Money slips through his fingers like so much mercury.
When the money belongs to a savings and loan, the loss is limited to its depositors--unless the loss is so enormous that the financial institution goes belly up and the taxpayers are left holding the bag.

When the money belongs to his wife and mother, the loss is but a family matter--unless it tilts the playing field, and public office is purchased like all the other trophies that grace the family mantelpiece.

But when the cash belongs to the people of Arizona, the loss is inexcusable, and all the habitual dalliances of the spendthrift son and faithless husband must come to an end.

So when J. Fife Symington III dips into public funds for $60,000 plus expenses to find work for an incompetent, inexperienced but attractive young woman with whom he has shared "private moments," he commits one kind of burglary.

He commits a different kind of sin when he permits her to ruin a golden opportunity to have a senior trade representative of the Japanese External Trade Organization placed at the Capitol--an exorbitant gaffe that has deeply offended Japanese government officials.

He commits still another trespass when he flies her to Japan to apologize in person for her diplomatic insults that have cost Arizona businesses precious ties to Japanese markets and investors.

But when he then positions Annette Alvarez to botch "the biggest and most important international transaction in the history of Arizona since statehood," his wayward and reckless conduct must stop.

The quotation belongs to Chuck Prichard, the owner of La Corona Foods in Glendale. His is a healthy, multimillion-dollar business, the only manufacturer of yogurt in the state.

He's referring to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the United States, Mexico and Canada. Congress has put NAFTA on the "fast track," and the Bush administration is working to have the agreement signed by the end of this year. A compelling story in the current issue of The National Interest predicts the free-trade agreement will go down as "the most important foreign economic policy achievement of President Bush's first term in office."

Four months ago, Prichard began writing Governor Symington to alert the new administration to the urgency of developing an Arizona strategy for free trade with Mexico. California Governor Pete Wilson, for example, has won his state tremendous favors from the Bush administration by taking an acute interest in the coming era of U.S.-Mexico free trade.

Like other business people in this state, Prichard knows the issue firsthand: Almost 50 percent of La Corona's business is done in Mexico. But Prichard's experiences with the Symington administration--especially with the governor's international relations aide Annette Alvarez--have left him cold.

"The more I didn't get answers, the more I wrote," says Prichard, whose candor and concern for public policy make him something of an endangered species these days.

Though Symington didn't see fit to meet with Prichard, the governor in late August finally "shunted [him] off" to Alvarez; the well-paid aide telephoned the businessman and apologized for the administration's failure to respond promptly. When Alvarez asked Prichard to explain the significance of his letters, Prichard recited his concerns about the importance of NAFTA and Arizona's need to compete effectively with California, New Mexico and Texas in the upcoming revolution in Mexican trade.

"But it was like talking to a wall," Prichard says of his first telephone conversation with Alvarez.

She suggested that they sit down together to discuss the issues further. On August 29, Prichard and his general manager met with Alvarez at the Department of Commerce, but she seemed uniquely "naive" about the business world. In view of her opacity, Prichard continued to work toward a meeting with the governor and other members of Arizona's international business community.

Time was of the essence. After all, Texas and California had established official trade offices in Mexico years ago (in 1971 and 1989, respectively), and New Mexico had one looming on the horizon. On the other hand, Arizona was trailing the pack, and Alvarez's lack of appreciation for the legislative and legal processes had caused a critical delay in the opening of an Arizona outpost in the burgeoning Mexican economy.

Though Mexico is Arizona's next-door neighbor, many Arizonans are unaware of the strides taken by its new leader, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, to introduce major economic reforms. Elected in 1988, Salinas unloaded state-owned industries to the private sector; backed off a corrupt labor boss who effectively ran the country's oil industry; and put the brakes on government spending and reduced trade tariffs. Before Salinas took office, as the current issue of the New York Review of Books spells out, the Mexican inflation rate was 200 percent per year; today it is about 15: "Eight years ago the Mexican economy was one of the weakest in Latin America; now it is probably the strongest."

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David J. Bodney