Taking credit for military saves

Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole have been taking credit for saving the state's military bases from the budget ax, suggesting to voters that they have the insider connections and influence that North Carolina needs.

How much influence Perdue and Dole were able to exert, though, is hard to pin down.

For starters, the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process was established to insulate decisions about base closings from the sort of political influence that Perdue and Dole claim to have exercised.

Experts and community leaders also say North Carolina was a logical place for expansion because of the importance of the state's major bases, the Pentagon's emphasis on rapid response forces, and the availability of land. Many of the key changes – such as moving a major new command from Atlanta to Fort Bragg – were done in secret with no major political input.

“North Carolina was advantaged going into the process, regardless of who stepped up as an elected official to argue the case for North Carolina,” said Robin Dorff, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.

“Elected officials are going to take credit for events such as the BRAC decision when it comes out favorable and place the blame elsewhere when it hurts their states. That's a natural part of politics.”

Dole and Perdue, both facing election battles of their own, have certainly played their parts, touting their roles in protecting an $18 billion industry in the state from a national round of base closings in 2005.

“Let me brag,” Perdue, the Democratic nominee for governor, told several hundred people meeting in Fayetteville last week to prepare for a major expansion of the Army's Fort Bragg complex. “I believe – I will go to my grave believing – that North Carolina had the biggest win in America.”

Dole, a one-term Republican seeking re-election, also has been bragging. Her latest television commercial says that Dole “helped save every major North Carolina military base. Now that's clout.”

The issue of base closings is a political trifecta for Perdue and Dole – allowing them to cast themselves as champions of economic development, as pro-military, and as effective in what has traditionally been viewed as a man's world. It is particularly important in Eastern North Carolina, where the bases are located.

“It is the oil or gold of Eastern North Carolina,” said Tom Eamon, a political science professor at East Carolina University.

Lionel Midgett, chairman of the Onslow County Commissioners, said he was grateful for the work of Perdue and Dole, and thinks they played a role in portraying North Carolina as a military-friendly state.

But Midgett, a Republican and a retired banker, said it was difficult to gauge their impact.

“Without any effort, what would have happened?” Midgett asked. “We don't know.”