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 V.13 No.17 | April 22 - 28, 2004 

Payne's World

Where's the Diplomacy?

McCorkle victim of hardball politics

Watching Gov. Bill Richardson's unceremonious (some would argue deplorable) removal of business honcho Sherman McCorkle from the state's military base retention commission, one wonders, a la Bob Dole during the 1996 presidential campaign, "Where's the outrage?"

McCorkle, who heads up the nonprofit Technology Ventures Corporation, has a long and untarnished record of promoting high-tech economic development in New Mexico, is a leader in the state's business community and, perhaps most importantly, was a key player in the effort to stop a threatened closure of Kirtland Air Force Base in 1995.

Someone with McCorkle's expertise and success in keeping a key military base in New Mexico seems like a "must-have" member for a commission charged with retaining military bases in the state. That's why, one would think, he was appointed in the first place. Not any more, thanks to Gov. Bill Richardson, who canned McCorkle three weeks ago without giving any comment or reason for the dismissal.

As the old saying goes; however, actions often speak louder than words. Richardson's dumping of McCorkle coincided with the appearance of an op-ed in the Albuquerque Journal that he wrote criticizing the UNM Board of Regents. In this case, McCorkle took issue with a just passed diktat requiring the stamp of approval from labor union bosses before new hires could work on a $180 million construction project at the state's flagship university.

Arguments are raging pro and con throughout the state on the wisdom of that decision, but here's the critical point in this case: McCorkle's opinion in no way, shape or form touched on the issue of base retention. He did not critique the commission on which he served or attempt to undermine its goals. McCorkle didn't criticize the governor or so much as mention his name. He simply exercised his First Amendment right on an issue of interest to him in a very thoughtful manner and, for that, he was kicked off a state commission for which he is eminently qualified.

After it dawned on the governor's spinmeisters that McCorkle's dismissal had legs in the news media, an explanation was trotted out to justify Richardson's action: McCorkle had a "poor" attendance record. In fact it wasn't just poor, according to one of the governor's spokespeople, McCorkle's attendance record was "very poor"—an emphasis reminiscent of the exchange between Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men (Private Santiago wasn't just in danger, he was in "grave danger"). Obviously the intent was to leave the impression McCorkle was some sort of habitual truant that Big Bill had every right to suspend.

Unfortunately, like the yarn Col. Jessup was spinning about ordering a Code Red, the facts in this case don't stand up to scrutiny, either. McCorkle has attended each and every one of the four full commission meetings that have been held to date. He did miss one out of two sub-committee meetings.

So, being as generous as is possible to the Guv's press flacks, of six meetings held so far (keep in mind, we're including two subcommittee meetings), McCorkle has attended five. If that constitutes a "very poor" attendance record, it'd be interesting to see how City Councilor Tina Cummins chronic absenteeism would be described.

An interesting aside that demonstrates how lamentably bogus the "very poor" attendance rationale is, Richardson's Secretary of Economic Development Rick Homans—also on the same commission as McCorkle—has the worst attendance record of any commission member. He's missed two meetings, and he's still there ... but he hasn't said anything critical of the Guv, either.

Of course there's nothing really shocking about this sort of hardball politics. What's shocking is how such an absolutely over-the-top "bush league" move could come from a governor renowned for his political acumen. After all, this is a politico who prides himself on his ability to negotiate with brutal dictators like Sadaam Hussein and Kim Il Jong of North Korea—mild-mannered Sherman McCorkle was just too much for him to finesse?

In all seriousness, was publicly kicking the butt of a fellow New Mexican who has put in years of volunteer service to our state and staging a lame-brained explanation afterwards the best way a political phenom like Bill Richardson could deal with an op-ed he didn't like?

How about this? Do nothing—because nobody really heeds those things, and McCorkle doesn't have a vote on the Board of Regents anyway. Here's another option: Call McCorkle and work him the way the North Koreans, the media, and the Legislature get worked. Win him over. Or, if the anger is just too overwhelming, wait a month before canning him so it's not so easy to make the link between a fit of pique and retribution.

Then again, if the advice of that last item is followed people might not fully understand just how much political power they're dealing with and they might continue to write upsetting editorials. And we couldn't have that, could we?

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. Payne, a former city councilor, can be reached at greg@alibi.com.

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