By Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 20, 2010; 10:16 PM
VIRGINIA BEACH - In some respects, the flash points in Virginia's 2nd Congressional District mirror those in tight races across the country: the economy, health care and the question of whether the incumbent Democrat is really an independent voice or just a lackey for President Obama and the national party.
Yet in a year when so many candidates are running against federal spending and incumbency, freshman Rep. Glenn Nye (D) and auto dealer Scott Rigell (R) have also focused on more-parochial concerns: Which man would wield more influence on Capitol Hill, and who would do the better job of preventing military money and jobs from flowing out of the district?
In August, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates announced a proposal to shutter the Norfolk-based Joint Forces Command, a move that could cost the region about 6,000 jobs. Separately, the Navy is planning to move one of five nuclear aircraft carriers based in Norfolk to Mayport, Fla., taking with it an additional 10,000 jobs.
The Hampton Roads economy is heavily dependent on the military, and the Pentagon's proposals threaten to boost the unemployment rate - which, at 7.4 percent, is lower than the national average but higher than for the rest of Virginia - as it struggles to emerge from recession.
The military's plans have fueled anxiety among voters and created bad blood on the campaign trail as Nye - widely seen as one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the the Nov. 2 congressional elections - has fought the decisions and Rigell has accused him of being an ineffective guardian of the district's interests.
"I won't stand by while Washington tries to take away our carrier and Joint Forces Command," Nye said in a September campaign ad, and a spot released last week said he had "stood up to Washington" on JFCOM and "is winning the effort to save our carrier."
Nye, 36, and other Virginia lawmakers from both parties have accused the Pentagon of providing insufficient evidence to justify the JFCOM closure. Last week, Nye touted a letter to Gates from Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, stating that the committee "will be unable to support any request for legislation or funding" to close the facility until the military explains why the move makes sense.
"What we've said is, Congress has a role in this decision," Nye said. "If we write legislation that blocks the move, it can't go forward."
Rigell says Nye's record on these issues is nothing to boast about.
"There's the basic military principle [that] you're responsible for what happens on your watch," Rigell said. "This has escaped Congressman Nye."
Rigell, 50, said that Nye was taken by surprise when the Pentagon made its JFCOM announcement this past summer and that he should have been better prepared for it.
"There is this pattern of the congressman being reactionary rather than proactive," Rigell said.
Rigell suggests that Nye bears particular responsibility, given that JFCOM is in Nye's district. But some Republicans, including Rep. J. Randy Forbes (Va.), have accused the Pentagon of springing the closure on Congress, and Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and Sens. Mark Warner (D) and James Webb (D) have all complained of being blindsided by the move.
"What's sad is, Scott Rigell declared defeat on this issue to try to score political points, while I'm trying to solve the problem," Nye said.
Nye and other Democrats point out that Rigell has not articulated what he would do differently if elected.
There are about 110,000 active-duty military personnel in the Hampton Roads area, according to the Pentagon, and the presence grows to 300,000 when family members, retired veterans and reservists are included.
The 2nd District - which includes all of Virginia Beach and Virginia's Eastern Shore and parts of Hampton and Norfolk - has multiple military installations, including JFCOM and Naval Station Norfolk, the world's largest naval base. JFCOM was created in 1999 to help the military services work and fight together more effectively.
The proposed closure of JFCOM is part of a larger efficiency initiative by Gates to streamline the Pentagon's budget in anticipation of spending cuts.
At a House Armed Services hearing in September, Deputy Defense Secretary William J. Lynn III said JFCOM should be closed because its mission "can be accomplished effectively and more efficiently elsewhere within" the Pentagon. He also said the command's staff and budget have ballooned in the past decade "without any significant expansion of mission or responsibilities."
Virginia officials say they're still waiting for evidence to back up those assertions.
"What we have right now is a pronouncement made by [Gates] with nothing to back it up," Nye said.
On the carrier move, slated to occur in 2019, the Navy says that having the country's nuclear carrier fleet based at one port makes it vulnerable to an attack or a natural disaster. Nye and his colleagues counter that the cost of preparing the Florida base for a carrier would be prohibitive.
At a festival for military families Saturday at the Military Aviation Museum in Virginia Beach, people said they were paying close attention to both potential losses for the region.
"This does not bode well for the Tidewater area," said Bob Sage, a retired Navy captain who declined to say how he would vote in the 2nd District election. "However, that's qualified by my personal opinion of the resilience of this area, because I've seen it over 30 years."
Joe Geib, a retired construction worker who has cast an absentee ballot for Rigell, was less optimistic.
"If it weren't for the military, I don't know where we would be," Geib said. "The tourists would not hold us together. It's the military that keeps us together."
Nye has used his membership on the Armed Services Committee to agitate on the region's behalf, and Democratic leaders - recognizing that he occupies a swing seat - have been eager to help. Nye supporters contend that the district would be ill-served by booting him from office.
"We need him to build his seniority so that when we get to the tough times, we know we can turn to . . . Glenn," said former Virginia Beach mayor Meyera E. Oberndorf (D). She said Nye has done "a fabulous job" on JFCOM and the carrier issue.
Nye trailed Rigell by six points in the most recent independent poll, a September survey taken for the Hill newspaper. (An independent candidate, Kenny Golden, is also running, but he was not included in the poll.)
Nye's advocacy for the district's military presence is one part of his case for reelection. He also touts his having defied party leaders on such issues as the "cap and trade" energy bill and the health-care bill.
Nye notes that he has "a very broad range of support," with endorsements from such groups as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business on the right and teachers unions on the left.
Republicans point out that Nye did not announce his opposition to the health-care overhaul bill until the night before it passed, when Democratic leaders were near having the 218 votes they needed for passage.
"I think many voters truly don't need to be reminded that Congressman Nye has essentially waited until the last minute on these key votes," Rigell said. "They know instinctively that he's not leading. . . . They're looking for strong leadership."
For their part, Democrats have branded Rigell a hypocrite for saying that he opposed the Obama administration's economic stimulus efforts even as his auto dealerships made money off the "Cash for Clunkers" program.
When it comes to JFCOM and the carrier, Rigell has not said what he would do specifically to improve on Nye's performance, beyond meeting with military officials, "picking up the pieces and making the best of a difficult situation."
Beth Toone, who was manning a booth Saturday at the aviation museum for the Tidewater Military Family Services Council, said she planned to back Rigell in November after having voted for Nye in 2008. A conservative-leaning independent, she said that she disliked the health-care reform bill and that Nye waited far too long to announce his opposition to it.
But Toone didn't blame the incumbent for the threat to JFCOM.
"That," she said, "is something that I think is outside of the hands of an individual representative."