There he goes again, sounding like a Republican — and a big-spending anomaly at that: Albuquerque mayor and senatorial aspirant Martin Chávez, running against Northern New Mexico's Rep. Tom Udall for the Democratic nomination, is painting his opponent as unfriendly to the working stiff.
Why? Because Udall voted for last summer's Energy and Water Appropriations Act. Among its features was a $400 million reduction in Los Alamos National Laboratory's budget. That, says the Chávez campaign, gives Udall the "dubious distinction of being the only member of Congress from New Mexico in history to vote in favor of decreased funding and cutting jobs at LANL" and at Albquerque's Sandia National Laboratories.
But Udall was far from the only member of Congress to approve that budget reduction: A frustrated Republican Sen. Pete Domenici acknowledged to The New Mexican last summer that he was helpless in the face of Capitol Hill's new leadership — many of whom he hardly knew — and the long knives they had out for lab spending. It was evident then that Domenici had lost his stomach for the job. Not long afterward, he announced that he wouldn't seek re-election next year.
Could Udall, newly named to the House Appropriations Committee, that chamber's committee in charge of federal spending, stem the tide of fed-uppedness with largesse to the labs? Not likely, given the vituperative spewing by Republicans and Democrats alike about waste, theft and security lapses at LANL.
And Udall, who has spent much of his nine years on Capitol Hill trying with little success to persuade those scientists on "the Hill" in the Jemez to broaden their nuclear-weapons mission into alternative-energy research and other civilian — or even other military — projects, thought perhaps a reduced allowance would get lab leaders' attention.
The bill in question still sits in Congress — so perhaps the money will be restored.
But in the meantime, Chávez has put a political spin on it: "Throwing people out of work and endangering our national security," said his campaign manager, Mark Fleischer, "is not 'the message' New Mexicans want to hear."
Udall doesn't want folks out of work any more than Chávez does — or Sen. Domenici, who used his leadership on the Budget, then Energy, committees to keep the gravy train chugging onto Pajarito Mesa.
The recent announcement that LANL would cut 500 to 750 jobs, it seems, would place Udall front and center as the villain — until you consider how many Democrats might agree with him, and disagree with pork-barrel spending of an especially warlike kind. Los Alamos likely will remain trigger-maker to the nation for increasingly sophisticated and massively destructive weapons. Yet America has far more nuclear bombs than it would take to destroy enemies of today and tomorrow. What we don't have is the new energy system we and the rest of the world will need as fossil-fuel consumption soars and supplies of the stuff, inevitably, run short.
Can't our national-lab scientists see that — and do something about it? And if they can't, shouldn't Congress invest in operations that can?
Those are the nationally responsible questions Udall and some of his colleagues are asking; Kennedyesque queries in the form of challenges to mobilize our brightest scientific minds. It's time to transform the systems that make America run.
Udall knows it. And he wants New Mexicans gainfully employed in that pursuit.
Mayor Chávez and most Republicans have yet to recognize the grim challenge of "peak oil" and the global warming it promotes. Against such backward thinking, Tom Udall is a profile in courage.