Udall encouraged by Cannon briefing

By Kevin Wilson: Freedom Newspapers

Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., has been visiting eastern New Mexico for the last two days and stopped by Freedom Newspapers to answer questions about the area and Washington, D.C.

Q: How are things going for Cannon Air Force Base and its planned Special Operations mission?
A: The briefing I got from Col. West and some of his people around the base was very encouraging. First of all, the environmental impact statement is ahead of schedule, and that’s something that could have held us up in the standup date of
Oct. 1.
I don’t think there’s any doubt that Cannon is the best place for this new mission. It’s the best in terms of the range, in terms of the ramp space, in terms of the buildings that are there. It’s also a realistiic training environment for Special Operations.
The other thing they made very clear to me is there do need to be modificiations to the buidings to accept these new airplanes. That’s what the five projects the delegation is working on (are for).

Q: For many of those projects, you, Sen. Pete Domenici and others have spoken about how there are $72 million in unfunded needs for the base and its transition. So far, about $10 million has come through the Military Construction and Veteran Affairs Appropriations bill. Are you concerned about the remaining balance, because nobody’s said much since?
A: I think most of these projects are in the Department of Defense appropriations bill, which hasn’t been considered in committee in either the Senate or the House.
The money we got in the Veteran Appropriation bill was important to help the base get ready, but the top five project will be in the appropriations bill, and those are the ones Sen. Bingaman and Sen. Domenici will work on in the Senate side and I’ll work on in the House side. (The five projects are squadron operations for the unmanned aerial vehicle, the CV-22 Osprey simulator, a paint shop to deal with corrosion of planes, squadron operations for the MC-130 Combat Talon and a consolidated communiciations facility.)

Q: The Oct. 1 date is pretty firm where you stand, but other members of Congress have had opposition to the mission being at Cannon. What’s your understanding of such opposition?
A: I think many of the questions of the opposition have been answered. The only thing that I know out there … is about why the Special Operations mission is here (from a) General Accounting Office report. It’s just a question of how the decision got made, and is it a good decision? We, the members of the delegation, have an opportunity to weigh in before they finalize their report.

Q: Any chance that opposition was from members of Congress who had competing bases in their districts?
A: I’m sure. There are members that would have loved to have this Special Operations Command in their district or connected to a base in their district. This base was so ready to get it because of the factors I mentioned earlier.

Q: You’ve also been here to survey the recovery from the March tornadoes that struck eastern New Mexico. How do you see progress going?
A: It looks like things are pretty much back to normal. (Here is) what I saw shortly after the tornado striking — huge amounts of debris, people unable to inhabit their homes, homes that have been wiped out.
The situation now, three months later, is totally different. Many of those structure that were wiped out have been removed. The debris, about 10,000 tons of it, has been moved to the landfill. If you drive down the main drag in the south side community, for the most part it looks like things are in pretty good shape.
It doesn’t mean there aren’t needs left to meet, and I think the recovery council is doing a remarkable job meeting those needs, and I’m going to try to support them in any way I can.

Q: Regarding national events, President Bush on Monday commuted the sentence of former vice presidential aide Lewis “Scooter” Libby for perjury and obstruction of justice. What is your view on the matter?
A: I thought it was an appalling action taken by the president. I think for those of us that care about rule of law, it just sent all the wrong signals. I’m a former federal prosecutor and I just can’t believe how the president took over the function of judge and jury and substituted his judgment for the people that really heard all of the evidence. I’m really disappointed in that action by the president.
Q: Is there a presidential candidate you like for 2008?
A: I’m working hard for Gov. Richardson. Gov. Richardson has moved up dramatically in the polls in the early states where it really makes a difference. He’s considered in the top tier in Iowa and New Hampshire and he’s close to the top tier in other states. He’s in a good position to break through as we reach primary season.
I think if Gov. Richardson can win an early primary in the field he’s in, he’ll be in very good shape.

Q: And what of your 2008 plans? You won comfortably last year, but you might be the strongest Democrat available to run against Domenici following fallout from the U.S. attorney purge.
A: My understanding is Sen. Domenici is intending on running for the Senate. He’s doing and saying everything he needs to do to run. I’m focusing on my job in the House and I will make my decision on filing there when we get to next year.

Q: Being a former prosecutor, do you have any view on what’s going on with the prosecutor firings and the Department of Justice?
A: I would prefer at this point, since there’s an investigation going on at the federal level, and an ethics investigation in the Senate, to not comment on that issue.

— Compiled by Freedom Newspapers staff writer Kevin Wilson and edited for clarity and length.