Manny Aragon: portrait of a power broker – El Jefe

Manny Aragon: portrait of a power broker – El Jefe – column

Jack Hartsfield


The telephone rang on the desk of Senate president pro tem Manny Aragon early last year, shortly before the New Mexico Legislature was to go into session.

The caller was Gov. Garrey Carruthers asking if Aragon would meet with him over a drink to discuss a few issues.

Aragon said sure, as long as the governor was buying.

The 42-year-old Aragon, a liberal South Valley Democrat, relished the thought of telling the governor he’d try to put aside a little time for the state’s number one citizen.

Aragon has risen from Tortilla Flats, once Albuquerque’s poorest neighborhood, to earn a spot on the top rungs of the ladder as one of the state’s most influential power brokers.

He likes the feeling. And, odds are business people will hear a lot more about him in the future.

But 1989 wasn’t a year Aragon, who wears another hat as Albuquerque’s municipal attorney of counsel, will remember fondly.

There was cruel irony in the telephone invitation last January from Carruthers to meet for a drink.

On September 27, Aragon was arrested in Albuquerque and charged with drunken driving, speeding, littering and failing to stay in a traffic lane.

He pleaded no contest, was fined and sentenced to attend a DWI first offender’s school.

While he likely could have dragged the matter out for years in the courts, as some powerful figures have done, Aragon chose to accept responsibility and apologize, saying in his elected position, he should be held to a higher level of accountability.

“There is no doubt that it was not only embarrassing, but it cost me a lot of personal concern,” Aragon said. “I’m sure there are people out there who may have been happy it occurred, but I think there were more people out there who may have felt some disappointment in my permitting myself to get into that situation. I think I’m dealing with it the best way I can.”

He’s controversial; he’s committed; he’s colorful; he’s outspoken and he’s tough.

“Manny Aragon is very committed to his political philosophy…extremely liberal…but he’s a tireless worker,” says Sen. Les Houston, R-Bernalillo, minority leader of the Senate. “Although he’s my friend, I don’t hesitate to try to kill him politically on the floor of the Senate on some issues.”

Whatever his troubles, Aragon has never been one to take the middle of the road in his political philosophy.

“He’s obviously a very bright individual … and a formidable adversary,” says Maralyn Budke, Carruther’s chief of staff. That kind of compliment doesn’t come lightly from the opposition camp.

Aragon, who holds a law degree from the University of New Mexico and practices law in Albuquerque, has been in the Legislature for 15 years – and his star is on the rise, regardless of a few warts that might have blemished his career.

In his years in the Senate, he’s been the architect or manipulator of more controversial issues than few before him could muster.

Earlier this year, he was involved in a controversial barroom dispute at the Bull Ring in Santa Fe with two associate prison wardens and tried to have their salaries eliminated from appropriations. He became a focal point in Ken Schultz’s unsuccessful Albuquerque mayoral bid for re-election, facing stinging criticism of the legislator’s dual role, also being the city’s attorney. He was accused of being politically in bed with X-rated porno shops in the Duke City after he drafted an agreement to allow the businesses to remain open pending appeals for zoning variances. He took heat from some Albuquerque city councilors who claimed he was responsible for dashing their options to use lodger’s tax funds to support the planned performing arts center. He was accused of conflict of interest and influence peddling when he tried first to get a federal grant, then a legislative appropriation for Community Dental Services and Child Care Inc., on which he was a member of the board of directors.

It so irritated Bernalillo County commissioner Jacquelyn Schaefer that she wanted the Legislature to pass a law against influence peddling by public officials. If the federal grant had gone through, it would have cost Bernalillo County taxpayers $50,000 in matching funds.

Aragon counters that as long as New Mexico has a citizen-legislature there will always be appearances of conflicts of interest where members get a $75 per diem and still have to make a living.

Earlier in his career, he penned proposed legislation that would have decriminalized possession of a small amount of marijuana; and, at one point, was dropped as a candidate for city attorney in Albuquerque when police intelligence files claimed in 1986 he was allegedly involved in the arms-for-drugs trade in Nicaragua, an accusation Aragon vehemently denied. He criticized police for failing to either put up or shut up.

