Inside the Capitol

Friday, September 29, 2006

10-4 Murder Near the Crosses

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- Can you imagine Santa Fe as the world's gambling capital? Or Las Vegas, Nevada as a dusty, little desert town, a fraction the size of Las Vegas, New Mexico?
It almost happened. Were it not for the brutal murder of a young waitress in Las Cruces and an outrageous cover-up attempt by the local sheriff, the Land of Enchantment likely would be very different today.
In the late 1940s, the Cleveland Mob decided to expand its gambling operation to New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada.
Bugsy Siegel was sent to scout around. He chose the little town of Las Vegas, Nevada to build a hotel and casino he called the Flamingo. It was a $5 million bust.
So he set his sights on the much more attractive town of Santa Fe that already was teeming with tourists. He found New Mexico's politicians friendly and easy to buy.
Soon he set up gambling dens in other resort towns like Ruidoso, Eagle Nest and Red River. He also found a friendly political climate in Dona Ana County. He opened a hotel in Radium Springs and three gambling halls in Anapra, on the border with Texas and Mexico.
He learned that state politicos loved to escape to Las Cruces, away from the glare of publicity in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. And he found the county sheriff, Happy Apodaca, extremely accommodating. Soon the big boys from Cleveland were visiting New Mexico and making friends in the state capital.
But in the spring of 1949, the good times began to change with the murder of Cricket Coogler, a favorite girlfriend of the Santa Fe politicos. The murder was tragic but what infuriated the public even more was the incredibly botched job of investigating it.
Everyone assumed that Sheriff Apodaca was covering up for his political friends who wanted Cricket out of the way because they had talked too much around her at their wild parties.
The story that circulated for 50 years among politicos was that she accidentally was run over when she jumped out of a car full of top state officials headed for party time in Anapra.
But that may not be what happened, according to a new book by Peter Sandman, the son of a deputy sheriff who continued investigating the murder, gambling and political corruption on his own, long after the case was closed.
As Roy Sandman was getting close to solving the case in April 1953, he was murdered gangland style. He also knew too much. So Cricket Coogler's murder remains unsolved.
But after poring over his father's notes and diaries, Sandman feels he can identify the killer, which he does in "Murder Near the Crosses," from Barbed Wire Publishing, in Las Cruces.
Ironically, Sandman doesn't tie Coogler's presumed killer to corrupt politicians or to the mob. It was a brutal sex murder that the sheriff likely would have solved if he wouldn't have been so busy trying to protect the politicians he presumed were responsible.
But Sandman thinks the politicians bungled their attempt. He thinks Coogler expected the politicians to kill her and she fled them into the car of someone she knew and thought she could trust.
Although the murder remains unsolved, it precipitated events that ended the Mafia's attempt to take over New Mexico. It also ended some political careers. Ed Mechem, a Las Cruces attorney became the first Republican governor in 20 years by vowing to wipe out gambling.
There were other heroes too. A citizen-called grand jury ignored the district attorney and conducted its own gambling raids. The state Supreme Court chief justice and a district judge, both from Roswell, stepped in and "virtually kidnapped the executive branch of state government," as Sandman put it.
Sandman spent many years obtaining and scrutinizing FBI files and court documents. He names those his father thought were crooked and identifies those he could trust.
The book is a stranger-than-fiction look at an era of New Mexico political corruption that rivals the Santa Fe Ring of the late 1800s.
WED, 10-04-06

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)


Tuesday, September 26, 2006

10-2 Lottery Scholarship $ Enriching Others?


