Grass-Roots Efforts Helped Save Bases

Times Staff Writers

Early each morning, the South Dakotans met in a Starbucks in the lobby of a suburban Washington hotel, then fanned out along two escalators and in the foyer of a meeting room two floors below.

From their strategic locations, Republican Sen. John Thune, GOP Gov. Michael Rounds and Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth buttonholed commissioners arriving, fresh from breakfast, to the final meetings of the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission. For three days beginning last Wednesday, they sipped coffee and pleaded their case for removing South Dakota’s Ellsworth Air Force Base from the Pentagon’s list of doomed military posts.

By Thursday, Thune was a portrait of confidence.

“We have an idea about how some of these folks will come down,” Thune said at the time. “We’re hopeful.”


His GOP colleague, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, also had been working the floor Thursday, gauging whether Ellsworth’s B-1 bombers would be sent to Dyess Air Force Base in her state. If not, she at least wanted to ensure that Dyess would not lose a fleet of C-130 cargo planes, as called for under the Pentagon’s base closure plan.

When the decision came down Friday, sparing both Ellsworth and the C-130s at Dyess, Thune was ready for the cameras and Hutchison, apparently satisfied that the compromise outcome was assured, was absent.

The independent commission’s process stood in marked contrast to the system the Pentagon used to craft its own list, as described by Defense officials. The Pentagon said its rigorous analysis was free of politics. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said he had not discussed base closure with any governor or lobbyist, although Defense officials said several tried, including California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Once the Pentagon’s process was over in May, its recommendations went to the base-closing commission, a high-powered group of former military and government officials, many with corporate experience. There, base advocates were again free to meet with decision makers -- and they did it with enthusiasm. In many cases, their efforts ended with the bases being taken off of the Pentagon’s hit list, proving to supporters what they had hoped for three months: that lobbying works.


By the time they choreographed their strategic efforts to bump into commissioners each morning, the South Dakotans had met privately with each of the nine commissioners, who were barred by law from gathering in groups of more than four outside of public hearings.

In June, Thune joined other local and state leaders in Rapid City, S.D., for a presentation to members of the base-closing commission, which is known by the acronym BRAC. The commissioners were greeted by 6,000 to 8,000 South Dakotans rallying at Rushmore Plaza Civic Center, and were treated to a flag-festooned stop at Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

Locals had been lured by posters and banners around town reading: “Let’s save Ellsworth. Attend the BRAC hearing.”

“We’ve kicked over every rock,” Thune said.


Having gone through the base closure process in the previous four rounds, lawmakers and lobbyists had closely studied ways to save their bases.

“While it is an independent process, it is not an isolated process. So it is certainly possible that someone like Sen. Thune had enough contacts around to know which way the commission was likely to go,” said Jeremiah Gertler, a commission staffer during the last round of base closings in 1995 who is now a military analyst at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, a Washington think tank.

“Communities and politicians have gone to school on what works and what doesn’t, on what kinds of information the commission wants and what it doesn’t.”

The saving of Ellsworth was one of several instances -- each controversial and heavily lobbied -- in which the commission rejected the Pentagon’s recommendations to close a base. The panel also spared Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico; a Navy submarine base in Groton, Conn.; the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine; and others.


After several bases were removed from the Pentagon’s base-closing wish list and a small number were added, the Pentagon’s savings of $48 billion over 20 years looked more like $37 billion, commission Chairman Anthony J. Principi said.

Commissioners insisted that politics played no role, but some acknowledged that lobbying ensured that many base advocates got their messages heard.

“Did it help us see all sides of the story?” Commissioner Philip Coyle said of the lobbying campaigns launched by base advocates. “It did. But I don’t think itself that it led to any particular outcome the way some people would think. It’s much more subtle than that.”

When they reversed the Pentagon, members of the base-closing panel voiced disagreement with the Pentagon’s assessments. In some cases, they disagreed with the Pentagon over cost savings estimates; in others, they were not ready to part with installations that had served U.S. interests so well for so long.


Portsmouth advocates said it was no accident that their base was spared from closure.

On May 13, when the Pentagon announced its base closure recommendations, Paul O’Connor gathered the stunned civilian employees at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and pledged a fight.

“I told them this is just the beginning of the process,” said O’Connor, who heads the largest union at the southeast Maine shipyard.

In the weeks that followed, O’Connor and his team launched an offensive designed to win the hearts and minds of the base-closing commissioners.


