|Office of the Chancellor / Public Affairs||
Monday, November 15, 2004
Oakland Tribune 11-14-04
New Mexico's gov. swallows his pride to back UC lab bid
On a May day in 2000, then-Energy Secretary Bill Richardson
hit the jackpot for political nightmares: Gas hit $2 a gallon, and two
laptop hard drives full of nuclear bomb designs -- American, Russian,
theorized terrorist bombs, everything -- had gone missing from Los Alamos
"You've lost all credibility," Alabama Republican Richard Shelby told Richardson a few weeks later at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
Richardson protested: "In two years I've done more on security than has been done in the last 20 years." He was right, but Republicans were having none of it, and neither was a senior Democrat. "You've had a bright and brilliant career," said Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va. "But you will never again receive the support of the Senate of the United States for any office to which you might be appointed. It's gone. You've squandered your treasure."
Richardson sat listening to this ask-not-for-whom-the-bell-tolls epitaph, looking as if he'd been shot -- or would have preferred it.
Al Gore called soon after and told Richardson that he was out of consideration as a running mate.
After 18 years of paying political dues as New Mexico congressman, U.N. ambassador and energy secretary, Richardson's path to the White House was cut off, dashing the hopes of the Democrats' most visible Latino politician. And virtually no one was more to blame, an irate Richardson told friends, than the University of California and its managers at Los Alamos weapons lab.
Yet next week, now-New Mexico Gov. Richardson will journey to Los Angeles and heartily endorse the University of California as the worthiest candidate in the competition to run Los Alamos for another five to 20 years.
He will urge the UC Board of Regents to make a bid for the world's first nuclear-weapons lab, which UC has run since 1943 without paying taxes to his impoverished state. No statewide politician in New Mexico has given stronger public support for California to remain one of the state's largest employers.
"The governor believes the University of California is the best option," said Richardson spokesman Gil Gallegos.
So what gives?
Richardson is foremost a pragmatist, a Democrat more centrist than Bill Clinton or Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. As energy secretary, he reversed himself and pushed for storing nuclear waste in New Mexico. As soon as he became governor, he delighted Republicans with a tax cut.
"He might hold grudges, but he's fast to switch politically," said Joe Monahan, a New Mexico political consultant and blogger who watches the governor. "He's never carried the long knives for long."
The governor also counts votes, and Los Alamos County is voting overwhelmingly for the University of California.
With the University of Texas gearing up to challenge UC for control of Los Alamos, lab scientists and their families -- one of the highest concentrations of PhDs in the nation -- whispered that a vote for Bush was a vote for Texas. Their golden UC pensions? Gone. Their vaunted ties to the nation's largest public research university? Gone.
Fear of a Republican win gripped one of the most reliable GOP counties in a swing state. Senator Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and Bush-Cheney campaigners called for reinforcements. Days before the election, former President George H.W. Bush and the Bush twins, Jenna and Barbara, threw an emergency rally in Los Alamos.
Domenici, known warmly in Los Alamos as "St. Pete" for his support of the lab, assured lab workers that "if UC puts together a winning team, I will be very happy" and promised that a Bush win would not affect the lab contract.
President Bush squeaked by Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry in Los Alamos by 600 votes, less than half of Bush's margin over Al Gore in 2000. Several hundred Los Alamos conservatives "voted D for the first time, probably since (World War II)," Monahan said.
"The people in Los Alamos would definitely like to see UC retain the contract," said county Republican chairwoman JoAnn Johnson. As for Richardson's endorsement of UC, she said, "I think he's always interested in what's going to help him as well as the state and, yes, I think he's looking at the popular opinion" in Los Alamos.
Former University of New Mexico president and political scientist F. Chris Garcia says Richardson's strong backing for UC makes good politics.
"Richardson is such an astute politician. He takes nothing for granted. He wants the Los Alamos vote, and anywhere he can get votes he goes after them," Garcia said.
Richardson's supporters already are gearing up for his re-election campaign. But political observers in New Mexico and Washington say Richardson also is keeping an eye on Domenici's Senate seat.
The elder New Mexico senator is widely expected to endorse a protege, Rep. Heather Wilson, R-Albuquerque, as his successor.
"That would be a political scientist's dream -- a sitting House member endorsed by St. Pete versus a very savvy governor who's Hispanic. And we may see it," Garcia said.
But Richardson's endorsement of UC goes beyond politics, Garcia suspects. Richardson plans to ask the UC regents to include a private -- read "taxable" -- industry partner in its management team for the lab bid, as well as a New Mexico university.
It's dubious whether he will get the latter. New Mexico's three major universities weighed, then dropped the idea of bidding on Los Alamos. But UC in the last decade has built scientific collaborations with every New Mexico university, and UC officials are trying to expand them.
With a different lab operator, Garcia said, "we'd have to start anew to great extent. Since the universities here aren't going to bid, why not stick with what we know and what works."
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