SANTA FE -- New Mexico's state lottery turns out to be an even bigger rip-off than we thought.
From the beginning we knew our chances of winning the big one are something like one in 80 million. For some reason that wasn't enough so they added some more numbers we could choose and the odds went up from astronomical to something like our chance of being a victim of terrorism.
So why would anyone ever want to play the lottery? When they advertise a $100 million prize, that's only if you wait 40 years to get it all. If you want it now, figure on about half that amount. Then Uncle Sam gets his cut off the top which leaves you with about $33 million.
That's nothing to sneeze at but it's not much compared to the odds against winning. You can do better at an Indian casino and they're not known for their generosity. But you can find bets in casinos in which the house advantage is less than one percent.
In New Mexico's version of the Powerball lottery, players get 56 percent of the of the amount bet. Operating costs are 20 percent and the remaining 24 percent goes to college student scholarships. That means it takes $76 to raise $24 for the students.
Over 40 states and territories participate in the Powerball lottery. So we can make comparisons with the experience of other states. Some states have tried monkeying with the percentage that goes to winning players.
But for some reason, when the winning percentage drops to near 50 percent, many players drop out. When the odds of winning are so high to begin with, it really shouldn't make much difference if the winning amount is reduced slightly. But it does.
It is reducing operating costs that makes the big difference, though. That's where other states are saving money that could be going into New Mexico college scholarships. Only four states spend more on administering their lottery than New Mexico.
Obviously, there are some benefits to size. The states with the lowest administrative costs are the biggies. But all of the states that are smaller than us also have lower administrative costs than we do. That means New Mexico has a lot of fat that it needs to trim.
Think New Mexico, a results-oriented think tank that has been responsible for a number of advances in our state, recently issued a study of the New Mexico lottery's operating costs and discovered several areas that need attention. And there is some urgency.
Unless our high operating and administrative costs are sufficiently cut in the next five years, the lottery will not generate sufficient money to fully fund all the students eligible for lottery scholarships.
The first step is for the state to re-bid the contract with its online vendor, GTech, which receives 8.52 percent of sales, while similar states pay as low as 2.16 percent. That can't be done immediately because the contract runs through late 2008.
The last time the contract came due, it was extended for another five years, without re-bidding. GTech agreed to a reduction from 10.35 percent, at that time, making it look like a good guy. But it isn't.
GTech originally got the business on a sole-source contract. In states where GTech has faced competition, it has agreed to contracts as low as 2.99 percent in Idaho. Not surprisingly, GTech had lobbyists at the New Mexico Legislature advocating for the original state lottery.
It is time for GTech to get out of New Mexico unless it cleans up its act quickly. That might be possible. The Rhode Island company is being bought by a multinational corporation based in Italy. The sale would create the world's biggest lottery operator.
Might that mean a better citizen of the lottery business or an even bigger, greedy giant? We need to know soon because student scholarships are running out of money.


Friday, September 22, 2006

Out of the office

Back on 9/28.  10/2 column will be posted by then.  I'll have laptop with me most of the time.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

9-29 College Kids Are Investing Our Money

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- College students are about to start investing some of New Mexico's permanent funds. And why not? It's probably a great idea.
We're told they will be doing it under very close scrutiny of business professors and state investment officials. That's a darn sight better than what some state officials have been doing with our money the last several years.
Gov. Bill Richardson and former Gov. Garrey Carruthers jointly announced this month that students at the University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University will begin managing two $5 million portfolios of state permanent funds in publicly traded stocks and bonds.
Carruthers, who now is dean of the NMSU business school, says that instead of professors making up problems for students, they will get to solve real problems.
UNM already allows students to invest a $2 million chunk of the university's endowment. The school also is nearing completion of a full-service "trading floor," complete with stock tickers and Bloomberg terminals. NMSU plans a similar operation.
Actually, I wouldn't mind these students investing some of my portfolio. I'm sure they can do as well as any of my stockbrokers have done over the years.
To be honest, I haven't listened to a broker's advice in almost six years. When the 2000 election finally was decided in George Bush's favor, I figured he was bound to treat his old buddies well.
And since most of his buddies were in oil and gas, that's where I transferred most of my portfolio, over the strong objections of my broker, of course.
He's nice to me about it, now, and says he's very glad I've done so well. To tell the truth, I've done very well. That's how we've been able to take so many great trips recently.
And I'm about to do some more politically-guided investing. After reading that over $3 million has been put into television advertising for the 1st Congressional District race, I'm wondering why I didn't put the rest of my portfolio into broadcast TV long ago.
Oh well, we'll have a presidential race starting in just a few months and that is sure to keep TV stations in hog heaven.
* * *
In that 1st Congressional District race, Rep. Heather Wilson and Attorney General Patricia Madrid had their first face-off at Temple Albert, the scene of many such events over the decades.
Wilson made the more polished presentation. She has improved considerably since her first race in 1998. Both candidates presented their positions effectively, but we didn't learn much new and neither candidate gained or lost ground. Voters seem to have polarized on this race already. That $3 million of TV ads won't change many votes.
Although this debate wasn't televised, it might as well have been because there were cameras there and footage is being run on two Albuquerque stations and in the blogosphere.
It is Madrid who doesn't want many debates. It likely won't hurt her since neither candidate has much to gain from debates. But a bad slip could really hurt.
* * *
We've recently lost two ladies from the political world who were highly regarded in New Mexico. Gov. Ann Richards was a Texan but she liked New Mexico, especially Santa Fe, which she visited often.
She enjoyed expressing her affinity toward our state by referring to the number of times Texas tried to invade us before we became a state. Now, she said, we're just trying to buy up all your land.
Richards liked to hide out when she came to Santa Fe, but someone was always recognizing her in a gallery or restaurant and prevailing on her to appear before a group.
The other lovely lady who left us was Marjorie Bell Chambers of Los Alamos, the first woman to run for lieutenant governor and the first Republican woman to run for Congress. She lost both, but her fame came from the many positions in which she served both governors and presidents, Republican and Democrat.
FRI, 9-29-06