O’Connor recalled proudly, “Every commissioner who came up to our shipyard voted to take it off the list.”

When four members of the base-closing panel visited Portsmouth on June 1, about 8,500 residents -- most wearing yellow “Save Our Shipyard” T-shirts -- lined the nearby streets to greet the commissioners.

Instead of greeting the panel angrily, the throngs of shipyard workers cheered.

"[The commissioners] were totally taken aback by the size of the crowd and the demeanor of the crowd,” O’Connor said.


That day, the base-closing commissioners listened to a presentation intended to prove that the Navy manipulated data to make its case to close Portsmouth.

Later in June, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) -- who was fighting to save the submarine base in Connecticut -- subpoenaed thousands of Pentagon documents. Portsmouth’s supporters sifted through the documents for any holes in the case for closing the shipyard to buttress their presentation, planned for a critical July 6 base-closing hearing in Boston.

On that day, residents of Kittery, Maine, and surrounding communities loaded into 60 school buses and drove to Boston to pack the Boston Convention Center, where the base-closing panel was holding its regional meeting.

When the BRAC commissioners walked into the cavernous convention center, more than 4,000 people in yellow T-shirts gave the panelists a standing ovation.


As O’Connor sees it, the decision to keep Portsmouth open proved that a massive grass-roots effort can be just as effective as inside-the-Beltway lobbying.

“On May 13, we felt betrayed,” he said. “On Aug. 24, we felt vindicated.”

The tactic was repeated in state after state, with mixed success.

In New Mexico, advocates for Cannon Air Force Base paid the high-profile Washington lobbying firm of Hyjek & Fix $100,000 to help save the base. In the end, the base lost its aircraft but will be left open until at least 2009. The commission told the Air Force to study new missions that would keep the base open thereafter. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, said afterward that he had met with every commissioner, often in their homes.


In West Virginia, the Pentagon had proposed moving eight C-130 cargo planes from a base in Charleston. During a meeting last week, 87-year-old Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) walked into the hearing room to show his concern over the Pentagon’s plan. As he did, the commission’s staff put up a slide showing that the planes would be restored under the commission’s plan.

Not every state got what it wanted. The commission agreed to move leased offices near the Pentagon and issued a recommendation that would shutter Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach, Va., unless local and state officials cleared away encroaching development.

Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner, a Democrat, testified at a hearing Aug. 20 but did not attend the final deliberations last week, leaving an overwhelmed Virginia Beach Mayor Meyera E. Oberndorf alone to face a commission demanding that the state, in the words of one commission member, “get its act together.”




Making the decisions

The nine commissioners who make up the Base Closure and Realignment Commission:

Anthony J. Principi, chairman


Served as secretary of Veterans Affairs from 2001 to 2005; has been Republican chief counsel to the Senate Armed Services Committee and Senate Veterans Affairs Committee; 1967 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy

James H. Bilbray

Former congressman who served on the House committees on foreign affairs, armed services and intelligence; member of the Army Reserve from 1955 to 1963; law degree from Washington College of Law

Philip Coyle


Senior advisor for the Center for Defense Information and an expert on military research, development and testing; former assistant secretary of Defense for operational test and evaluation

Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr.

Retired from the Navy after 35 years of active duty; last assignment was as NATO supreme commander for the Atlantic and commander in chief of the U.S. Joint Forces Command; graduate of Pennsylvania State University

James V. Hansen


A 20-year member of the House of Representatives from Utah who declined to seek reelection in 2002; served as a member of the Armed Services Committee; in the U.S. Navy from 1951 to 1955

Gen. James T. Hill

A 36-year Army career soldier who finished his service as commander of the U.S. Southern Command; graduated from Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, and from the Command and General Staff College and National War College

Gen. Lloyd W. Newton


Served 34 years in the Air Force, finishing as commander of the Air Education and Training Command; is a command pilot with more than 4,000 flying hours; graduate of Tennessee State University and George Washington University

Samuel K. Skinner

Former White House chief of staff and secretary of Transportation for President George H.W. Bush; retired chief executive of USF Corp., a transportation and logistics company; member of the Illinois National Guard and Army Reserve from 1957 to 1968

Gen. Sue E. Turner


Retired from the Air Force after 30 years of active duty; was director of nursing services for the Air Force surgeon general; nursing degrees from Incarnate World College and University of Alabama

Source: Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission