Few friends in high places

Published 9:56 am Saturday, August 22, 2009

David likely faced better odds against Goliath than Virginians Against the Outlying Landing Field have against Naval Air Station Oceana in the fight over whether and where to build an OLF.

Opposition Chairman Tony Clark’s frustration over his group’s inability to get even a cup of coffee with Virginia’s two gubernatorial candidates is understandable. Democrat Creigh Deeds and Republican Bob McDonnell both passed through Western Tidewater last week, but neither found time for a sit-down with OLF opponents, as has been the case throughout the campaign.

Word did come late Friday that both campaigns have agreed to arrange meetings with Clark’s group, though no dates have been set.

Clark said he’s hopeful about the opportunity for “meaningful dialog,” though OLF opponents can be forgiven if they remain a little skeptical.

Given the choice between saving a region’s economy — as many would characterize the continued viability of Oceana — or preserving a peaceful way of life for some rural Virginians, make no mistake about which way a statewide politician will lean. It’s as simple as counting the votes: nearly a half-million in metro Hampton Roads vs. 70,000 tops in the Western Tidewater localities that would be affected by an OLF.

The best McDonnell could muster in the way of support for the anti-OLF cause during a recent visit with The Tidewater News’ staff was to hope that the Navy picks northeastern North Carolina, where two sites are under consideration along with three in Western Tidewater.

With friends like that, our neighbors to the south are probably wondering, who needs enemies?

Not that North Carolina needs any help from Virginia politicians. North Carolina’s political leadership — from Raleigh to Washington — is solidly opposed to an OLF. That’s an easier political position to take, of course, in a state that derives little economic impact from Virginia Beach’s Oceana.

The most principled stand on the matter surely belongs to U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., whose 4th Congressional District includes Western Tidewater but whose voters are concentrated in suburban, populous areas of Chesapeake and Suffolk.

Forbes has said flatly that he will use his committee influence in the U.S. House of Representatives to block funding for OLF construction in any community that doesn’t want it. Should it come to down to that, Forbes’ action will cost him many more votes than it will gain him.

OLF opponents might need every fiber of political strength that Forbes can muster, because the deck is stacked against them in the Senate. U.S. Sens. Jim Webb, a former secretary of the Navy, and Mark Warner have been unapologetic in their support of doing whatever is necessary to keep Oceana at work as the economic engine of Hampton Roads.

A Department of Defense appropriations bill a few years hence that contains OLF funding in the Senate version but none in the House version would go to a conference committee of lawmakers from both chambers for negotiations. In such a scenario, Virginians Against the Outlying Landing Field can only hope that Forbes is in the room and maintains the political courage he has shown on the OLF question to date.