but I support that concept. We've seen it work over in Arizona.
There's lots of arguments against it in various sectors—your little tax dollar might go to somebody you didn't agree with. But in places where they've said, Well, if you don't do it they'll use it against you, that hasn't really worked either. So I think voters are smarter than people give them credit for; it does come down to the candidates.
How much time are you spending campaigning?
This year I'm spending time helping other Democrats who are running for office. I've been the chair of the Hillary Clinton campaign in New Mexico the last few weeks once the governor got out. So that's been a short-term experience. And then our whole Legislature is up for the re-election. We have three congressional seats, we have a U.S. Senate seat. So I'm going to work for the Democrats who are running for those spots more than work for myself.
I'm a superdelegate to the national convention because I'm the chair of the Democratic Lieutenant Governors Association. So I'm not campaigning to run for governor [yet]. People are confused; they think it's this year along with everything else.
It’s funny because they ran that poll in the Journal about you versus Martin Chavez.
It was three years away.
When did you decide you wanted to run for governor?
It was an evolution in the course of working with the governor and learning what the job really was. This was my first elected position, and so I didn't know if I would like it or not. I do like it, and I like the policy side of it.
What really cemented it for me was when the U.S. Senate seat came up and several people called, including Sen. Bingaman, and asked me if I would consider running for Pete Domenici's seat in the U.S. Senate. That's when I really crossed over to saying I'd rather stay here and run for governor than get in the race for the U.S. Senate and have to move to Washington. I think that solidified it for me.
What's a day in the life of a lieutenant governor?
Well, it changes if you're not in the [Legislative] Session. In the session, it's basically you're here in Santa Fe, you have meetings with people that are here to ask for their bills to be passed, you go down to the Senate floor, run the Senate. And then usually in the evening there are all kinds of community activities, like people come up here, and they have Deming Day and they have Las Cruces Day.
But then after the session and after the 20-day bill-signing period, a lot of my days consist of traveling to another community, visiting schools, visiting businesses, meetings with the legislators there, looking at what it is they come to us in the Legislature for, looking at land they want preserved, looking at their housing situation.
Is there a drastic difference in terms of the kinds of responsibilities you have when the governor is away, or is it fairly seamless?
Well, it's very seamless in that the executive secretaries really are the engine of state government. They run their agencies, so unless you have a specific agency problem, it runs pretty seamlessly. While the governor was gone we spent most of our time coordinating. He kept his hand very much in the pie here at home. So there was more packed into the days and the weeks because there were a lot of things I did that he would normally do when he was here in various communities and things like that. But other than that it just ratcheted up a notch, and it hasn't really ratcheted it down—we'll see after the session if maybe I get a week off or something.
When’s the last time you had a week off?
I had four days in June and I stayed in New Mexico—maybe I took five days—and went down to the Gila and down in southern New Mexico. I went to see my kids at Christmas. That was a four-day trip, too.
Is that ever draining, not getting to have much personal time?
Well, the truth is I try to [take off] Sundays so I can regroup. Unless there's something I really want to do, we have a standard rule here that when people invite me for thing on Sundays, the first thing is "She doesn't normally accept invitations on Sunday;" so that's a good way to manage that.
What was this last year like with the governor out campaigning and so much attention being brought to the state?
I think the state felt it. We had a lot to do while he was gone; we worked on the health care bill. We had a year, literally, of meetings and analysis going on, but everything ran in my view very smoothly, and we were all cheering for the governor from the sidelines.
Have you been involved in politics in some way for most of your life?
Since I was in my teenage years. I got involved when my dad was appointed to the Legislature because someone had passed away. Then he ran, and I stayed involved on and off. When I was raising my kids I lapsed during some period of time.
Have you ever had a secondary job? Have you worked on the side in politics?
I had my own business for 12 years. We did market research and fundraising. I had that before I was elected. But I always worked. I've always had a full-time job. I worked for a company that bought and renovated old commercial property for a period of time.
What would you do now if you weren't in politics?
If I didn't have to work, I would go back to school and get an advanced degree.
Maybe journalism, maybe English or history. Something that would have me read a lot.
You were born in Hobbs, N.M. How long did you live there?
Until I graduated from high school. Parts of my family still live there. Our family business is headquartered there. We were in the insurance business. I still call it my hometown. I graduated and went to school and graduated from UNM. Then I lived in Farmington for seven years, then came back to Albuquerque. I've lived in Albuquerque 27 years or something now. We don't have a lieutenant governor's mansion or anything.
We had our scavenger hunt last year ... [We asked readers to photograph certain people, places and items and send in their pictures for prizes, and Denish was one of the subjects.]
They came to my door.
