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Both candidates achieved their goals during debate

Susana Martinez (left, courtesy photo) and Diane Denish (Photo by Heath Haussamen)

Both candidates for governor accomplished what they set out to do during their first debate on Thursday.

Democrat Diane Denish successfully appeared to be a strong defender of public schools and raised doubts about Republican Susana Martinez’s support for them. Speaking before hundreds of educators, Denish was convincing in trying to rally a crowd already friendly to her to actively help her win the race.

Martinez spoke to a more general audience with a message about school choice, accountability and protecting taxpayer dollars. In a year in which the pendulum is swinging to the right and people are concerned about the economy and believe the government is failing them, she was convincing in her harsh criticism of Denish and the status quo.

The different approaches were apparent in the way the candidates attacked each other. Denish spoke in the third person about Martinez to the audience of 400 people – many of them public school educators.

“My opponent – she’s not being straight with you. For months she has advocated a voucher program, taking public money out of public schools and putting it into private schools. Today she wants you to think it’s something else,” Denish told the audience. “…New Mexicans are tired of that double speak.”

Martinez, on the other hand, attacked Denish directly, looking right at her and speaking to her.

“Diane, you took office in 2003 and you said, ‘Hold me accountable for our graduation rates; hold me accountable, because we expect all children to read by the time they are in the third grade,’” Martinez said. “…I am holding you accountable, Diane. … You have failed our kids.”

Because she spoke directly to Denish, Martinez’s attacks appeared more vicious, but it was Denish who took the first shot during her opening statement. The back-and-forth sparring continued throughout the debate and colored it.

Martinez at Thursday’s debate (screen shot taken from KNME-TV’s webcast)

Martinez and vouchers

Denish repeatedly hit Martinez on the voucher issue. I’ve already reported that Martinez has moved away from the traditional vouchers she advocated during the primary. When Denish accused Martinez of lying for claiming that her plan wouldn’t take money from public education, I was surprised that Martinez didn’t simply explain why she’s moved away from her initial position.

Denish effectively used Martinez’s own words against her:

“So on the voucher issue, here’s Susana’s words: ‘The money should follow the child,’” Denish said. “…If you don’t remember that Susana, watch YouTube.”

That was something Martinez said at a forum during the primary. Martinez still supports vouchers for students with disabilities, but not for all other students. Instead, she’s proposing tax credits for people who donate to organizations that provide scholarships for poor children who want to attend a different school. Martinez, like Denish, now pledges not to cut funding for public education.

Why not just say she’s changed her mind and explain why? Instead, Martinez said this:

“You know Diane, you can say it over and over again and it’s not going to make it true. It’s not going to make it true,” Martinez said. “…I want private funding to be available to our children who are trapped in failing public schools.”

Denish and Richardson

Denish at Thursday’s debate (screen shot taken from KNME-TV’s webcast)

Similarly, I was surprised that Denish didn’t try to distance herself from Gov. Bill Richardson when Martinez attacked the “failures” of the Richardson administration. Martinez said more than once that Denish was “at the front of the table chairing the Richardson/Denish reform” on education. She gave Denish credit for more influence and power than Denish actually had as lieutenant governor.

As I’ve reported on a separate issue, that’s in part because Denish has exaggerated her own importance over the years.

The attack was part of Martinez’s repeated efforts to tie Denish to the governor by pointing out statistics and claim that the reforms of the Richardson years have failed. Denish didn’t try to distance herself from Richardson at all. And when Martinez took a shot at Denish for her frequent use of the state jet to travel to the state’s rural communities, Denish defended it.

“You don’t have to fly an expensive jet to get there,” Martinez said. “Those are wasted dollars that our kids could be benefiting from.”

Denish’s response was that Martinez “might not think it’s important to visit those communities… but I believe it’s important.”

