Practice makes perfect for governor

By Kate Nash
Tribune Reporter

SANTA FE — Gov. Bill Richardson strode onto the floor of the House chambers, primed to stand on the podium.

“Hey, Allan, it’s too long,” Richardson barked across rows of empty seats Monday night.

The State of the State speech he was getting set to rehearse was 37 minutes long, without applause. And Richardson wanted it cut – edited, reshaped, shorter, better.

“Come up with another word for sustainable. We’ve said that like five times,” the governor told Allan Oliver, his policy adviser and the speech’s writer.

Richardson began to follow the lead of the teleprompter, rocking himself forward and back, squinting. He read a few brightly illuminated paragraphs, then shouted “Stop.”

He had another word, another cut, another tweak. He needed another drink of water.

The only people in the audience Monday were his staff members. The only other noise in the Roundhouse was a distant vacuum cleaner, someone making a last-minute touchup before the legislative session begins today at noon.

Richardson’s rehearsal Monday was a run-through of that half hour or so shortly after noon today when he’ll have the attention of the state.

The scene in the House chambers was mostly a practice in massaging the message, crafting the to-do list against which the second-term Democratic governor will be judged until he gives his next State of State.

“I want it to be about what we want to do,” he said before he started. “I don’t want to live in the past.”

Details of the speech will be released once the session clangs to a start.

But during practice Monday night, the governor made it clear he was only looking ahead.

“Get that meth registry stuff out,” he told another staffer, Josh McNeil. “We’ve done it, get it out. We did it yesterday.”

Actually, he made that commitment to create registries of methamphetamine users and homes affected by meth fumes earlier Monday. But to Richardson, it was all in the past.

The state of the state speech is months in the making, starting last summer.

Richardson’s handful of policy advisers began outlining key initiatives for the year, to be highlighted in the address.

As it got closer to delivery day, Oliver and Richardson spokesman Gilbert Gallegos started stringing together the main points Richardson wanted to tout. The governor doesn’t have someone solely dedicated to speechwriting, Gallegos said.

Then the authors decided on the extras, the details that would liven the talk and make what the governor said more personal.

“We’re still deciding whether we want to make news in the State of the State,” Gallegos said last week. “Do we want to highlight a teacher, a family who had a member killed by DWI, a single mom?”

That’s the kind of stuff journalists love; real people who would be affected by whatever proposal the governor is pitching.

That’s not by accident, of course. Gallegos worked as a reporter for The Albuquerque Tribune for nine years, covering education and, when he was hired by Richardson, politics. He has a degree in journalism and political science from the University of New Mexico. He’s one of several former reporters working for the governor.

Oliver previously worked for Lt. Gov. Diane Denish and for Democratic attorney general candidate Geno Zamora. He has a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University.

He also was on the receiving end of many of Richardson’s jabs Monday as he, Chief of Staff James Jimenez and re-election chairman Dave Contarino went over the speech, less than a day before it was to be delivered.

Richardson rarely gives his staff praise in public, but said when he finished with the rehearsal, he said he was pleased with the speech.

Along with the nuts and bolts of the State of the State, the speech also needed flavor: how many pauses, how much humor, how best to start and end.

With Richardson, there was also a question of how much Spanish to blend in with his oration. As on his election commercials on TV, he typically throws into his speeches a few phrases known even to non-bilingual New Mexicans. The speech will be translated for Spanish-language media.

Today marked Richardson’s fifth time giving the address to a packed room.

But many of those setting the stage Monday night have practiced this script for years.

House Sergeant-at-Arms Gilbert Lopez, whose work is key in getting the House ready for its big day, has worked at the Capitol for almost 20 years.

While Richardson prepared for his big event, the staffers who work for Lopez must dress the House floor as well.

And, it takes some outside touches. A florist buzzed about Monday, setting yellow roses, pink carnations, lilies and daisies on the rostrum. Richardson’s podium got a strand of ivy. All the representatives’ nametags were in place, the spelling of freshman legislators’ names checked and double-checked.

Lopez had 170 wooden chairs for staffers to set up, then rose-colored, cushioned chairs, and then whatever they could find by pilfering through committee rooms in the floors above the House, which is in the basement of the Capitol.

By noon, some 450 people will crowd in.

This year, Richardson’s speech was expected to be shorter than any in the past. It also had fewer jokes.

Because he’s considering a presidential bid, he knew he was likely drawing more attention this year – and not just on his words.

Published Jan. 16, 2007.