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Aviation secretary's job hinges on presidential election

Tampa native Francisco Sanchez, 41, will lose his new job at the Department of Transportation if George W. Bush wins the election.

By JOHN BALZ

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 20, 2000


WASHINGTON -- One week into his new job at the Department of Transportation, Francisco Sanchez found a small pamphlet on his desk: "Rules for Leaving Government."

It's standard fare for new government employees, like health insurance plans and credit union accounts, but for the newly appointed assistant secretary for aviation and international affairs it underscores the potential brevity of his new post. A George W. Bush victory this fall means a pink slip.

"I'm honestly not thinking about leaving right now," said the Tampa native. "Maybe in November I'll take a moment, but right now I'm excited about working hard for the next few months."

As assistant secretary, he has been advising on and coordinating domestic and international aviation policy in what is becoming a nightmare period for flying. Bad weather, overbooked flights, crowded air terminals and pilots who refuse to work overtime have led to record delays and fuming passengers.

Sanchez, 41, acknowledged the frustrations of air travelers and said something must be done to ease the strain on the system. Most major airports are proceeding with expansion plans and there is a new system of air traffic control on the drawing board, but Sanchez is reluctant to give specifics about exactly how the industry needs to change.

"Tweaking alone won't fix the system," he said. "We'll have to sit down with all the parties and have a serious discussion about solving some of these issues."

Born in Ybor City, Sanchez cultivated his interests in politics at an early age. His first political memory is as an 8-year-old holding a sign for former Gov. LeRoy Collins at a MacFarland Park rally. The governor stopped to shake Sanchez's hand and thank him for helping with the campaign.

"It felt like there was no one else at that rally but him and me," said Sanchez. "That moment is what piqued my interest in politics."

Sanchez signed on with Bob Graham's gubernatorial campaign in May of 1978, and after the election Graham offered him a post in the administration.

He called the Florida senator, a "wonderful role model" who would have made a "phenomenal vice president."

But it has been at the negotiation table where Sanchez has made his mark, first as a political dealmaker at the Florida Department of Commerce, then as a lawyer with a Miami law firm pushing through legislation to develop a pipeline across the state.

As a graduate student at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, he studied with world-renowned negotiating theorist Roger Fisher. Later he worked as a consultant for CMI International Group. He also served under former Florida Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay as a special assistant to the president's special envoy for the Americas.

MacKay had to use a few negotiation tactics himself to persuade Sanchez to work for him. Entrenched in a successful and lucrative consulting career, Sanchez rebuffed MacKay's initial informal recruiting before joining the office.

MacKay speaks glowingly of Sanchez: "He's got skills (as a negotiator) I could have benefited from 20 years ago."

Asked to serve by the Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater, and appointed by President Clinton in June, Sanchez was confirmed during Congress' August recess. Although he steps into a new position short on time and long on problems, Sanchez said he took the job because of the opportunity to use his negotiation skills for positive change.

"I thought we could get a lot done before (Inauguration Day)," he said.

Sanchez has plenty of other bullets on his to-do list.

He hopes to complete more open-sky agreements with other nations that would allow U.S. airlines to fly to and from those countries. He also wants to take a longer look at consolidation within the airline industry and the new air fare search engine orbitz.com, which has the financial backing of five major airlines. Sanchez wouldn't tip his hand with an analysis of the proposed US Airways and United Airlines merger, but he did say that there are "lots of questions to be answered" and that vigorous competition should be a top priority of the department.

While speaking fondly of his 12-year stint in the private sector, Sanchez also reaffirmed his affection for civil service.

"As a consultant you could help people two, three, five at a time," he said. "But in this position you can help affect policies that benefit many people. It's a real honor."

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