For Aragon, son of former Albuquerque city councilor Mel Aragon, the deluge of semi-ambushes and political smokescreens are all part of New Mexico political gamesmanship.

He rolls with the punches – be it in the public or private arena.

“Manny is a person of honor,” says Ken Schultz, Albuquerque’s former mayor. “We haven’t always agreed, but we respect each other. He’s a compassionate person, a lot of times thinking of others before himself.”

Aragon detests labels.

“Whenever they make references to me as a liberal, I usually get into discussions because it doesn’t matter to me how I’m labeled as long as they recognize what I stand for,” he says. “If that’s the proper label, so be it.”

Over the years, he has championed causes in the social arena, pounding away at the low per capita income in the state, the large number of people living below the federal poverty level.

“I think that, if anything, I have tried to provide a social conscience to the New Mexico Legislature,” he says.

In the last couple of years, particularly since he became president pro tem of the Senate, Aragon has broadened his focus to economic development.

“I think it’s getting more serious and a lot worse than it was in the recent past,” says Aragon. “I think we are really hurting ourselves by not following through on many of the things that provide the basis for a new industry or new company to relocate in New Mexico. We’re getting worse by not completing the things we start. It sends off a negative message.”

Says Terri Maisel, president of the Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, “There was a time I think Manny wasn’t sensitive to issues on economic development. In the last three years, though, he’s been reaching out, looking at the climate and what has to be done. He listens. That’s his real strength.”

Aragon contends he’s only marching to the music he hears.

“I am not afraid, never have been afraid, of voting for tax increases or suggesting them on my own should I feel the need is there,” he says.

Aragon, for instance, supports the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) at Carlsbad. “I look at WIPP as a national question,” he says. “Maybe it’s not the proper way to look at it as a national issue and we’re all in it together.”

He is concerned about proper safeguards, but sees no alternative but for Carlsbad to become, at the very least, a temporary storage site for the nation’s nuclear waste. He’d like to see more federal government-funded projects, less controversial, moved to New Mexico.

“The governor has been a good caretaker, but I don’t think he’s been very innovative,” says Aragon. “I don’t think he’s ever taken many chances. With his popularity, I wish he had assisted all of us – both Democrats and Republicans – in trying to make a difference in moving New Mexico forward.”

With Albuquerque Mayor Schultz out, Aragon’s year-by-year contract with the city as attorney of counsel may or may not be renewed. The contract with a $48,000 per year cap expires in June, but has a reciprocal termination clause at any time for both parties.

“Let me tell you that that opportunity as it began was kind of bungled; got off to a bad start,” he says. “But I have found that working in that position was very enlightening, very educational. It’s helped in understanding how it works between a governmental body and a bureaucracy. Kind of a surprise.”

Schultz says Aragon took a bum rap with media bashing over claims he was a city trial attorney who never went to trial for the city.

“Calling Manny chief trial attorney for Albuquerque was never really correct,” says Schultz. “He wasn’t supposed to spend his time in court. A lot of law firms use that type of arrangement, using someone to review the work of other attorneys and play devil’s advocate.”

Aragon says if a renewal of his contract is offered, he would consider another go at it. “I would not, however, have worked for Mr. (Pat) Baca.” (Baca was defeated in the mayoral runoff by Louis Saavedra.)

Aragon claims he’s too busy with the present to devote much time to assessing his own future political ambitions while also juggling personal injury cases at the law offices of Manny Aragon and Robert Marcotte in Albuquerque.

“My private legal practice is still pretty active. I have a good caseload. It gets harder and harder every year to do it,” he says. “I could do a lot better if I put the time and effort into my law practice that I put into the Legislature.”

It doesn’t appear likely that Aragon will be vanishing into the boneyard of former politicians any time soon.

“Right now, I can’t realistically see myself seeking higher office because I don’t think I have the time to devote to it or the financial resources that would make me a viable candidate in New Mexico,” he says.

“Perhaps if that opportunity comes in the future, I would look forward to serving in any capacity I could in public service.”

Aragon, alternately described as the liberal maverick and the strongest power broker in the state, was off and running to another meeting at the Roundhouse.

Jack Hartsfield is a Santa Fe-based writer.

COPYRIGHT 1990 The New Mexico Business Journal

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