- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 30, 2002

The Postal Service yesterday said the move to cut 500 jobs in Arkansas is not a politically motivated decision to hurt Republican Sen. Tim Hutchinson's re-election campaign.

A Postal Service spokesman said reports that their former top lobbyist ordered the move to embarrass Mr. Hutchinson and help his Democratic rival are false.

"There is not a shred of truth to it," Gerald McKiernan said.

Mr. Hutchinson is tied in the polls with Democratic opponent Mark Pryor in the Arkansas race. The race is especially important given that the winner may tip the balance of power in the closely divided U.S. Senate. Republicans say Deborah Willhite, a known Democratic operative, tried to cut 500 jobs leaving the incumbent, Mr. Hutchinson, to be blamed for having lost jobs for the state.

Republicans say federal agencies never make major decisions with political implications this close to an election, and question the timing of the lobbyist's resignation last week.

Mr. McKiernan said Miss Willhite, senior vice president of government relations and public policy at the Postal Service, offered her resignation Oct. 21, but that it was not made public until Oct. 25. That is one day after Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, called Postmaster General John E. Potter asking if the job cuts in Arkansas were politically motivated.

Mr. Lott asked for a cost-benefit analysis of how moving resources out of Arkansas would help the agency, said Lott spokesman Ron Bonjean.

Mr. Lott also told Mr. Potter that "anyone who may be involved in playing politics in the Postal Service should not be in the Postal Service," Mr. Bonjean said.

A native of Arkansas, Miss Willhite was the Postal Service's top congressional lobbyist, along with being a contributor to the Democratic Party and a former official at the Democratic National Committee. She was also director of events at President Clinton's swearing-in ceremony in 1993.

During this election cycle, she donated $1,000 to Mr. Hutchinson's opponent and $250 to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, and $500 to Mrs. Clinton's political action committee. In the 2000 cycle, Miss Willhite contributed $1,250 to the Democratic National Committee and $750 to Mrs. Clinton.

Her phone number is unlisted and she could not be reached for comment. However, she told U.S. News & World Report "it's all a plot" to discredit her and that she planned to resign anyway. "It spins a good story."

Mr. Hutchinson's campaign also said the shutdown of the Christmas postal operations in Blytheville is politically motivated.

"When you connect the dots in this picture, it becomes hauntingly clear that it smacks of politics," said Anthony Hulen, spokesman for Mr. Hutchinson.

"All of a sudden she planned to resign that just paints a picture that is political. The bottom line is we received word from all directions that she has been put under review, that this has not been resolved, and Senator Hutchinson is still fighting to keep these jobs in Blytheville, Arkansas," Mr. Hulen said.

Mr. McKiernan said the Postal Service decided in August of last year to partner with FedEx, and that the work will instead be done out of the company's Memphis, Tenn., hub.

The Postal Service did not notify the state's congressional delegation until last month.

"The Memphis FedEx hub is only 80 miles away from the Arkansas facility, and we just didn't feel it was necessary any longer and decided not to activate this facility this year," Mr. McKiernan said.

Republicans say the closure will hurt the community of Mississippi County, which has an unemployment rate of 15.3 percent. The national average is 5.9 percent.

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