Monday, February 27, 2006

Finding A Port In The Storm: Bush Finds One With Pete But Heather Balks, Plus: Tommy Jewell Ungagged; You're At Ground Zero For NM Politics 

The political pain being caused by the controversial proposal that would allow an Arab, state-owned company to gain control of six key U.S. ports came into clear view over the weekend. NM U.S. Senator Pete Domenici went all in with President Bush, while GOP ABQ U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson was saying the Congress "might" have to overturn the deal.

With even most Republicans appearing to be against the sale of the ports, the Alligators went into a frenzy over Pete's provocative defense of Bush and Heather's positioning. Domenici said fears of having an Arab nation based company control the ports verges on "hysteria." (latest developments here)

"Pete is not up for re-election. Heather is. You have to wonder if he will call in this marker with the White House in the form of bigger money for NM projects. He is one of the few senators who has gone out on the limb with the President, and such gifts usually come at a price," said one Senior GOP Alligator.

Domenici also repeated the White House line saying, "we are against terrorists...not religion or ethnicity. Some politicians seem to be forgetting that."

But Domenici's critics were saying it appears it is the senior senator who is forgetting that New Mexicans and the nation have been whipped into a "hysteria" since the attacks of 9/11.

"You reap what you sow," said one Dem Alligator of Domenici.

As for Heather, she told Bill Maher Friday night on his national HBO program "Real Time," that the Bush administration is guilty of a "terrible failure of communication." She has given herself wiggle room by using the word "might" not "should" in commenting on whether the port deal should be killed.

The episode was yet another example of the unsettled national political environment. And that usually means change. And that means the party in power has the most to fear.


Back on the HBO set with Heather, Maher welcomed Wilson to the "lion's den" but it actually turned out pretty tame. She won applause from the audience for her stand on increasing congressional oversight of the administration's domestic eavesdropping program as well as her stance on reviewing the port deal. Maher did ask her why she voted against increasing funding for port security by $400 million. She answered that the funding would have been at the expense of other programs. Maybe there's an opening there for Dem challenger Madrid.

Heather was interviewed at the top of the show for five minutes and did not join Maher's panel where the real red meat is dished. But she handled herself well, (How about Warm Heather grabbing Bill's arm?) looked the part and again put the Dems on notice that they will have to fight for every inch of ground.


Big Bill's appointment of Tommy Jewell as secretary of the NM Children Youth & Families Department was greeted favorably by advocates for children who say Jewell is a genuine friend of troubled youth with a record of proven success on the bench. Also, under outgoing CYFD boss Mary Dale Bolson the department has been hit with dozens of racial discrimination lawsuits. Jewell, an African-American, is expected to be able to calm the waters.

But skeptics, citing the previous four secretaries, question whether anyone can effectively run the often troubled 2,000 employee agency and will take a wait and see attitude on the retired judge who has no experience running a department of that size, or wrestling with the internal politics that caused Bolson so much trouble.

Also watching will be those of us in the peanut gallery. In 2000 Jewell issued a controversial gag order on the press in the case of a 120-pound, 3-year-old girl whom CYFD had taken from her parents. The ruling was challenged by news outlets and the NM Supreme Court overturned it.

A judge's gag order restricting the right to gather information to report on a matter of public interest is always a red flag. Jewell's decision was troubling, but a one time event. As New Mexico struggles to get out of the cellar in the national rankings on its treatment of children, Jewell will need all the public support he can get. Communicating with the public will be key. In the long run, secrecy gets you overturned.

As for CYFD, its federal and state funding totals $360 million. And they say they need more. Children's advocates Lt. Governor Denish and First Lady Barbara Richardson might want to investigate and see if this department is truly underfunded or more in need of a makeover after 12 years of trying hard, but still unable to shake its dysfunctional personality. A change at the helm may be in order, but the real trouble could lie in the lower decks.

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