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)


Wednesday, September 20, 2006

9-27 It's Railroad over Spaceport With Public

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- Surprise, surprise. By almost a 2-1 margin, New Mexicans said they would prefer to spend $400 million on a railroad than $100 million on a spaceport.
In results that surprised pollster Brian Sanderhoff and undoubtedly many others, 59 percent of New Mexicans said they liked the idea of commuter rail between Belen and Bernalillo, and eventually to Santa Fe, while only 35 percent supported a spaceport in southern New Mexico.
A pleased state Transportation secretary Rhonda Faught said it shows people want to be able to get to work and to cultural events without driving. The people Faught is talking about are those who live in Albuquerque's northern and southern suburbs -- and that's it.
Eventually, the commuter rail will reach Santa Fe, which will benefit many Albuquerque commuters. But as Santa Feans know, that will be many years.
The reason our capital city doesn't already have a railroad is that the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe gave up on Santa Fe and built its tracks to Albuquerque.
That was 1880. In 2006, Santa Fe is just as good at discouraging development as it ever was. We're too precious for such things.
Why would the rest of New Mexico support commuter rail for the Albuquerque metro area? I can't imagine, but I hope Albuquerqueans are properly appreciative of their country cousins.
Maybe it's that people understand railroads and think they might ride this one some day, while a spaceport is too futuristic and out of the question as far as a trip to anywhere is concerned.
Economic Development secretary Rick Homans, who handles the spaceport development, says he had expected many skeptics. "Last year," Homans said, "we had a lot of skeptics in the Legislature, but once they met the players, saw the technology and understood it, in the end, we got near unanimous support."
The results surprise me too. I see much more economic development potential from a spaceport that will bring in space industries and space tourists capable of spending big money while training in New Mexico.
Of course, railroads, we know. A spaceport could be a bust for any number of reasons.
But then, when two geeky-looking college dropouts walked into an Albuquerque bank, one of them wheeling a bicycle, and asked for a $35,000 loan, back in 1978, who would have bet their company with a funny name and an incomprehensible product was destined to grow beyond belief?
Maybe the spaceport is a longshot. But think of how many Albuquerqueans with $35,000 to spare wish they could have run across those two boys on a bicycle back in 1978. And when Richard Branson and Paul Allen (It was his bike.) are involved in a project, it's more than pie in the sky.
Space tourism is getting another boost, with the fourth space tourist visit to the International Space Station. Anousheh Ansari paid $20 million to the Russians to ride a Soyuz rocket for an eight-day visit to space.
The name Ansari might sound familiar. She put together the financing for the $10 million Ansari X Prize competition to get the first space vehicle 65 miles above the earth.
The prize was claimed two years ago by a Burt Rutan vehicle, financed by Paul Allen. As soon as New Mexico's spaceport is ready, yearly X Prize competitions will be held there. Meanwhile they will be hosted at the Las Cruces airport.
NASA fought hard to keep Dennis Tito, the first space tourist from going to the space station on a Russian rocket, claiming that untrained amateurs would be a detriment to the program. After being reminded that it had sent up politicians with little training, NASA finally dropped its objections.
Space scientists claim that sending humans into space is merely for show, anyway, the real science being accomplished by unmanned missions already flying throughout the solar system and beyond.
WED, 9-27-06

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)


Tuesday, September 19, 2006

9-25 Does Pete Really Mean It?