Sorry. We thought, How did they find her?
It was one of those Sunday afternoons, really warm, and I didn't have makeup on--nothing. And she said, "We're not going to publish that picture." She promised me. [We didn’t know this, and we did publish it.]
Well, you were a really good sport about it. So what was your childhood like, growing up?
Hobbs was a community of 25,000 folks. It was very prosperous. It's an oil and gas community. I had a brother and a sister. I came from a nuclear family. Both sets of grandparents lived in our community. It was not unlike what you hear of in Northern New Mexico where the whole family lives within half a mile of each other. My dad owned his own business. My mother was a stay-at-home mom. We had one high school. Everybody knew everybody. You couldn't get in trouble because somebody would tell on you.
Did anyone ever tell on you?
I'll never forget one night I was out with these girls, and we had gone to get some gas. I can't remember what we were doing that wasn't what we were supposed to be doing. But there were like four or five of us crammed in this Corvair. The guy from the gas station came out. My friend Jan introduced him to another girl in the car. He looked in there and he goes, Well, that isn't who that is. That's [name has been omitted for privacy]. We were all like, Oh my God, he knows every one of us. Now we're really in trouble.
It was idyllic, really. It was a great place to grow up. Everybody was involved in the community. Everybody worked together to get things done. There was a lot of money in Hobbs at that time because of the oil and gas community. Then it went into a downturn for about 10 or 15 years during the ’80s. But it was still a great place to grow up—lots of fun.
Have you seen it change much?
It changed during the downturn. But now it's incredibly prosperous again. A lot of my friends still live there that I went to school with. A lot of them have actually gone back that have retired. There's a housing shortage. You can't hire people it's so busy. There’s a bakery, and she finally closed the bakery because she couldn't find people to work. She was a really good baker, this woman.
If you're elected, you'll be the first female governor in New Mexico.
What does that mean to you?
I don’t think it’s so much what it means to me—I think it’s what it means to young women and girls, because gender is still the single greatest obstacle to being elected, as we are witnessing every single day in the Democratic Party in this country.
What is it like to be a female politician right now? Do you see inequality there?
I think there’s a double standard of sorts. We have the strongest, most confident, compassionate, capable woman we’ve ever had [running for office], who on a regular basis has to be held to task for the sins of her husband, which really shouldn’t be the case. And it’s not just men that are doing it; women are clearly the problem for women.
I’ve heard Obama supporters say they won’t vote for Clinton if she gets the nomination. But their positions are almost identical. Where does that come from?
I think a lot of it has to do with—and some journalists have tried to point this out—if it was reversed, if you had a Black woman who was 47 years old, who essentially had limited experience and was talking primarily about an intangible, which is hope and change, which we’d all really like … but when you get back down to the details, if you watch the debates, Hillary really is the most substantive of the candidates. She has better command of the details and the policy issues. But if that were a Black woman 47 years old, would she be getting the same traction Barack Obama would? I’m not sure. Against a white male?
But I think there is still a different standard—maybe it’s not fair to call it a double standard—and until we have a critical mass and it’s acceptable on a very regular basis, and it’s not about being first, it’s about what you’ve done while you were there, I think it will be hard for people to really accept women on an even playing field. We only have nine women in the [state] Senate on both sides, I think. We have 42 senators.
Jerry Ortiz y Pino recently wrote a column in the paper about how little women there were in the Legislature right now.
It’s harder to get women to run—they’re more thoughtful about the decision. It’s hard being a legislator. It’s hard being away from your family for 30 days or 60 days or even bringing your family up here. But we find in the Democratic Party, we’ve been training people since they were, like, 24 or 25 to 30 or 35 to run for office. And what we’ve found out is we get ’em all trained and then life intervenes—they get married, have children. So now there’s a lot going on recruiting and training women that are 45 and older whose families are, if not grown already, now they’ve maybe been in business, they have a life, they kind of have a résumé.
What would you like to do as governor if you're elected?
I think we're going to have to continue to work on the universal health care plan and figure out the uninsured [problem]. And we're going to have to improve education. Some things we have to do are a continuation of making sure we focus our resources, mainly our financial resources.
Before I get to the governorship, I'd like to start some kind of service program in the state government to start to build the next generation of government workers. Because we have a lot of people in state government who are absolute experts, whether it's finances, the environment, regulation, whatever—they're all about ready to retire. So I'd like to start something that encourages finance majors or accounting majors to give some service to state government. I'd like to do something like that for young people so they'll stay here and live and work in New Mexico.
I'd like to see the seamlessness of higher ed and public ed really better developed so we have a workforce. Higher ed is as much about developing the workforce as it is about extending a person's education. I think we've missed the boat.