Thursday, June 2, 2011

Roundhouse Roundup: Lawmakers Enjoy Trips to Turkey

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
June 2, 2011

Some Roundhouse regulars' heads were turned in January when they saw the flag of Turkey flying above the Capitol in place of the New Mexico flag.

I jokingly suggested in my blog that the state was trying to fix the state budget problem by renting out our flagpoles to other countries. But the truth is that seven Turkish congressmen were in town to meet with the governor, legislators and other state officials.

Turks seemed to be everywhere during the session. During the past two sessions, there have been "Turkish-New Mexican Friendship Receptions" in Santa Fe with host committees that included several state officers and legislators.

And in recent months, the Turkish-New Mexico connection has grown stronger. State Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, who recently got back from a 10-day Turkish trip with several New Mexico journalists, said Wednesday that he's just one of several legislators who have traveled to Turkey courtesy of a private group.

Sens. Dede Feldman and Cisco McSorley, both Albuquerque Democrats, are currently in Turkey, Ortiz y Pino said. And another Albuquerque Democrat, state Sen. Eric Griego, even took time off of his campaign for Congress to make the trip.

Earlier this year, another group of lawmakers including Rep. Debbie Rodella, D-Española, went, he said. And last fall, Ortiz y Pino said he made his first trip there along with Senate President pro-tem Tim Jennings, D-Roswell, Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, and others.

Raul Burciaga, executive director of the Legislative Council Service, confirmed Wednesday that the state isn't paying for any of the Turkish trips. Legislative leaders in recent weeks have been talking about cutting back on out-of-state travel because of the budget crunch.

So who is paying? The cost of the travel isn't readily available. Because the state isn't paying for it, lawmakers don't have to file travel vouchers or other records with the state, Burciaga said.

The group that instigated the Turkish trips is the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians, which on its website describes itself as "a leading independent and an umbrella organization committed to advancing the interaction among American and Turkish, Turkic and Eurasian people to promote and encourage continuing good relationship and understanding through its affiliate organizations regardless of their ethnic origin, religion and other preferences."

The council "brings people together by hosting public programs and private events featuring leaders and experts with diverse views on a wide range of global and regional topics through task forces, executive forums, luncheons, conferences, studies and leadership dialogue."

Phone calls to the Houston-based group weren't returned Wednesday.

The group plans to build a Turkish cultural center in Albuquerque, which would be affiliated with the Raindrop Turkish House in Houston. The Turkish community in New Mexico is relatively small — only about 500 people, according to information on the council's website.

"They approached us about a couple of years ago about sending trade delegations," Jennings said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "A lot of people think that everyone in the Middle East hates America. They wanted to show us that's not true." He said he learned that Muslims, Christians and Jews live together in Turkey without strife.

Jennings said he and other legislators were allowed to go wherever they wanted in Turkey. "It wasn't like the government only allowed us to see what they wanted us to see."

Ortiz y Pino said the main motivation for the Turks wooing American legislators and journalists is that Turkey is trying hard to join the European Union. But the senator said a Turkish journalist told him even if Turkey doesn't get accepted in the EU, the effort has been worth it because of the reforms undertaken by his nation in seeking membership.

Ortiz y Pino said there's a lot to be learned from Turkey. "It's the world's third-fastest-growing economy," he said.

So if you begin noticing an influx of Turkish coffee, tobacco and bathhouses into New Mexico — and if Istanbul suddenly develops a hunger for green chile and tortillas — you'll know why.