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- Rejoice. Gasoline prices have gone back down and everyone is happy.
Well, almost everyone. Democratic strategists think it was something the White House manipulated for the coming election. And U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici is not too sure that lower oil and gas prices are healthy for the nation in the long term.
Pete's for high oil prices? That's impossible. No politician in his right mind would do that. But political blogger Joe Monahan says our senator advanced the idea last month in the Congressional Quarterly magazine.
Domenici has long been an advocate of energy independence. I can remember speeches of his dating back to the early days of his 33-year Senate career in which he proposed ways of getting out from under the thumb of the "OPECers."
Now, as chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Domenici has more power than anyone in the country to influence energy policy.
Pete never has been particularly big on conservation as a solution to energy independence. his solutions have been in the areas of opening more domestic oil and gas production and bolstering alternative energy sources.
His biggest push has been in the area of revitalizing the nuclear power industry, which fell into disfavor after the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl incidents. Since then, nuclear safety technology has improved to the extent we are told there will be no such problems in the future.
The biggest problem remaining with nuclear energy is waste storage. No one wants it. Maybe the answer lies in recycling the waste. Meanwhile, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has recently licensed a $1.5 billion uranium enrichment plant near Eunice, NM and uranium claims throughout the West are being reopened.
But Domenici says America will never achieve energy independence without utilizing every avenue available for increased energy production.
So, our Pete has suggested the politically unthinkable. Instead of the government imposing a ceiling on oil prices, he told Congressional Quarterly a floor would be a "very, very interesting proposition."
Domenici says high oil and gas prices spur innovations and investments in advanced energy technologies. But fear of a reversal in soaring prices is a primary factor in scaring investors from continuing progress toward alternative energy sources.
In the current Middle Eastern political climate, independence from their oil becomes ever more attractive, so the idea could grow legs. But how will it sell to New Mexico voters? Pete already has said in a fundraising letter that he will be running again in 2008.
Is it because Pete is invincible? What would it take for voters to shun him? Certainly nothing that Democrats have discovered in 33 years. And he can always claim he was just brainstorming for the magazine.
Or what if Pete doesn't really plan to run in '08? There's no law against raising money for a possible campaign. What if he's just trying to keep the field clear for the candidate of his choice to step in at the last minute?
Domenici's good friend, former U.S. Rep. Manuel Lujan did just that for his brother, Ed Lujan, in 1988. District Attorney Steve Schiff messed up the plan by jumping into the race anyway and winning the GOP primary. But the stakes are higher in a Senate race, so the switcheroo might have a better chance of working.
And who might Domenici choose to succeed himself? Pete laid his reputation on the line for Heather Wilson in 1998, when the state GOP central committee placed state Sen. Bill Davis above her on the primary election ballot.
Might he be willing to put it on the line for Wilson again? Wilson has positioned herself as a moderate Republican, in Pete's image, with Albuquerque voters. That certainly wouldn't hurt in getting his support as a successor. If, that is, Pete has any plans to step down.
MON, 9-25-06

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)


Monday, September 18, 2006

9-22 Are Texas Voters Kinky Enough?

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- Could Kinky Friedman become the next governor of Texas? If the Kinkster pulls it off, it will be the most unusual political event in my long experience.
There are precedents for non-traditional candidates winning gubernatorial races. And judging by those contests and recent developments in the Friedman race, it just might happen again.
This column closely followed Gary Johnson, Jesse Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger as they dreamed the impossible dream. Today we'll take a look at some of the similarities among the four candidates.
But first, the recent developments in Friedman's race. Newly released campaign finance reports for the first half of the year show Friedman far and away the leader in number of contributions received, both in-state and out-of-state.
And he leads in the amount of money collected from out of state. The biggest sources of those contributions were New York, California and New Mexico. Yes, New Mexico, which means that our readers in the east and south must be following this race closely on Texas television.
Friedman had more than 17,000 individual donations during the reporting period. Gov. Rick Perry had 3,300. The Democrat had 1,400 and the other independent in the race had 1,200.
But Friedman's contributions are mostly small, while the other three candidates are pulling in donations over $100,000 apiece. That still gives Friedman enough to mount a big TV ad campaign this month, which should pull him closer to the governor.
Friedman started out last in the polls, beginning in January. But he now has moved into second, 12 percent behind Gov. Perry. The other three candidates all are fading. In polls that do not screen out unlikely voters, Friedman wins easily.
It is those unlikely voters that Friedman has to mobilize. As he puts it, "I'm not running against those other three. I'm running against apathy."
You don't get voters to the polls by urging them to vote. It takes a well-coordinated voter registration drive and a massive get-out-the-vote effort on election day.
Friedman doesn't have the money to hire staff throughout Texas to do that. He'll have to depend on volunteers. And they must be recruited and organized.
But Friedman still has a chance. The biggest long shot candidate to win in the past was Gov. Jesse Ventura in Minnesota. Ventura was a pro wrestler and occasional actor, who went by the nickname "The Body."
Ventura was not successful at raising money, so he had to depend on making comments that would get on the front page free. He did it by being somewhat outrageous. Kinky can do it by being funny.
Both candidates succeeded by proposing common sense platforms that eased voter fears about voting for a fringe candidate. As the race proceeds, similarities between the two candidates are growing, largely because Friedman has hired Ventura's campaign director, Dean Barkley, whose strengths are in campaign message and volunteer organizing.
Ventura had a few advantages that Friedman doesn't. He was a Navy Seal and served as a small town mayor before running for governor. He also is happily married with well-behaved children. There also are differences between Minnesota and Texas voters.
Nevertheless, Friedman still could join the ranks of surprise governors. Voters forgave Govs. Ventura, Schwarzenegger and Johnson for wild pasts that included drugs.
Friedman doesn't directly admit to doing drugs but says he existed on 11 herbs and spices for several years. When you palled around with Willie Nelson and Don Imus in those days, you weren't hanging out in ice cream parlors.
When Gary Johnson announced for governor in 1993, everyone laughed. At the GOP nominating convention, he barely squeaked onto the ballot with 20 percent of the vote. But no one laughed the following November.
Voters are willing to elect a non-politician if they can be convinced he's not going to embarrass them.
FRI, 9-22-06

