By David Stevens: FNNM Editor
The day before the Defense Base Closure and Realignment hearings opened in Washington, Gov. Bill Richardson was exchanging high fives and feeling confident Cannon Air Force Base could be spared from closure.
One day later, that optimism gave way to uncertainty and concern, and Cannon backers said they weren’t sure which way some of the nine BRAC commissioners would vote until moments before they began raising their hands to be counted the morning of Aug. 26.
Four commissioners ultimately voted to keep Cannon open, one short of the number needed. Later in the day, six commissioners agreed to an “enclave” status for the base, meaning the Department of Defense can’t close it until 2010 and must search for another mission in the meantime.
While calling the results a “partial victory” for eastern New Mexico, Richardson and Cannon supporters Randy Harris and Chad Lydick of Clovis said multiple factors played roles in the commissioners’ decision to enclave Cannon rather than force DoD to give it a new mission. Those factors included a legal counsel ruling, one commissioner’s loyalty to his chairman, and a phone call from the Pentagon, they said.
Here’s a recap of the days leading up to the final vote:
F-35 offered hope
Richardson, in a lengthy telephone interview with the Clovis News Journal late Friday night, said he began to feel good about Cannon’s chances of survival two weeks before the vote. That was the day base supporters settled on a proposal to bring the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to Cannon, which they said would be more cost effective than housing the next-generation fighter at a Florida base. That same day, Richardson and Clovis Mayor David Lansford announced plans to buy 3,000 acres around Cannon — at a cost of $5 million — to allow for base expansion.
“Before that, I felt we were fading,” Richardson said. Consultants had told Cannon supporters throughout they could not expect to win Commission support by simply asking the base be kept open — they needed to present an alternative mission.
“I was calling Commissioner (Philip) Coyle to just solidify him — he had always been favorable — and he said, ‘I think we ought to try the (F-35).’ He said, ‘I’ve raised the idea with some of the commissioners and they liked it. The Commission staff is looking into it and I think that’s what we should push,’” Richardson said.
Around Aug. 17, Richardson said he talked with Commissioners Sue Turner and James Hill, and with Coyle again, about the F-35 possibility, “and I got good vibes from them — not flat-out commitments, but good vibes.”
Commissioner Hal Gehman, Richardson said, did not call him back. “This was the third time he didn’t call me back,” Richardson said. “So I figured we had some problems.”
Signs of trouble
Late in the week preceding the BRAC Commission hearings, Richardson said he asked Commissioner Lloyd “Fig” Newton to introduce a proposal to keep Cannon open.
“I said to him, ‘You’re the Air Force guy, you’re our best bet. I’m asking you to offer an amendment to keep Cannon open,’” Richardson said. “He said, ‘OK, I’ll consider it.’”
But Newton also told the Cannon contingent that the F-35 plan had lost steam with other commissioners and would not likely be approved. They would need another proposal.
More bad news followed on Aug. 20.
Richardson said he called Commissioner James Bilbray, whom Richardson called a friend. “He was very distressed,” the governor said. “He tells me that he and (James) Hansen are going to be asked to recuse themselves by the (legal) counsel.”
DoD had proposed sending planes from Cannon to bases in the home states of Bilbray and Hansen, which counsel said placed the commissioners in positions with conflicts of interest. Richardson said Bilbray had told him Bilbray and Hansen were planning to vote to keep Cannon open.
That left seven commissioners — and five votes were needed.
Operation always fluid
The odds of keeping Cannon open seemed to improve, however, the day before the BRAC Commission hearings opened. On Aug. 23, Richardson said he talked with Newton and the former Air Force wing commander had agreed to present some kind of proposal to save Cannon. Newton told the governor the F-35 idea was dead, but he was working on a different proposal he felt had merit.
Richardson said he had a meeting later that day with Marshall Stinnett, a long-time Cannon supporter from Portales, and with Eastern New Mexico University President Steven Gamble. They were in the governor’s office to talk about funding for ENMU.
Richardson said he asked Stinnett which BRAC commissioner would be most likely to introduce a successful proposal to save Cannon. Stinnett said his choice would be Newton.
“We got him,” Richardson said he told Stinnett. “Then I remember we had a high five.”
But even then, Richardson said it was clear the situation with Cannon was fluid. Details of Newton’s plan to save Cannon were not finalized, and no one knew how many commissioners might support that plan. That’s when Richardson decided to make the trip to Washington so he could lobby commissioners in person, right up until the final vote.
Skinner, Principi the keys
On Aug. 24, Richardson said he talked with Commissioner Samuel Skinner and asked him to support Cannon.
Richardson said Skinner told him he was sympathetic to the economic hardship that losing Cannon would have on eastern New Mexico. However, according to Richardson, Skinner said he would support Commission Chairman Anthony Principi when it came to Cannon’s fate. Skinner said he did not know if Principi would support Cannon.
“That happens a lot,” Richardson said. “When you get on these commissions, there’s always a view that you’ve gotta be loyal to your chairman. I don’t fault him for that.”
