WASHINGTON — California's elected officials Monday promised to mount an all-out attack on a Defense Department proposal to shut down as many as nine military facilities throughout the state, arguing that California has suffered major economic damage from earlier rounds of military retrenchment.
As part of a Pentagon plan to reduce defense spending nationwide, a list of sites leaked to the media over the weekend targeted March Air Force Base, the Long Beach Naval Shipyard, El Toro Marine Air Station and six military facilities in the Bay Area for possible closure.
If the bases are closed, the state would lose nearly 80,000 military and civilian jobs.
"There's no way we can help our economy by sitting back and watching these cuts go into effect without protesting. I intend to carry this fight on to the base closure commission," said Rep. Vic Fazio (D-West Sacramento).
"California is devastated (by this news). With our high unemployment rate . . . to have this on top of it. It is devastating," said Rep. Norman Y. Mineta (D-San Jose).
Others had hoped that California would be spared major damage this year because it had been hurt so badly by base closings in 1991 and is staggering through its worst economic period since the Depression. The Pentagon shut down 34 bases two years ago--seven in California.
This year, the Pentagon has recommended closing at least 30 major installations nationwide.
"I had been led to believe by the Department of Defense that California would not be hard hit this round," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) The state has sustained 60% of the personnel losses of all base closures since 1988, Feinstein said, and suffers from 9.8% unemployment. "Because of . . . those reasons, (I thought) they were going to go easy on us this round."
Feinstein said she developed a case of "acid indigestion" when she first learned of the "monumental" cuts.
A contingent of 63 California legislators, on a timely visit to Capitol Hill, vowed to battle the possible closings.
Originally, the bipartisan delegation intended to follow up on requests by Gov. Pete Wilson for nearly $1.5 billion in federal immigration funds and get acquainted with the Clinton Cabinet.
But the base closure threat has taken over.
"All of a sudden it is our No. 1 topic," California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown said. "Some of us even are suggesting that you ought to close foreign bases before you start closing facilities in California."
Wilson will fly to Washington later this month to again pursue the immigration funds but now will treat the base-closing issue with equal importance, spokesman Dan Schnur said.
Some officials cautioned that Aspin could change the list, which is expected to be officially announced Friday.
"My best guess is that these are trial balloons being floated intentionally," said Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), whose district includes the El Toro Marine Air Station. "But the purpose of trial balloons is to permit them to be shot down."
The so-called "Aspin list" begins a three-step process. It will be sent to the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission, which has until July 1 to make its recommendations to President Clinton. The President can then forward the list to Congress or return it to the commission with his reasons for disapproval.
Among the eight members of the base closure commission is Cox's wife, Rebecca G. Cox, a Continental Airlines executive and former official in the Ronald Reagan Administration and at the Department of Transportation. Rebecca Cox said Monday that she will recuse herself from "any substantive discussions" involving bases in her husband's congressional district.
Not all areas of California have reason to be upset with the list. San Diego County could be a big winner.
The Navy is realigning its forces around the concept of "megaports," one each on the East and West coasts. Under that strategy, San Diego and Norfolk, Va., would be the big beneficiaries, attracting personnel and shipbuilding jobs from closed bases.
"I have mixed feelings," said Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-San Diego). "San Diego could realize huge economic benefits. I've told the Navy on several occasions that it makes good economic sense for them to keep things in one place--and that place fortunately for us is in San Diego County. But statewide, this plan deals a stunning economic blow. This is the price we pay for those who insist on drastic cuts in our national defense."
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), ranking Republican member on the Armed Services military installations subcommittee, attributed San Diego's good fortune this year to a more proactive strategy. "Last time we laid low. This time we went out ahead of the curve and made an argument for San Diego. I may not be able to get grants for school libraries, but I can help the bases."
Hunter warned that the process is far from over. "We're still vulnerable. These are the biggest cuts in defense spending since Pearl Harbor."