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)


Sunday, September 17, 2006

9-20 peace conference on Peace Conference

Syndicated Columnist

SANTA FE -- To avoid further controversy, the state Tourism Department is meeting with peace groups from around the state to discuss the upcoming World Peace Conference next May.
This peace conference on the Peace Conference, if you will, became necessary when New Mexico's many peace activists complained about being left out of planning for the $420,000 Santa Fe event next spring.
Originally, the conference was scheduled to take place this week, beginning on World Peace Day, September 21. That's the most generally recognized Peace Day internationally, although there are many, depending on which group is doing the proclaiming.
There was a big Peace Day in New Mexico on the August 6 Hiroshima anniversary and there is no reason the state can't declare a Peace Day or Peace Week or Peace Month next May.
State employees weren't able to put together a September peace conference in the six months after the state legislature approved it and the governor signed the $300,000 appropriation. They even had a heads up last year when the Legislature approved the first $120,000 for the conference.
But it takes a long time to put together a world conference on anything. Supposedly this conference will include world leaders from the peace movement and they would presumably be difficult to get, whomever they might be.
So, in mid-summer, the Tourism Department contracted with a professional event production specialist to handle the conference. And that's when the trouble started.
Peace groups statewide began asking why they weren't consulted. After all they wind Maypoles and make origami cranes all the time. And think of what they could do with $420,000. That money likely would stay in the state, too.
So, in an artfully-worded news release, the Tourism Department has announced that "In response to the overwhelming interest and wide diversity of opinion expressed by New Mexicans wanting to be a part of what promises to be an incredible event," the department has scheduled a town meeting on September 25 in Santa Fe.
The get-together will be from 3-5 p.m. on Monday, at the state Land Office Building. That's not much time, but it will have a high-powered moderator. Dr. Louise Diamond, from Vermont, knows 108 ways to create peace. And being from Vermont, she also must be very familiar with town meetings.
Will this be enough to pacify the peaceniks? Tourism Secretary Mike Cerletti says, "We knew there were a lot of folks interested in taking an active role in this event and with this town meeting, we are extending an opportunity to them to help us make this a world-class event."
The May 16-17 conference comes at a watershed moment for Gov. Bill Richardson. He will be getting very close to the time when he must decide whether he really wants to jump into the presidential race or not. The outcomes of the World Peace Conference could have some effect on that decision.
Richardson can burnish his reputation as a player on the world stage, capable of successful dealing even with the world's biggest bad boys. Or he can come out looking like a typical Democrat, hosting a peace conference while ignoring our national security needs.
Presumably, he has a plan, but I can't help wonder if he hasn't had some misgivings ever since Albuquerque's Sen. Shannon Robinson, a political ally, came to him almost two years ago with his idea of a peace conference.
Richardson's United Nations experience should be a significant feather in his cap. Maybe he can attract current Secretary General Kofi Annan to the conference. But how much will that help? The U.N. doesn't enjoy the best of reputations right now.
Our governor may be able to attract some Nobel Peace Prize winners, but big names like that also attract big name peace agitators who will end up with much of the national publicity.
It's risky business.
WED, 9-20-06

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)


Wednesday, September 13, 2006

9-18 Guv Goes to Sudan

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- For awhile it appeared Gov. Bill Richardson's timing was way off.
Why would he pull off his Sudan prisoner rescue so quickly that it looked easy? And why do it on a weekend in which the media were consumed with 9/11, the beginning of the political campaign season and the kickoff of the NFL season?
Richardson left for Khartoum saying he would stay as long as it took to secure the release of Paul Salopek and an interpreter and driver from neighboring Chad. He also said he hoped they'd be back before the November election because he had other responsibilities then.
Accompanied by Salopek's wife and the editor of the Chicago Tribune, Salopek's employer, Richardson left on Thursday and arrived in Sudan Friday night. Surprisingly, negotiations began immediately. In a matter of 45 minutes, President al-Bashir agreed to release all three men to Richardson.
The governor and his entourage left in a rickety government plane on Saturday morning for the war-wracked state of North Darfur, where the prisoners were held.
When they arrived at the prison at noon, they were told that the papers authorizing the releases had not yet arrived and that a scheduled trial would commence as soon as the judge returned from lunch.
The trial turned out to be the reason for Richardson's haste. This judge already had sentenced a reporter from another country to two years in prison on a similar spy charge. Other reporters had suffered worse fates, including beheading. The trial must be avoided.
After hours of waiting, the judge returned and ordered the hearing to begin. Thirteen minutes into the trial, the judge abruptly announced that he was stopping the trial and releasing the prisoners immediately.
Thus ended 34 days of captivity for the three. They all boarded the government plane back to Khartoum, where they thanked President al-Bashir and headed home.
And so, what appeared to be a cakewalk from this end, turned out to be a harrowing experience for the participants, who were up against a time crunch all the way.
The speed of the mission left many of us back here figuring Richardson knew before he left that the hostages would be released and all he had to do was go pick them up and do a little showboating.
But a source very close to the governor tells me it wasn't that easy. During a trip to Washington to argue for federal flood assistance that had been denied, Richardson met with the Sudan ambassador, who had been Richardson's interpreter 10 years ago, when he negotiated the release of three pilots from a rebel faction in Sudan.
Richardson received a pledge that the ambassador would make an effort to get the prisoners released. Several days later, the governor received an official invitation from the Sudanese president to go to that country for talks.
This gave Richardson reason for optimism, but he knew from experience that international negotiations always involve uncertainty.
One thing is certain. Richardson's trip was necessary. Sudan's president was not about to open the prison door and tell the men they could leave. He wanted a delegation from America to increase his prestige.
Richardson stressed that no deals were made to secure the prisoners' freedom. That goes without saying. He had no deal-making authority. He hasn't on any of his missions, all of which have been successful.
This success can't but help burnish his qualifications for high national office. At a time when America can't even get along with its friends, here's someone who has been able to walk defenseless into negotiations with the world's biggest despots and come out a winner.
Imagine what he might do as an official representative of the United States. With a bag of goodies in his pocket, including foreign aid, for a change, he might work wonders.
And remember, he also negotiated for flood assistance that had been denied by a Republican administration. I didn't ask which was easier.
MON, 9-18-06

