Political expediency, the only thing faster than a private jet

Campaign ad in the New Mexico governor race

Is the political climate in your state capitol a little toasty? Wait five minutes; it will change. It always does.

Apparently, the only thing quicker than a Gulfstream G650 in a flutter test this election-year summer is the amount of time it takes for a politician to throw the state plane under the proverbial bus.

Nearly two years since leaders of the Big-3 automakers flew privately to Capitol Hill to ask for government assistance, striking up blue-collar outcry in the midst of a bleak recession, still today audience members of the political theater gasp at the mention of a public servant on a private flight.

As the finish line of the election cycle nears, some candidates think that ditching the jet is a fast fix to a sure win from a populist electorate that, at the moment, frowns upon big-ticket items on the government payroll.

Susana Martinez, Republican candidate for the New Mexico governorship, vowed last month to rid the state’s executive branch of its jet, a 2005 Citation Bravo. The state also owns a 2006 King Air and 1983 Turbo Commander, which she said would remain only for “emergencies or official state business that is a priority.” The campaign staff, according to an account in the New Mexico Independent, gave no examples of said priorities.

Martinez’ move comes as her Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, faces criticism from a report showing her use of state aircraft cost more than $360,000 during the past five years, and she reportedly violated state cost-efficiency rules 39 times.

Denish responded that she did not know of the rules and defended the jet as a necessary tool for state government. The lieutenant governor also called it a bad time to sell the Citation, which cost $5.45 million in 2005.

A quick look at the Citation Bravos listed on GlobalAir.com show that slightly older models, likely with a little higher time, will sell for a fraction of what the state paid a few years ago. Though the jet in New Mexico might get $3.5 million or more, those who understand the values provided by such aircraft will wonder the true cost of selling it.

Coincidence or not, Martinez jumped ahead in the polls near the time she announced her jet-scrapping plan.

Click to see how politicians in Florida, California and West Virgina are also making general aviation use a politcal hot button. [more]

All this comes alongside an NBAA announcement last week that highlighted New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Denish’s former boss and ticket-mate, after he issued a proclamation that designated September as Aviation and Aerospace Appreciation Month there. A statement from the NBAA notes that the fifth-largest state in geographic size only receives airline service in Albuquerque, making its many miles dependent on general aviation so state leaders can properly serve constituents.

However, the Land of Enchantment is not the only territory to see a fight take flight this fall on whether or not to spare the Citations owned by we the people.

Florida, the Sunshine State, also prepares itself for a stormy debate on its gubernatorial aircraft. Political newcomer Rick Scott, the Republican candidate in a three-horse race, wants to purge a 2003 Citation II owned by the taxpayers. However, the state’s outgoing agriculture commissioner called this a risky idea, especially with shoddy commercial airline service in Tallahassee, the capitol, rerouting many flights down the peninsula by first going north and parking in Atlanta. How else will a governor travel in during the aftermath of a possible hurricane? he asks.

A report on the web site of the Fort Myers, Fla., News-Press compares and contrasts the options of commercial flight (yes, it's time consuming and at times more expensive), as well as charter and fractional options. The paper says the latter option might make good sense for a governor in these string-tightening times. It is this same option that helped Arnold Schwarzenegger, governor of near-bankrupt California, take an economic development trip to Asia last week. The cost of using a jet can offset the benefit of business it creates.

Alas, what would a post about political wrangling be without a further mention of California and its own longstanding and unique political culture?

Current state attorney general and former governor Jerry Brown, the Democratic nominee, faces Republican Meg Whitman this November to replace Schwarenegger. A column by Scott Herhold posted on the Silicon Valley Mercury News web site looks into the history of gubernatorial aviation in the Golden State, including a tidbit on Brown’s father, former governor Pat Brown. When Ronald Reagan succeeded him as governor, he famously sold the state’s airplane, the Grizzly II.

Reagan, however, much like the current Governator, relied on a lease option to fly on state business. By the time the younger Brown ascended to the title he, a former presidential candidate, famously drove a Plymouth economy car to his office to show his penny-pinching skills and opted not to renew the aircraft lease.

Times change, though. The Whitman campaign this year drew fire to 10 flights Brown made as attorney general, trips his campaign said were law-enforcement related. However, many jaded voters construe it as a thin defense. At the same time, Brown’s staff countered that Whitman, former CEO of eBay, has spent millions of her own money to fly around the state for whistlestops.

Whew! Three states, three battles, and we haven’t even mentioned a newspaper article from Charleston, W. Va., that looks at two aircraft (a piston vs. a jet) flown by that state’s candidates for U.S. Senate.

Political postures change as often as the weather in election cycles so, for now, business aviation probably will remain a lightning rod, no matter if it costs as much to run the King Air as it does to fly the Citation.

While having no plane might mean some gain for jet-selling candidates at the looming polls, we only have to look at political history to predict the political future: Statements made during a campaign often have few things in common with the actual governmental decisions made once the ensuing term begins.