Style and substance

Neither candidate is a brilliant debater. On Thursday, Denish needed to address Martinez directly more and Martinez needed to address the audience more. Martinez’s direct attacks gave her the appearance of someone who’s passionate, but she needed to do more to engage the audience in that passion. Denish’s third-person attacks made her appear calm and cool, but I wanted to see more passion from her.

There’s a balance between the tactics the candidates took that would have been beneficial to both.

Martinez has improved dramatically since the primary, when her debate and forum appearances weren’t impressive. Though I think Denish had a slight advantage at the end of Thursday’s debate, Martinez showed that she can go toe-to-toe with the lieutenant governor.


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In July, I wrote that Martinez’s plans and positions needed more substance. On education, she showed during the debate that she has ideas about how she would reform education and she can speak intelligently about them.

Denish, who has had years of practice in developing nuanced views on education issues, came across as very knowledgeable.

In closing

Denish had the better closing statement – dropping a bomb in pointing out that Martinez failed to vote in a school election in 2003. Denish said she appreciates Martinez’s “newfound” respect for funding public education, but said Martinez “didn’t care enough about education in September 2003 to go to the polls and vote.”

That’s one people will be talking about. And it’s one to which Martinez didn’t get to respond because Denish intentionally saved it for her final statement.

Martinez’s closing statement was one of the few times when she addressed the audience:

“If you’re satisfied with New Mexico being 49th in the nation in education – she’s right. Vote for Diane Denish,” Martinez said.

Then she went back to speaking directly to Denish.

“It’s immoral that we don’t have a higher achievement level for the hundreds of millions that have been spent,” Martinez said. “…Frankly Diane, you need a pink slip. We need a change.”

Looking for some fact-checking of claims made during the debate? Click here. And if you missed the debate, you can watch it here.

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14 comments so far. Scroll down to submit your own comment.

  1. Hemingway

    I looked at your numbers and I like the link, but amigo they show NM to be in bad shape.

    Public Unions should be banned

  2. Both candidates seem to want to “reduce administration costs and put more money into the classroom.” Let’s start with the moderator for the evening – APS Superintendent Winston Brooks. He makes a “base salary” of $260,000?

  3. Governor Richardson despite his shortcoming hit the nail on the head when he said of Martinez: “All she can do is make false claims about my record and continually get her facts wrong. Voters will see through her attempt to hide her support for school vouchers and her ultimate desire to cut classroom spending.”

    Ms. Martinez and her Republican cohorts want VOUCHERS! From the debate you can tell Ms. Martinez has absolutely no understanding of PUBLIC EDUCATION.

  4. Ched – of course the union protects incompetant teachers – they pay dues. The NEA, AFT, and others aren’t in the business of education – frankly, they could care less – but they ARE in the business of increasing funding to teachers (good or bad) and keeping their own jobs in the union. Kids and education, as you would like to see it, are not part of their business but it part of their cover and the ruse to raise their funding.

    Hemingway – NM is dead last in math and science. Richardson has been a failure as ‘the education governor’ – like the teacher unions, his business had nothing to do with education and everything to do with creating a presidential aura that – thankfully (the aura) – failed. Denish cares, but can’t duck the fact she sold out to ensure she had a seat at the table … ironic that she kept her mouth shut. While she is not responsible for the mismanagement and corruption of the Ricardson administration, she is responsible for her lack of character in not exposing it and for helping to ensure NM education are more about jobs than educating our youth.

    As for the debate … Martinez illustrated that she really doesn’t know a whole lot about education – but she has passion and fire in the belly. She is smart – she can learn (unfortunately, she’ll do that ‘on the job’). Denish knows a little more than Martinez (which we should expect since she has been on-the-job for eight years), and she did a better job in the debate. One problem Denish has, however, is that she is boring and uninspiring … not a good thing in a governor for a State in Crisis. And APS – thanks for putting it on … you should be ashamed of the small, cramped venue for such an important event … which is illustrative of the lack of foresight and vision that has been inbred in APS … for excluding broad press coverage … for excluding people who showed up at the door when there were still vacant seats. A public event in a public building … shame on you.

