by David Edgerley Gates
I've written more than a few stories about the political climate in New Mexico, and in particular about Rio Arriba county. Rio Arriba translates to 'upriver,' just as Rio Abajo translates to 'downriver,' and back in the day of the Spanish conquest, that was all there was. These days, New Mexico comprises 33 counties, with Rio Arriba one of the largest in area, but lightest in population density, and it has a troubled history.
In living memory, there's the Tierra Amarilla courthouse siege, which I used in a Benny Salvador story. And there are other examples. Rio Arriba is a poster child, not for corruption, per se, but for a New Mexico habit of mind, the hand-in-glove, where Who You Know counts for everything.
Which brings us to Tommy Rodella, the current sheriff of Rio Arriba, and a disgrace to his office. I might have to tell this story back-asswards, so bear with me. It's an uneasy narrative, without a through-line. In other words, you have to fill in the gaps. Tommy's a slippery guy. His record shifts, like a prism, when you hold it up to the light, and it reflects the eye of the beholder. Whose ox is being gored? I don't have a dog in the fight, but Tommy Rodella's dirty. I don't have a problem saying that.
Okay. Tommy and his son just got busted by the FBI, in relation to a road-rage incident, and abuse of office. Ran a guy off the road, shoved a gun in his face, put him in handcuffs, and lied on the police report. Two sides to every story. Maybe the guy lipped off. He says he asked to see some ID, and Tommy punched him in the head with his badge. "Don't you know who I am?" Now, if it were me, I wouldn't give mouth to Tommy Rodella. I'd lose whatever teeth I had left. He's a loose cannon. Don't you know who I am? Kiss of death.
Sounds like some crazy-ass noir plot from the 1940's - cop with a hair across his ass busts a drifter climbing off a freight train - or FIRST BLOOD, drop some long-hair in the tank, and live to regret it. But unhappily for Tommy, this is the last in a long line.
Let's go back, as I said. BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK. No joke. Tommy Rodella's a once-upon-a-time state cop. Later, he gets appointed as a magistrate by former governor Bill Richardson. A pal of Tommy's gets busted for DWI. Tommy goes up to Tierra Amarilla - on a weekend, mind - and bonds the guy out. This raises some questions. Richardson, who has his own issues (pay-to-play crashes his hopes of a cabinet post with Obama), calls Tommy on it. Tommy figures he can bluff it out. The gov fires him, anyway. State supreme court backs the gov, rules Tommy is ineligible to hold office as a judge again, but then Tommy wins the primary, and gets elected sheriff. Nothing the governor can do about this, although it must chafe his ass. Richardson is trying to mend fences with the Clinton camp, and Obama. Tommy Rodella is the least of his problems. Is it even on his radar?
I grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. North Cambridge, Tip O'Neill's old district. All politics is local, he famously said. Really? You look at Boston, or Baltimore. Chicago. Machine politics. THE LAST HURRAH.
New Mexico is the back of beyond. It's a Third World country. Tommy Rodella's wife, Debbie Rodella, is a state legislator. Cheap shot, maybe, but it points up the intersection of family, and influence, and inertia. We had a mayor, she appointed her brother to the post of city manager. The new guy on the city council called her on it, and she told him, "Oh, you just got off the bus."
It's not that it's only us. That's not what I'm saying. And it's nothing new, either. It's as old as the pyramids. You know those contractors padded their invoices. Old stone, fresh slaves. Tommy's small change. Every guy like this, every cheap asshole like him, whether it's Iraq or Rio Arriba, trades on lives. No joke. The illegals in Espanola, the cartels in Mexico, the migra - all that crap? You gonna tell me we have no responsibility. Right.
Every dirty cop. Not that it's common. Like a slippery priest, not that common, either. But it gives you pause, a guy like Tommy Rodella. You know what it is? No accountability. He imagines it slides off a duck's back. Typical of New Mexico. He's a dirty secret. The back side of the so-called Land of Enchantment.
Pull up your big boy underpants. We're not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy. It's all about the shoes. I'm going to post this, and will Tommy Rodella come after me? He in fact might, the kind of guy who carries a grudge, if I even care. He can kiss my ass.
There's a long game.
We win. They lose. Doesn't seem like it, I know. Feels as if the bastards wear us down, over time. In the end, it ain't true.
They sell despair, our percentage is hope. All those Tommy Rodellas? We'll beat the ticket.