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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Post-Pete Era Begins; The Party Is Over As Los Alamos Layoffs Hit, Plus: First Primary Poll Has Udall & Heather In Lead 

Don't turn off the lights yet, but the party is over. Definitely over. Just six weeks after Senator Pete Domenici, patron saint of Los Alamos Labs, announced his retirement, he had the unpleasant task of announcing that 500 to 750 highly paid lab employees will be out the door by the end of January. And that could be just the beginning. The wrangling over the federal budget continues in Washington. In a worst case scenario, the pre-emptive layoffs announced Monday may not be enough and another round of pink slips could be coming.

Welcome to the post-Pete era. It was Senator Domenici who almost singlehandedly protected the nuclear weapons facility on "The Hill" from the budget knives of fellow lawmakers. As a result, employment at the labs, including contractors, soared to over 12,000. Los Alamos county has the most millionaires per capita than any place in America, with top scientists pulling down salaries that were rarefied in this relatively poor southwestern state.

But the Cold War ended in 1989 and still the money flowed. Cuts that could have been taken were delayed. Now the proverbial chickens have come home to roost. The Democrats are in charge of Congress, the Labs security reputation is in shambles and a future in which there are fewer nuclear weapons to keep an eye on can no longer be denied.

Longtime observers think this could be just the beginning. It was not unusual to hear them talk Monday of a Los Alamos with half the number of current employees by 2012. Talk of switching the labs mission has been just talk. Certainly if it ever happens it will be too late for the 500 to 700 workers who will lose their jobs by the end of January. And it looks very doubtful any switch in mission will ever put the Labs back to peak employment levels. As we said, the party is over.

POLITICAL IMPACT

Domenici could be faulted for continuing to prop up the lab budget when it was clear that it was time to slowly downsize. But bringing home the pork is much more rewarding than cutting off the supply. Domenici leaves the scene in a year. History is now his sole judge. Northern Congressman Tom Udall, never a cheerleader for the nuclear weapons mission at Los Alamos and who voted for the House budget cutting the facility, could take hits for not doing more to prevent the layoffs, but because they come against a backdrop of historical inevitably, the political pain could be minimized. The same for Dem Senator Bingaman, but he will be under increased pressure to prevent the Los Alamos infection from spreading to Sandia Labs, located in the state's population center and not as controversial as Los Alamos.

Udall and the rest of our Congressional delegation now need to go about the work of slowing the economic impact of the Los Alamos debacle. The Santa Fe real estate market and big ticket retailers, like auto dealers, are going to feel the pinch most. The workers themselves, many of them well-off after years of harvesting big salaries and who will be pocketing plump severance packages, will not be as impacted as would working class employees. But future rounds of layoffs will be more hurtful, impacting younger workers who don't want to take buyout packages.

The Democratic Congress has been insistent that Los Alamos change its mission to save itself; that it transform its swords into plowshares. Rep. Udall has been in the forefront of that argument. But the fervor to downsize is not going away and there is no new mission anywhere on the horizon. A new century is being born. The fabled Labs of Los Alamos which cast such a long shadow over the 20th century will be a mere shadow of itself in the 21st. The sooner the politicians accept that reality and relay it to those whose economic lives are on the line, the sooner they and our state can get to work restructuring the economy of the area.

PRIMARY POLLING

The height of the mountain ABQ Mayor Marty Chavez has to climb to catch Tom Udall in the race for the NM Dem nomination for US Senate may not be as high as the Sandia's, but it's a steep journey. According to the SurveyUSA poll released by KOB-TV Monday, Udall garners 62% of the Democratic primary vote to Chavez's 32%. Hispanic Dems, Chavez's hope to close the gap, are evenly split between Tom and Marty. Among Anglo Democrats, Udall checks in with a huge 54 point advantage as we begin the long march toward the June '08 primary.

In the Republican US Senate race, ABQ Congresswoman Heather Wilson debuts in the SurveyUSA with a healthy lead over southern NM GOP Congressman Steve Pearce--56% to 37%. She leads across the board--among men, women, Hispanics, Anglos and even the conservatives that Pearce is counting on. But there is a big caveat. Much of the Heather's advantage could be simple name ID. Pearce is not as well-known around the state, especially in the big metro area, and Heather's lead should shrink as that changes in the weeks ahead. Still, she has bragging rights in the early going and that is going to help her fend off talk that Pearce is a likely nominee. It could also help her raise some campaign money.

The general election match-ups in the poll have not changed much from earlier ones. Udall handily beats either Wilson or Pearce, while Chavez lags one point behind Heather and gets beat by Pearce by 10 points.

Chavez will have to start moving his numbers, but his first challenge will be to convince major donors to pony up cash to start the early media he needs. Udall would be wise to get his formal announcement done next week and not engage Chavez for the rest of the year.

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(c)NM POLITICS WITH JOE MONAHAN 2007
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