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Georgia bases could lose some political muscle

ST. MARYS, Ga. — Having political heavyweights in the ring when national scrutiny turns to closing and consolidating military installations may help the odds a base will avoid being knocked out of service.

U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, R-1, and U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., were firmly established in office the last time the national Base Closure and Realignment Commission met, in 2005.

Before the commission met to make its recommendations on base closures and consolidating or moving commands to different bases, both elected officials staunchly supported protecting military assets in the region.

But if a BRAC commission is convened in 2015, as is expected, the 1st Congressional District will have a new congressman and U.S. senator to act as advocates for Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Fort Stewart, Hunter Army Airfield and Moody Air Force Base. Chambliss has said he will not seek re-election in 2014 and Kingston is giving up his House seat to seek the Republican nomination to succeed him.

Should Kingston win the primary and general election, he will carry some political weight with him, but he would still be a freshman in the 100-member chamber, and his successor on the coast would be a newcomer to Washington. Even with Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., continuing in the Senate, the coast would be down from three strong hitters to one.

Chris Crawford, a spokesman for Kingston, says the congressman and staff work to support the state's military bases every day. "It's something we constantly think about," he said. "We have to constantly operate on the assumption we will be looked at (by BRAC)."

Crawford said whoever wins election to replace Kingston will have to be a strong supporter of the military. "We've got four military bases in the district. It's not like you can ignore them."

Sheila McNeill, former national president of the civilian Navy League, an advocacy group for the Navy and other maritime services, says she doesn't believe Kings Bay will be targeted by a BRAC commission for closure or to lose commands.

McNeill serves as chair of the Camden Partnership, a group of business and community leaders that works to support Kings Bay. She says the loss of two strong supporters of the military with established seniority in Congress will be missed, but it doesn't mean bases in the 1st District will be more vulnerable to a BRAC.

"I don't know if it will have much of an impact," she said. "It always helps to have senior leadership. You have to at least have someone who knows the ropes."

BRAC recommendations are made with input from military leadership and elected officials, she said.

Luckily, McNeill says no bases in the region were targeted for closure the last time a BRAC was convened, in 2005.

"If we were a base up for closure (in 2005), there would be a concern about the change in (political) leadership," she said.

In 2005, Kings Bay would have been one of the big beneficiaries if the commission's recommendations had been adopted fully. The commission recommended closing a submarine base at Groton, Conn., and moving many of its assets, including the Navy's submarine school and a squadron of fast-attack submarines, to Kings Bay.

But a strong lobbying effort from elected officials in Connecticut convinced Congress to reject the recommendation to close the base. Former President Jimmy Carter, a Navy veteran, also said closing the base at Groton would be a mistake.

McNeill says her biggest concern about Kings Bay continues to be funding for a new generation of ballistic missile submarines to replace the aging Ohio-class boats.

"We're looking at a real concern now for funding and research," she said.
 

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