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Harman Says Defense Ties Still Intact : Politics: Representative says impending departure of Defense Secretary Les Aspin, a friend to her and local interests, won't undermine her Washington connections.

January 02, 1994|TED JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MARINA DEL REY — As the Pentagon's budget continued to shrink in 1993, Rep. Jane Harman (D-Marina del Rey) made sure the region's defense industry topped her agenda.

She earned positions on the House Armed Services Committee and the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. She and other lawmakers have been credited with helping keep the Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo, the cornerstone of the region's aerospace industry, off the Pentagon's base closure list.

What helped Harman, whose coastal district stretches from Marina del Rey to San Pedro, was her friendship with Defense Secretary Les Aspin, political observers said.

Now Aspin has resigned, and Harman does not have the same close relationship with Clinton's nominee for the post, Bobby Ray Inman, a former Navy admiral and high-level intelligence officer.

Not to worry, Harman said last week by telephone from Hilton Head, S.C., where she and her family were vacationing.

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Aspin "was enormously helpful to me," Harman said, "but you have to reflect on how government policy gets made. Virtually none gets made by one person, including Bill Clinton."

Harman's friends in high places, she said, include Deputy Defense Secretary William Perry and Defense Undersecretary John Deutch, both of whom she has known since her days working for the Carter Administration.

"The access is still as great and the logic is still the same," said Kevin Peterson, president of the South Bay Assn. of Chambers of Commerce. "We still have access to people who will continue to hear our story."

Yet her chief political opponent, Rancho Palos Verdes Councilwoman Susan Brooks, who is seeking the Republican nomination for Harman's seat, said Aspin's departure exposes the congresswoman's weak spots.

"Jane has lost her sympathetic ear to her pork-barreling strategy," Brooks said, "and the 36th District will take its place alongside every other congressional district in suffering from the . . . defense meltdown."

Brooks charged Harman with "massaging" a few defense-related contracts to South Bay companies but then voting for Clinton's defense budget, which Brooks predicted would harm the military overall.

"She's throwing out crumbs while she votes to slash the budget elsewhere," Brooks said, referring to Harman's support of the C-17 cargo jet and F/A-18 fighter plane projects, which provide thousands of jobs to the South Bay.

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But Harman's supporters laud her efforts to secure the contracts and maintain a high profile for the defense industry.

"The purpose of a congressional representative is to help your own district, not another person's district," said Bob Mulholland, the state Democratic Party's political director.

In June, political analysts pointed out, Harman helped get Vice President Al Gore to hold a town meeting at TRW in Redondo Beach, one of only a handful he held during the year.

"She's waded right in," said Malcolm Currie, retired chairman of Hughes Aircraft. "She's gotten those positions on defense committees. And she's been very energetic and quick to grasp new ideas."

Local aerospace firms, he said, have also been awarded a half-dozen federal grants to develop defense conversion projects, which apply military technology to civilian uses. Inman is a big supporter of such efforts.

"I frankly think that Jane Harman will get along great with Inman," he said. "And Southern California still has an extremely strong story to tell."

Harman might face a big challenge in 1995 when the Defense Department conducts its final round of base closures under the federal law enacted four years ago to reduce costs. Military officials have hinted at closing the Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo and the Long Beach Naval Shipyard.

"The arguments to keep them open are as good now as they were last year," Harman said. "We just have to make sure we keep making them. 'Ever vigilant,' that is my motto going forward."

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