When the Long Beach Naval Shipyard showed up on a list of recommended base closures leaked to the news media, community leaders and elected officials spent a week of intense lobbying to save it.
The result, to all appearances, was that the shipyard was one of three California military installations spared by Defense Secretary Les Aspin in a last-minute concession to the state's economic plight and political clout.
It turns out, however, that the Long Beach shipyard, which employs 4,200 civilian workers, was not on the Pentagon list to begin with, according to documents and interviews.
Now comes word from the chairman of the independent commission reviewing Aspin's list that no facility is exempt from scrutiny. In 1991, the same commission added the shipyard to the closure list before Long Beach supporters won an eleventh-hour reprieve.
The conflicting reports that began early this month underscore the uncertainty in the Long Beach community over whether its lone surviving Navy facility will be shut down.
"It's been very distressful on all of us, in particular the workers who work there and depend on the shipyard for their livelihood," said Mayor Ernie Kell. "Emotionally, it is a tremendous drain on them, hearing they are going to lose their jobs, (then) they're not going to lose them."
Military officials who participated in the current base closure decision-making process said they have no idea how Long Beach was dragged into the hectic, highly publicized drama of which installations would end up on the Defense Department's hit list.
"Long Beach was not on our list at all," said Navy spokesman Lt. Tom Van Leunen. "A lot of people made the assumption that since (Long Beach) had been listed initially in '91, we must have been looking at it this time. Then you started seeing it on all of the media lists."
But some lawmakers suggested that perhaps a political motive was at play: To soften the overall blow of devastating base cuts in California and give the state's congressional delegation the opportunity to take credit for rescuing an installation that would appear doomed.
"There's so much politics in the air that it's hard to see the facts," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), who until recently represented the shipyard area and led the fight to keep it open. "Perhaps some people in the Clinton Administration had reasons to make the news for California appear worse than it really was. Tell someone they're going to be shot in the head, and they won't mind so much when you shoot them in the leg."
When told that the Long Beach shipyard was not targeted for closure, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Thursday that it would take a "very calculating" person to put out a false list for the purpose of providing California lawmakers with some perceived political advantage.
"I wouldn't speculate except to say that if there are games going on it really casts a pall on the credibility of the whole process," said Feinstein, who held a March 12 news conference to take some credit for saving Long Beach and two other California bases. " . . . It's just terrible to play these games with people's jobs."
Rep. Jane Harman (D-Marina del Rey), who sits on the House Armed Services Committee and has 238 shipyard employees in her district, scoffed at the suggestion that the military played politics with the list. "I think it was one reporter who got it wrong and everyone else followed," Harman said.
Military and civilian workers in Long Beach have grown accustomed to the frustration of watching thousands of jobs slashed while not knowing if--or when--they might be next.
In 1991, the independent Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission put the Long Beach Naval Station, with its 17,000 military and civilian jobs, on the closure list. Also included was the Long Beach Naval Hospital and its 1,000 employees. Those cuts are expected to be completed within the next year.
The Long Beach shipyard also was targeted by the commission in 1991, but the facility was saved at the last minute when the Philadelphia shipyard was closed instead.
Anticipating that the shipyard would be targeted once again this year, freshman Rep. Steve Horn (R-Long Beach) in November initiated a lobbying effort by 16 Southern California congressional members whose districts included base workers. In addition, Long Beach officials, the city's Washington lobbyist and the Save Our Shipyard Committee, a citizens group, joined forces to promote the shipyard.
Based on feedback from Defense Department officials and the Clinton Administration, Long Beach officials were confident their shipyard would not be on the list. The facility is one of only two dry docks on the West Coast capable of repairing aircraft carriers and was rated high in military value by the Navy.
So community leaders were puzzled March 7 when the New York Times, citing anonymous sources, reported that Long Beach was one of nine California bases slated for closure by the armed services. Other publications, including the Los Angeles Times, reported the same information in the following days.
An aggressive lobbying effort was launched immediately. Horn and his colleagues wrote letters to Aspin, Sens. Feinstein and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) put pressure on the Administration and Long Beach officials visited Washington. On March 10, two days before the release of Aspin's list, 9,000 letters from shipyard workers and Long Beach-area residents were delivered to Aspin.
When Aspin released his list, it did not contain three California bases on the media's list--the Long Beach shipyard, the Presidio of Monterey and McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento.
Aspin said he had decided to take the Presidio and McClellan off the armed services' recommended list because of the disproportionate hit on California. However, last week it was announced that the two facilities may be added to the list to quiet concerns that they were eliminated for political reasons.
Aspin's list now goes to the independent commission, which has until July 1 to make its recommendations and send them to the President and Congress. If neither disapproves, the panel's proposal will take effect Sept. 1.
Now Long Beach is left to ponder the future: Will the commission target the shipyard as it did two years ago? The hundreds of electricians, painters, pipe fitters, carpenters, blacksmiths and other blue-collar workers who earn an average $12.50 per hour can do little but wait.
"We're going ahead fixing ships and just watching the process," said Bob Owens, union representative for the Metal Trades Council at the shipyard. "That is really about all you can do. You don't really have much control over anything else."
Times staff writer James Bornemeier contributed to this story.