    Thanks for your comments Heath – wish you could have been there.

  5. greenchili

    Teacher unions do not protect bad teachers; they protect rules that must be followed to fire teachers. Bad teachers can sometimes take advantage of the rules. There are no bad teachers who still have jobs unless the rules to fire them were not followed.

    The leading reason for not being able to fire bad teachers is administrators too incompetent to adequately document their bad teaching.

    What possible reason could teacher unions have to protect bad teachers?

  6. Oops……I forgot to address the fact that it was obvious that Denish was pandering to the teacher’s Union…..the same Union that protects incompent teachers.

    NM education system needs COMPETITION! We need vouchers for all students located in incompetent schools. If the Superintendent can’t fire incompetent Principals of low ranked schools, then we need vouchers. Obviously, Martinez is scared of the teacher’s Union. Note that good schools should be exempt from vouchers, i.e. they can accept students with vouchers, but they can’t lose students (exemption).

    I speak from experience as I helped my grown daughter move her daughter into a more competent school. The two Principals handled the transfer as they knew that my granddaughter’s case would have been elevated to the Superintendent (I used to make my living as a negotiator).

    The incompetent teacher is still employed. This is one reason why we are at the bottom of the national rankings.

  7. Regardless of what some say, I’ve read articles about NM education nationwide ranking. We are at or near the bottom of the list. Hemingway’s link to NCES doesn’t even address the national ranking.

    Martinez addressed ONE of the critical reasons WHY this state is in the red. She addressed the fact that we were spending a lot of money educating Mexican citizens (aka illegal aliens) without the support of the Federal Government who has FAILED to secure our borders. She stated that we need to go after the Feds for appropriate funding.

    She could also use the same argument for Medicaid Funding.

    And she lost the debate? Give me a break!!!!

  8. Only Heath thinks it is a good thing for Denish to distance herself from Richardson. He actually helped this state’s educational system dig itself out of a deep hole compared to the other states. Denish would keep that school improvement momentum going.

  9. Hemingway,

    It would be a lot easier to take you seriously if you could control your vitriol.

    What happened, did a “repubklican” (sic) run over your dog or something?

  10. Actually Susanna should take credit for the passage of the Brianna Bill. Susanna arranged for a contingent of people to be in Santa Fe to support the bill and to let our Legislators know that this was a bill that was important and needed to be passed. Senator Garcia introduced the bill and when she was through speaking no one knew what she was talking about and the bill was in danger of failing. Susanna then spoke and cleared up all of the inaccuracies that Senator Garcia presented and made it clear the intent of the bill. The bill would have never passed if it had just been Senator Garcia alone.

  11. I am surprised that Ms. Martinez didn’t mention Baby Briana in the debate like in her repetitive TV ad. She takes total credit for the legislation that resulted. In 2005 it was Mary Jane Garcia In 2005 that was legislative leader that got passage of SB 166, a bill known as the “Baby Briana Bill” It created life sentences for child abuse resulting in death. Thank you, Ms. Garcia for getting this bill passed despite the fact Ms. Martinez claims all credit!

  12. Ms. Martinez supports vouchers from this video:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gIFSP5whWBg

    Now she is backtracking. If she is elected governor she will change her mind again since all her repubklican buddies support it. I guess you can’t believe what you hear from these politicians. As a Republican she should be concerned about violating the Constitution. The voucher program subverts the constitutional principle of separation of church and state and threatens to undermine public education.

  13. Susanna Martinez achieved the goal of being as vague as humanly possible while dishing out red meat rhetoric to her conservative base a la Sarah Palin. Martinez was repeticious, rambling, condescending, and clearly out of her league. For a lawyer, who should be able to think on her feet, she stunk to high heaven.

  14. Despite the soundbites of Ms. Martinez – here is a more accurate assessment of New Mexico education by National Center for Education Statistics:

    http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/states/

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