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As Ga. lawmaker seeks Senate seat, concerns mount over BRAC

ST. MARYS -- Few would dispute that U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, R-1, is a staunch supporter of the military.

His congressional district that stretches along the coast and inland has four bases - Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in Camden County; Fort Stewart at Hinesville; Moody Air Force Base near Valdosta and Hunter Army Airfield outside Savannah.

But his announcement Thursday that he will seek the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate seat held by retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., has some people wondering how bases in his congressional district and the state will be affected if and when the Base Closure and Realignment Commission meets in 2015.

"There's always reason to be nervous," said Tony Wege, professor of political science at College of Coastal Georgia.

President Barack Obama has included a so-called BRAC in 2015 in his proposed budget for fiscal 2014, which begins Oct. 1 and runs through Sept. 30, 2014. He had proposed one in his current budget, but it was shot down by Congress.

There may be little will in the House of Representatives or the Senate to balk this time around, given pressure in Washington to cut spending and reduce the federal deficit.

The commission would make recommendations that would include moving some commands and other assets from bases across the nation to other military facilities. Some bases would likely be recommended for closure as a way to save tax-dollars.

Though the commission is intended to remove politics from the decision-making, it doesn't always work that way.

In 2005, the last time the commission met, members recommended closing Naval Submarine Base New London at Groton, Conn., and moving the submarine school and several squadrons of fast-attack submarines from the northern base to Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay.

The move would have provided a major boost to Camden County.

But politics won the day. Elected officials at the state and federal levels in Connecticut got involved and convinced federal officials to overturn the recommendation.

"It's easier to announce a base closing and have that evolve into a base reduction," Wege said. "They are easy to talk about and difficult to do."

Former national Navy League President Sheila McNeill, who lives in Glynn County, said her concern is the district will lose a congressman who has the influence and respect to help protect Kings Bay from closure or reduction, though no one has recommended that for the newest of the two submarine bases - developed in 1978 - on the East Coast.

The economic impact of the base on the community reaches into the ionisphere. Through payroll lone, the impact is $600 million, according to the Camden Partnership, a citizens group created to support Kings Bay.

"I know (Kingston) has been a powerful voice over the years," McNeill said.

If he wins a nomination and fall election in 2014, Kingston would be considered a junior senator, which means it's unlikely he would be given important Senate committee assignments. But McNeill said Kingston's experience in Congress for two decades will still be influential when it comes to military matters.

"At least we will have someone in the Senate who understands all the issues," she said.

Wege said Kingston currently wields significant influence as a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, where spending measures originate. It's unlikely as a freshman he would be given a similar position in the Senate if he wins election, Wege said.

"As a junior senator, should he win, he will still be a junior senator," Wege said. "His experience may give him a shot at being on a Senate committee. He would have a better shot than a junior Senator without experience."

The individual taking his place in the House would wield little to no clout in Congress, but Wege doesn't think low seniority will be detrimental. He expects many other advocates from the business and military community would support Kings Bay, if necessary, before the commission meets.

Retired Army Col. Barrett King, a member of the Camden Partnership, said it's always helpful to have support for the base from a congressman with Kingston's seniority. He believes Kingston will remain a powerful supporter of Kings Bay and other military bases in the state if he moves to the Senate.

On the other hand, all bets are off if Kingston loses his bid for Senate. King said he isn't sure how it would affect Kings Bay.

He remains optimistic. "Kings Bay has a solid strategic future," he said. "My guess is, it stays the same or builds a little. If Jack loses, the winner may be equally supportive of Kings Bay."

Wege says he believes Kingston has a legitimate chance to win the Senate seat.

"He is a consummate, young, articulate, sophisticated type of candidate," he said.

He must first win the Republican nomination, which could be a costly endeavor going against U.S. Reps. Paul Broun of Athens and Phil Gingrey of Marietta. Another potential GOP candidate, former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, is said to be still making up her mind.

Kingston told supporters in a letter that he would need at least $5 million for a statewide campaign.

No Democrats have officially declared an intent to run, though several are said to be considering it, including U.S. Rep. John Barrow of Augusta and Michelle Nunn, daughter of former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn.
 

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