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)


Friday, September 08, 2006

9-15 Why won't guv admit he's running for president?

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- Why doesn't Gov. Bill Richardson admit he is a candidate for president of the United States?
Because he doesn't know if he will be. Like about 50 other people, he is going through the necessary moves to position himself for a run, but no one has declared his or her candidacy at this point. And none will for some time. That's just the way the game is played.
There's probably not a person on the planet who knows of Bill Richardson who doesn't know that he has an intense desire to be president. He has been confiding that to close associates for at least 25 years and the word has gotten out.
But wannabes can't appear too anxious, lest they suffer political embarrassment, because only a handful will end up as serious contenders.
All potential candidates know they face many unknowns when they enter a race. Richardson's learning experience came when he was secretary of Energy in 2000 and on the short list of vice-presidential choices for Al Gore.
A sudden spike in oil prices followed by the loss of important tapes during the Los Alamos forest fire and a disastrous U.S. Senate committee hearing spelled his very quick exit from further consideration.
So Richardson will continue his visits to states with early presidential primaries, but he won't make any announcement until next summer when the Iowa state fair signals it is decision time.
This year's congressional races may signal how good a shot Democrats have at the presidency in 2008. Congressional Democrats are projected to pick up seats in both chambers. They need six in the Senate and 15 in the House.
A Senate takeover appears impossible, since only 15 Republican seats are contested this year. Some analysts think the House Republican majority could be toppled this year because 232 Republicans must defend their seats.
When Republicans ousted the Democrat majority in 1994, their gain was 15 seats. The issue then was Bill Clinton's imperial presidency and Hillary's strongarm attempt to muscle through a healthcare plan. Does an unpopular war trump that this year?
My guess is that Democrats can't duplicate the Republican feat of 1994. I credit that Republican victory largely to Rep. Newt Gingrich, a forceful leader who emerged at the right time and gave GOP candidates a platform and a plan to rout the Democrat majority.
That platform was called Contract With America. It resonated with voters and it united Republican House members as they never had been before.
This is September, less than two months before the election, and Democrats don't have a clearly defined alternative to propose to voters. In 1994, Gingrich trotted out his plan in March. I remember it well because the family and I had retreated to our favorite rural beach in Hawaii, away from television, telephones and cell towers.
But Rep. Steve Schiff, of New Mexico's 1st Congressional District, somehow tracked me down anyway. "A congressman wants to speak to you" seems to carry a lot of weight.
Schiff was the most excited I ever heard him. He didn't agree with everything in the Contract With America but he had the feeling that Gingrich had what it took to lead Republicans to a big enough victory that they would take over the U.S. House in November. And he wanted to tell me about it.
One of the 15 takeaways that Democrats are planning this year is Schiff's former seat, now held by Heather Wilson. Polls show her with a narrow lead, less than the margin of error, but Wilson has looked vulnerable before and always closed strong with a comfortable margin.
That isn't supposed to happen. The district is majority Democrat and is always rated as a "swing district." But as blogger Joe Monahan points out, it has never swung. Ever since it was created in 1982, the district has voted Republican for Congress.
It's likely to do that again this year. But don't ever count out Patricia Madrid.
FRI, 9-15-06

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)


Thursday, September 07, 2006

9-13 First Campaign Poll

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- The first independent polls of the 2006 general election campaign season don't tell us much we didn't already know. But they do confirm what some of the candidates had been telling us.
Gov. Bill Richardson and attorney general candidate Gary King had been claiming big leads and they are correct.
Patricia Madrid, the 1st Congressional District challenger, told us she is in a dead heat with incumbent Rep. Heather Wilson . And sure enough, she is trailing by less than the margin of error in the first independent poll of the campaign.
Sometimes candidate polls treat the candidate a little too well by asking questions in a manner designed to produce favorable answers.
So it was good to see the Albuquerque Journal poll, conducted by Byron Sanderhoff's Research and Polling, come in with much the same numbers. Sanderhoff has proven to be the most accurate pollster in the nation for New Mexico races.
Big leads also went to U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman and Reps. Steve Pearce and Tom Udall and to state Treasurer candidate Jim Lewis.
The treasurer's race is one in which the Democrat might have been expected to suffer, due to the scandals of the past two treasurers. But Lewis has served in the position before without any hint of problems.
The land commissioner race also looks close. Republican Patrick Lyons appears to have a shot at keeping the post he won four years ago for another term. He is five points behind challenger, and former land commissioner, Jim Baca, but he has a major fundraising advantage.
Republicans appear to be more than willing to help out a candidate who appears to have a chance. Lyons major disadvantage may be that the ballot is headed by weak GOP candidates for the U.S. Senate and governor, possibly causing independent-minded voters to stay on the Democrat side of the ballot.
The huge wild card still out there is the state auditor's race, in which Democrats can't seem to decide who their candidate is. Jeff Armijo, who won the primary, withdrew after revelation of sexual misconduct charges against him.
But then he changed his mind after Democrat Party leaders had set up procedures for replacing him. The results of that disaster could haunt Democrats in other races.
We promised not to say much about the 1st Congressional District race because of its negative vibes but when I get the opportunity to poke fun at a negative ad, I can't resist.
Rep. Heather Wilson's first negative ad against Patricia Madrid showed pictures of Madrid snapped by the opposition at campaign rallies.
But instead of the expected grainy pictures of her scowling, the photos showed her laughing and smiling and looking quite nice, I thought.
The final shot was of Rep. Wilson, appearing very dour and serious. Maybe the message was that Wilson was the serious candidate, but it didn't come across that way to me.
No other commentators mentioned it, but Wilson's campaign handlers must have had second thoughts because, after a few weeks, the pictures of Madrid were changed to make her look more evil.
So far, the campaign jabs taken at Gov. Richardson haven't weakened him. Sanderhoff's poll shows him with a 29 point lead over challenger John Dendahl. Eleven percent are undecided. Richardson could pick up enough of that 11 percent to give him the 60-40 vote margin he wants.
The governor's 61 percent job approval rating is a pretty good indication of that. Evidently the GOP complaint that Richardson is spending too much time out of state campaigning for president and neglecting his job, isn't selling.
Since part of a governor's job is to promote his state, running for president isn't a bad way to do it. Having a president from New Mexico wouldn't be a bad way of convincing geographically-challenged Americans that New Mexico just might actually be a state.
WED, 9-13-06

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)


Tuesday, September 05, 2006

9-11 Have Our Lives Changed?

Syndicated Columnist

SANTA FE -- As we observe this fifth anniversary of 9-11, let's consider how it has changed our lives -- or hasn't.
Immediately after 9-11, we were told not to let it affect our lives -- or else the terrorists have won.
But soon we were told we would have to give up some freedoms in order to gain more security. Most Americans seemed willing to make that trade, and thus, the Patriot Act passed with little fuss.
Then we were told we must fight a war on terror. The first battle was in Afghanistan, the prime sanctuary for terrorists. Then came Iraq, which wasn't as easy.
Current congressional races depend on President Bush and incumbent Republicans being able to tie the war on terror to the war in Iraq and convincing Americans that we are safer now than we were five years ago, despite warnings that we should be afraid and assurances that the government is taking ever more steps to protect us.
Are we safer today? Certainly our actions in Iraq have created many more insurgents. The Bush administration says by staying in Iraq, we will keep insurgents over there. The question is debatable.
For most of us, airports are the only place where life has really changed. The terminal has become a theater of the absurd, where passengers line up halfway back to town and little old ladies are patted down.
All this is justified by what is called the one-percent doctrine, advanced by Vice President Dick Cheney, who contends that if there is a one percent chance of a terrorist act, we must respond as if there is a 100 percent chance.
Actually, a one percent chance of a terrorist act does require some response. But I contend that the odds of a little old lady getting on a plane from Albuquerque to Phoenix with a bomb is about equal to the chance of hitting a Powerball lottery.
My advice: don't buy lottery tickets and don't make me wait in line an hour while you're hassling people who there's not a chance in a million are terrorists. Let's get smart about risk assessment, here, folks.
But if we can be convinced there is a one percent chance some little old lady is planning our demise, we'll be fearful enough to give up rights and vote for the candidates who assure us they will do more to protect us.
Lest you think I'm overly fixated on treatment of little old ladies, my 91-year-old mother-in-law was taken behind a curtain and strip searched in a major airport not too long ago. They didn't find any bombs, Mr. Cheney.
Americans must learn to accept as a fact of life that there is a very slight chance they will die of a terrorist act. But it is so small that they needn't get battlefield fatigue worrying about it.
My wife and I take more trips by car than plane now. But that is to avoid airport hassles. I've read that terrorists would have to blow up 50 planes a year before flying would be more dangerous than driving an equal distance.
Insurance companies now exclude terrorist acts. But one of them is bound to wise up soon and start selling terrorism insurance. Many people would pay a great sum for coverage even though the risk is infinitesimal.
We're scared about what might be in the mind of a suicide bomber because it is difficult to deal rationally with an unpredictable person. A baseball pitcher who fires the ball across the plate at 100 miles an hour has the utmost respect from hitters.
But a pitcher who throws a few warm up balls 10 feet over the catcher's head at 90 miles an hour strikes utter fear in the batters coming to the plate. And that's what we're dealing with here.
The terrorists -- and some politicians -- have us more scared than we should be.
MON, 9-11-06

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)


Monday, September 04, 2006

9-8 Next generation space shuttle can't be based in NM

Syndicated Columnist

SANTA FE -- In a surprise move, NASA has picked Lockheed Martin Corp. to build Orion, the successor to the space shuttle. That isn't good news for New Mexico.
Lockheed is the largest of the defense contractors but Northrop Grumman Corp. and Boeing have been the major contractors for manned space vehicles. Lockheed had specialized in robotic space flight, but now will also be the major contractor for human space flight.
Lockheed's first proposal for the Orion crew exploration vehicle looked more like the shuttle and was designed to land as the current shuttle does. But NASA decided it wants to go back to the tried and true capsule that carried Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts.
The shuttle program's two space disasters took place on liftoff and reentry Those problems wouldn't have occurred with the capsule model.
Fifteen years ago, when New Mexico first attempted to host the successor to the current space shuttle, the trend was toward development of reusable single-stage-to-orbit vehicles.
They were thought to be much more practical than the first and second stages that were dropped into the ocean and the crew capsule that plunked into the Pacific and no longer was usable.
But there were no fatalities on those missions, which led NASA to instruct Lockheed to go back to the old design.
That leaves out New Mexico, since liftoff requires a nearby ocean. So, once again, lift off will require plowing through several thousand feet of atmosphere that wouldn't be necessary in New Mexico.
The award to Lockheed will be a big plus for Colorado where there was much celebrating at Lockheed Martin Space System's Denver headquarters.
The choice of the name Orion also was a throwback. That was the name of the moon lander for the next to last moon mission and also the name for the promising nuclear rocket project, begun in the 1950s but cancelled in the early '60s amid reactions to anything nuclear.
NASA is proudly calling Orion "Apollo on steroids." It has led some to ask why they didn't just call it "Apollo II."
New Mexico had high hopes for hosting the second-generation shuttle program back in the single-stage-to-orbit days. McDonnell Douglas was testing a craft at White Sands Missile Range.
The Delta Clipper would take off like a rocket, maneuver in the air, and touch back down on its base, just as rockets have done in the movies for years.
Technically known as the DC-X, the rocket was flown successfully eight times at WSMR, under a $3 million test program administered by Phillips Lab at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque. It was then scheduled to be torn down and be rebuilt as the DC-XA under a $43 million NASA contract.
Much money had been spent on its development, which began as part of the Star Wars program, under the Pentagon. A shift in focus to earthbound defenses after the Ronald Reagan administration moved development of a new launch vehicle away from the Pentagon and into NASA's realm.
It appeared McDonnell Douglas might be in line for the $840 million X-33 program to demonstrate reusable rocket technology, which also could be developed for widespread commercial use.
At the same time, New Mexico Tech at Socorro was helping develop an even lower cost rocket than the Delta Clipper. The revolutionary technology relied on explosives research long conducted at Tech.
In September 1995, U.S. Rep Joe Skeen flipped the switch for the new Scorpius engine and the first test of the unbelievably simple and inexpensive engine was pronounced a success. The engine had only 38 movable parts, compared to over 15,000 in conventional chemical fuel rockets.
But the bid for the X-33 went to Lockheed Martin, which encountered problem after problem for several years before the effort was pronounced impossible in 2001.
That's likely why NASA decided to go back to its old technology. Guess we'll have to hope Lockheed does a better job this time.
FRI, 9-08-06

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)