- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 28, 2005

ELLSWORTH AIR FORCE BASE, S.D. (AP) — When the Pentagon announced that it wanted to shut down Ellsworth Air Force Base, it was an enormous setback for Sen. John Thune. The South Dakota Republican got elected in part by repeatedly telling voters he could save the base because of his close ties to President Bush.

Mr. Thune responded to the Ellsworth news by going on the offensive. He and fellow South Dakota leaders from both parties started an intense lobbying effort. He also stopped fundraising for the Republican Party and opposed the Bush administration on a few important Senate votes.

On Friday, Mr. Thune’s political future got a big boost when a federal commission decided to save Ellsworth, home to B-1B bombers and a major player in the Cold War. He and other South Dakota politicians hailed the decision as the result of an extraordinary bipartisan campaign that convinced the commission that the military and the nation need Ellsworth.

But not everyone saw it that way.

“Politics, not the security of our country and the safety of our soldiers, is obviously a significant force driving this process,” New Jersey Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, a Democrat, said Friday. The commission voted to close New Jersey’s Fort Monmouth Army base.

“Keeping a Cold War-era base open and closing Fort Monmouth, which is essential to the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, makes no sense,” Mr. Lautenberg said.

Mr. Thune insists the process has not been political.

“This whole decision was about the merits,” he said. “It had nothing to do with the politics.”

Mr. Thune says the White House has stayed out of the process, but acknowledges that he has been in contact with the administration. Mr. Thune says he has not “recently” talked about Ellsworth with Mr. Bush, who recruited him to run against Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle last year.

He said the White House has “made it clear they are not going to be involved” with the issue, but added that “everyone in the administration knows the importance of this issue to me and to South Dakota.”

New England politicians enjoyed the same relief as Mr. Thune two days earlier when the commission spared two major Navy installations that were targeted for closure.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said the use of a federal commission to decide the fate of military installations makes the process far less political than it was previously when Congress handled such decisions.

However, Mr. Sabato said politics are involved in some fashion.

“No one believes there is never any political consideration in these decisions. It’s not human,” he said.

Paul Hirsch, a staff member for the 1991 base-closing commission and a lobbyist for several bases this year, said politics doesn’t always play into the process.

“I think politics behind the scenes plays into it, but I don’t think ‘this is a red state’ or ‘this is a blue state’ plays as prominently,” Mr. Hirsch said.

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