Monday, August 29, 2005

Santorum Slip Cost Pa the Willow Grove Jobs

Analysis: Jury out on who won, lost politically on military bases: "Analysis: Jury out on who won, lost politically on military bases
Monday, August 29, 2005

By Maeve Reston, Post-Gazette National Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Few events in Washington can send lawmakers into a frenzy of lobbying like the release of Pentagon plans to close military bases in their states or districts.

Pennsylvania's lawmakers fared better than many last week when the independent Base Realignment and Closure Commission voted on Defense Department proposals to shut or shrink 800 bases across the country, especially when the BRAC decided to spare the 911th Airlift Wing at Pittsburgh International Airport and make it part of a new homeland security and emergency medical response center.

The main disappointment was the decision on Friday to close the Willow Grove Naval Station north of Philadelphia, even as a federal judge ruled that the Pentagon couldn't shut down the Air National Guard unit there without the state's agreement.

This largely positive but mixed success in preserving Pennsylvania military facilities makes it unclear whether the commission's decisions will significantly affect the 2006 re-election campaigns of three of the most visible players in the fight -- Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, Republican U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy of Upper St. Clair, and especially Republican U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, who was initially criticized by state Democrats when Willow Grove was put on the list because he had made comments about the base's vulnerabilities.

But the issue is sure to come up in Santorum's race against state Treasurer Robert P. Casey, a Democrat, which may be the most closely watched election in the country next year and already is drawing national attention and money. And it might play a role in the Murphy and Rendell campaigns, as well.

Murphy is likely to face a strong challenge from former state Treasurer Barbara Hafer in a congressional district that includes the 911th and other military operations at the Pittsburgh airport, while recent polls suggest Rendell is potentially vulnerable. Slightly more than 40 percent of Pennsylvanians surveyed in a recent Keystone State poll said Rendell and Santorum were doing a good or excellent job.

All three incumbents could have enhanced their prospects, however, by appearing to have fought hard to preserve Pennsylvania military facilities during the BRAC process, said Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College. Even the Willow Grove closing is unlikely to substantially hurt any of them, he said.

"Both Santorum and Rendell appeared at these facilities and argued they were going to fight to the very last man," Madonna said. "They even took the federal government to court. ... If voters are convinced they're working hard, I think it helps them."

Republican consultant Bill Green said the decision to keep the 911th open in Pittsburgh might help Murphy and Santorum in particular next year, although mainly because they avoided a base closure that would have given ammunition to their opponents.

"I don't think there are any losers or winners in this," Green said.

"The state basically had a lot of success [last week] and a whole bunch of other states didn't."

The stakes for Pennsylvania politicians were certainly less than for colleagues like Republican freshman Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, who campaigned last year against then-Minority Leader Tom Daschle on the promise that his ties to the Bush administration would keep open Ellsworth Air Force Base. The base commission spared the facility, which is the state's second largest employer.

Nor would the impact of any set of decisions about Pennsylvania's bases have been as great as in Maine, where Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia J, Snowe fought against Pentagon proposals to move 7,000 jobs out of the state. The commission agreed to save Maine's largest base, Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, but it voted to shrink others.

Thune, Snowe, Collins and other lawmakers went so far as to file a bill to delay the entire BRAC process, which they no doubt would have been pressing hard if they had lost more facilities last week at the hands of the BRAC commissioners.

Despite facing less significant consequences, Pennsylvania officials from both political parties nevertheless contend that they lobbied with just as much ferocity.

Rendell, Santorum and Republican Sen. Arlen Specter even took the rare step of suing the defense secretary for trying to deactivate Willow Grove's Air National Guard unit without the governor's consent. As a result, the loss of the overall Willow Grove facility on Friday was sweetened by their winning the first round in federal court with a ruling that for now will keep open the guard unit.

At the moment, even those Pennsylvania politicians who are likely to become vociferous adversaries as the campaign season advances -- such as Rendell and Santorum -- are complimenting one another's work in helping to preserve at least some of the state military installations that the Pentagon wanted to close.

This wasn't the case back in May when the Pentagon disclosed that Willow Grove was marked for closure. At that time, Democrats attacked Santorum for stating in April during a visit to a Pennsylvania Army Depot that "Willow Grove has an encroachment problem [with its neighboring community], which puts them in the firing line."

The day the Pentagon's hit list was released, Pennsylvania Democratic Chairman T.J. Rooney said the "responsibility for Willow Grove Naval Station lies squarely at the feet of Rick Santorum" and that Santorum's "negative comments about Willow Grove ... gave political cover to the people deciding whether it should be shut down." Santorum and other Republicans described the charge as ridiculous.

Rooney could not be reached for comment during the weekend, but Rendell praised Santorum's work in a telephone interview Friday and said he did not think the BRAC decisions should become part of any political campaigns next year.

"I'm a good Democrat and a strong supporter of [Santorum challenger] Bob Casey" Rendell said. "But let me say that all of the delegation, and that includes both senators, did everything possible. ... They couldn't have done a better job."

Phil Singer, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, made it clear that Democrats are likely to raise the closure of Willow Grove in the Santorum-Casey race, anyway.

"Santorum made comments that a number of people consider to have undermined the delegation's efforts to save Willow Grove," Singer said. "What he was doing [in recent months] was playing a game of political catch up... . A last minute scramble to cover up for a glaring error of judgment doesn't fix the problem."

Santorum maintains that he always has devoted his efforts to keeping Willow Grove open and dismissed his opponents' interpretation of his April comments about the base.

"All the elected officials did everything we could, and then some, to try to represent the state as best we could," Santorum said Friday. "I'm not going to be contributing to any potshots against any of my colleagues on either side of the aisle, but that doesn't mean my opponent won't use it."

Jay Reiff, Casey's campaign manager, said in an e-mail response over the weekend that "now is not the time to comment on the individual performances of elected officials, but instead to stand "united behind Gov. Rendell's efforts."

Madonna said Santorum could improve his chances against Casey if he continues to emphasize local bread-and-butter issues, such as working to prevent the base closures.

(Maeve Reston can be reached at mreston@nationalpress.com or 202-488-3479)"

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