Skinner did not respond to requests for an interview.
On Aug. 25, Richardson spoke with Commissioner Newton during a break at the hearings. Newton said he would introduce a proposal that, if approved by five commissioners, would keep Cannon open by moving a pilot training program from Moody Air Force Base in Georgia to Cannon.
Newton said he did not know if the other commissioners would support his plan or not. Richardson said he began asking commissioners where they stood — Coyle and Hill said they would support Newton’s proposal, but others would not commit.
“I keep talking to Principi and he keeps saying, ‘It’s very fluid, I don’t know.’ Kiddingly, he waves me away. He says, ‘Go away. I’ve seen enough of you,’” Richardson said.
“Then during an intermission I go to Gehman and I ask for his support and I get bad vibes. He kinda walks away. Chad (Lydick) was with me and Chad said ‘I didn’t like that.’ I said ‘I didn’t like it either. I don’t think we’ve got him.’”
Enclave discussions begin
On the afternoon of Aug. 25, the day before commissioners voted on Cannon, rumors about an enclave for Cannon began to circulate. Richardson said he heard commissioners would support a plan to keep Cannon open until 2007 in hopes DoD would find it a mission.
“So I go to Fig and I say, ‘This would be a disaster; we don’t want this because it would leave us in suspension,’” Richardson said. “He said, ‘I’ve heard about it and it’s very close.’”
Richardson said by this time he was confident Cannon could secure four votes — from Newton, Hill, Coyle and Turner — but he still could not get a read on Principi, who would likely take Skinner with him.
“Bill, I don’t know where it’s going to go,” Richardson said Newton told him that evening.
On the morning of Aug. 26, the day Cannon’s fate was decided, Richardson said he awoke to “bad signs.”
First, commissioners decided to determine the fate of Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota before discussing Cannon, increasing anxiety levels for Cannon backers.
Lydick said the delays that morning were agonizing. Harris said “we didn’t get that fuzzy feeling” they’d had previously. He said some commissioners stopped looking him in the eye.
Then, Richardson said he learned Principi would vote to close Cannon. The information, he said, came from a commissioner he declined to identify.
Commissioners soon voted to keep Ellsworth open by an 8-1 vote. Newton was the lone dissenter.
“I’m wondering why he voted that way,” Richardson said. “In my head, I’m thinking, ‘I hope this is not over Cannon.’”
Finally, commissioners begin their discussion on Cannon.
“There’s that outpouring of great support for Cannon,” Richardson said, recounting “eloquent” speeches in support of Cannon from Newton, Turner, Hill and Coyle. “So our spirits are up … and then Principi calls a recess and says they need to talk about this.”
Richardson said he went immediately to Skinner and said, “You know we need you, Sam.”
“He said ‘What about if I offer something like 2007 and you at least live?’ I said ‘No, that’s no good. Vote with us.’”
Skinner, Principi and Gehman voted against Newton’s proposal, which means — assuming the president and Congress approve the Commission’s recommendations later this year — Cannon’s planes and personnel will begin moving to other bases by 2007.
After the vote, Richardson said he approached Principi, who was sitting alone. “He said, ‘I’m sorry Bill … This is a painful thing for me,’” Richardson said.
Principi said during proceedings that he knew closing Cannon “could be very painful,” but he said he would approve the Air Force recommendation to close Cannon because “I cannot find a substantial deviation from the statutory BRAC selection criteria.”
While no one argued with the claim that eastern New Mexico’s economy would be crushed with a Cannon closure, DoD ranked economic impact low on its criteria list.
Richardson and Harris said they believe a well-placed telephone call or two may have also helped sway Principi.
“Apparently what happened is the Pentagon — not the White House, I don’t think it was political — really landed hard on Principi and said, ‘Look … you haven’t closed any major bases and you’re the base-closure chairman. At least close Cannon,’” Richardson said.
Richardson said that information came from another commissioner that Richardson would not identify.
But Commission spokesman Robert McCreary said commissioners faced no government pressure during BRAC deliberations. The process, he said, was always “very open and transparent.”
Principi could not be reached Saturday for comment.
Alive until 2010
Skinner, meanwhile, agreed to propose Cannon remain open as an enclave through 2009, giving base supporters more than four years to convince DoD that Cannon is a military strength and needs a new mission. The proposal was approved with six votes on the afternoon of Aug. 26.
“I actually feel positive about the outcome,” Richardson said. “You’ve gotta look at where we started — we were nowhere. We had nothing. Only 20 percent … of the (Pentagon recommendations) were overturned and we were one of those 20 percent, so we did get something — not everything we wanted or deserved, but we did get something.”
Richardson said New Mexico’s congressional delegation will now take the lead in asking DoD to find Cannon a new mission.
“What I like is our delegation is strong and they’ll be able to leverage this,” Richardson said. “I’ll stay involved, but I think this is where our delegation needs to take the lead. They’re involved in the budget process, so they’ll have more leverage.”
Staff writer Marlena Hartz contributed to this report.