Santa Fe, NM – It's official. New Mexico will lose one of the longest-serving U-S Senators in the state's history at the end of next year. Democrat Jeff Bingaman put an end to weeks of speculation today, announcing that he will not seek a sixth term in the Senate.
Over the years, Bingaman has, from time to time, been compared to Mr. Smith, who you might remember, went to Washington; in Hollywood, anyway; an earnest, plain-spoken, accessible kind of guy. So on Friday afternoon, even in the seconds before what was sure to be a difficult announcement for him, there he was at a podium at the Hotel Andaluz in Albuquerque, helping a journalist retrieve a piece of equipment that had fallen into some cracks somewhere.
It was vintage Bingaman. As was the understated announcement that followed.
Bingaman: At the end of this Congress, I believe it will be the right time for me to step aside and allow someone else to serve the state. It's not easy to get elected to the Senate. It's obviously not easy to make the decision to leave the Senate.
Bingaman said much important work remains to be done in the Senate, but
Bingaman: That will undoubtedly be true at the end of every future Congress as well. I think the simple truth is there's no ideal time to leave the Senate.
Bingaman, a Silver City native, got his start in the U-S Senate in 1983, and is now 67 years old, so there's been plenty of talk about whether he might retire. He said he and his family, his wife Anne and son John, miss New Mexico, and never meant to make Washington a permanent home. So they'll move back to Santa Fe.
Bingaman: We've cherished the time we've been able to spend in New Mexico during the nearly three decades since I went to serve in the Senate. And at the end of this term we look forward to once again living in New Mexico and pursuing other challenges.
Bingaman said he hasn't yet defined what those other challenges will be, adding there are still 22 months left in the current Congress, and he hopes to make progress on boosting the economy, passing energy legislation and re-writing the elementary and secondary education act. Questions at the press conference quickly turned to who would replace Bingaman. He said while the voters would decide that
Bingaman: I think the D's will hang on to my seat, and I'm gonna do all I can of course to ensure that this remains a Democratic seat.
With his departure, Bingaman will take with him seniority New Mexico had built up in the Senate. He chairs of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and sits on the Finance and Health Committees. But Bingaman says his fellow Senator Tom Udall also has lots of seniority, having been a House member for ten years as well. Several weeks ago, Bingaman told KUNM that contentiousness in the Senate was troubling him a bit. He didn't echo that comment Friday. But UNM political science professor and Center for Democracy Director Lonna Atkeson says Bingaman is part of a dwindling group of moderates.
Atkeson: In the aggregate in the Senate, I do think that that's true, again it's part of this partisan polarization process we've seen over the last, you know, thirty years really, where we've seen elites really be more extreme in their viewpoints, less moderate. You know, certainly there's been that ongoing change in the Senate.
She says it's significant that Bingaman isn't choosing to stay around Washington and lobby, as many of his former colleagues have. Reaction to Bingaman's announcement was consistent. Governor Susana Martinez called him -quote- "an upstanding man of character who has served his state with great honor and distinction" -unquote-. Former Lieutenant Governor Diane Denish said he has, in her words, a "thoughtful and respectful way of doing business" and has been one of the most effective U-S Senators in history. His New Mexico colleague in the Senate, Tom Udall, praised his work on energy policy, healthcare, and environmental protection, calling him a friend and mentor. Bingaman's choice did surprise some, especially given that recent polls showed him with a clear advantage in the 2012 race if he did decide to run. But some, like Bingaman's one-time state director Terry Brunner, said the decision suited his former boss.
Brunner: Jeff has always been an independent guy and does what he thinks is best, and I knew that he'd make the right decision for himself and that's what this is about. He's had a long career in the Senate and he's been very effective, and I think he's got enough time for another act in his life here and something else he can do to contribute to New Mexico.
And Bingaman will be missed by some state lawmakers, as well. Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez said Bingaman brings to his relationship with state lawmakers and the governor the same level-headedness he has in Washington.
Sanchez: You could always count on him to be less contentious and try to calm people down. You know, he rose in the ranks and eventually ended up the chair of the enviorment committee. And you don't do that just by being there. He was very articulate, he kept people calm, and he had some very good ideas and he worked well with former Senator Pete Domenici, and I think that bodes well for him as well.
So now what? Lonna Atkeson names former Governor Gary Johnson as a good Republican candidate for Bingaman's seat in 2012. Former Congresswoman Heather Wilson is also a strong possibility. She also says amongst Democrats, Representatives Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Lujan could run, as might former Lieutenant Governor Diane Denish. But also, she says, don't rule out former Governor Bill Richardson, who might be looking for an opportunity to answer some criticism aimed at him in the governor's race last year.
Atkeson: You know I think that he could re-make his popularity in a couple of years depending how the economy moves and what happens.
In terms of popularity, though, Bingaman will likely leave office near the top of his game. Asked at the end of the press conference, in Spanish, how his decision felt, he answered that it was difficult, but important for his family and then Mr. Smith was back.
Bingaman: I better stop at that, I'm sure I'll foul up if I try any more...