Washington’s budget standoff has hit hard in this military town. A sheet-metal fabricator for the Navy was just laid off after 19 years and had to rush to set up a colonoscopy before his insurance runs out. A civilian staffer at the sprawling Naval Medical Center worries that furloughs could mean losing her house.
But in Hanover County, another Virginia community of about 100,000 people just 90 minutes north, fewer eyes are glued to the latest bouts of budget politics and sequester news.
Instead, roofer Harold Oakley stood outside a gas station down a rural road from his home and saw something else as the source of his economic pain: oil and gas prices. The cost of the petroleum-based shingles he uses has doubled in four years, and customers don’t make many home improvements when they’re scrimping to pay for fuel. “When the gas goes up, the work stops,” said Oakley, 61.
The differences in the outlooks of the two places in many ways come down to federal money. In 2010, Washington spent $24,440 per person in Portsmouth, according to the latest government tally. The figure for Hanover: $8,990.
Virginia receives an outsize share of federal spending because of its constellation of military contractors and installations. But the commonwealth’s diverse communities have not benefited evenly. Portsmouth and Hanover underscore that geographic divide.
Portsmouth is home to a major navy shipyard and medical center, and the Department of Defense is the top employer in this majority-African American city in Hampton Roads. Hanover is part of a more rural and suburban community where the top three employers are the School Board, a hospital chain and the Kings Dominion amusement park.
And although the communities are in adjacent congressional districts, they are represented by two men with sharply different views of the federal government.
Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott , a Democrat whose district includes Portsmouth, blames tax breaks for undermining the nation’s budget and subjecting the country to “mindless, across-the-board” sequester cuts.
“No one is likely to come up with any alternative unless revenues are on the table,” Scott said.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Republican who represents Hanover, has emphasized the need to cut spending and hold down taxes.
He declined to comment, but at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, he cast the debate in stark terms. “It’s hard to get anything done in Washington when common ground is held hostage by tax hikes,” he said. “Families having to give more and more money to the federal government means less freedom, plain and simple.”
Scott said the “only way out” of the sequester, given opposition to new revenue, is to come up with other cuts that aren’t mindless. Problem is, he said, “no one can put a list of $1.2 trillion cuts on the table they would want to be associated with.”
So the sequester is likely to stay in place, Scott said, which will hit Hampton Roads with roughly the same punch as came from the latest recession.
In Portsmouth, surgical technician Colleen White is preparing to lose pay one day a week if she is furloughed from her job at the Naval Medical Center.
White and her husband think they will remain financially sound. He’s retired military, and that income helps give them some extra room. But White said the experience has undercut her view of being a federal worker.
“It was what you would strive for. . . . It’s solid,” she said. Now “you think, ‘Do I want that job anymore?’ ”
The sequester adds another layer onto a period of personal tragedy for the deeply religious couple. Their 21-year-old daughter died of a heroin overdose six months ago.
“Four times a month is a lot of money. We’re raising our grandchildren, so that’s a lot of day-care money,” White said. Their granddaughters are 3 and nearly 2. “I’m 52, and I have babies. God will give us the ability to always take care of them.”
The Navy’s surgeon general offered a stark public warning this month about the risks of furloughing thousands of civilians who play crucial roles caring for military patients. “Our leaders are standing up and going on the record that this is bad stuff,” Vice Adm. Matthew Nathan told a group of civilians. “We recognize you could work other places and you choose to work here.”
Necessary surgeries will continue under the sequester, according to the Navy, although “some elective care, and scope of care may be outsourced or deferred . . . always keeping patient safety foremost.”
Sharon Mason coordinates medical residents at the naval hospital. Furloughs would cut her monthly pay by $600, she said. She’s been searching for a part-time job to help cover the mortgage and might have found one doing estate sales. “I’m about to turn 53. It’s the last thing I need to do, to be cleaning out attics,” Mason said.
She’s scared and doesn’t understand how Washington expects people like her to make it. “They have no idea what even the thought of going through this is doing to us,” said Mason, whose grandfather worked in a local shipyard for more than 40 years and whose father worked at a nearby base for more than 30.
“This whole area of Virginia is just going to fold up like a house of cards,” she said. “Seventy-five percent of America doesn’t know what’s going on. . . . They are not in a military place. I’ve been here my whole life and given all my years here for this.”
But amid the elegant homes near Hanover’s Cold Harbor Battlefield, there is skepticism about the sequester’s impact.
“I ain’t worried about it,” said Allen Mock, 57, who’s in the mortgage business and was out walking his Welsh terrier, Beauregard. “It’s a lot of hype. It’s a lot of showmanship and lies. I don’t believe half of what they say is going to happen anyway.”
His wife, Betsy, a 55-year-old second-grade teacher, said they can’t bear to watch much TV news anymore. Taxes are too high, as is welfare spending, she said. “The budget is going to have to get cut, and it’s going to hurt and people are going to have to suck it up,” she said.
But the couple is unhappy with the defense cuts, and they blame President Obama and the Democrats. “They’re almost being two-faced. They want to make it seem like they care about the military spending, but I don’t think that’s the case,” Betsy Mock said.
Locally, officials in Hanover had little concern. Their community didn’t flourish on the way up and isn’t getting hit very hard on the way down, they said.
“We always talk about the housing bubble,” said Tom Harris, a former newspaper editor who now works for the county. “Many places in Virginia also went through a federal government support bubble and were in that for a long time. Now that’s going to be reduced a little bit.”
At the Chickahominy Market, Billy Briere, 50, described what cutbacks feel like to him in the private economy.
In 2007, his small construction company did $138,000 in business. But a back injury and tanking economy led him to shut it down. Now he makes $17,000 a year as a clerk at the market and is trying to get food stamps. Despite his heart attack and diabetes, he survives on the cheeseburgers and salads he gets free at work and some groceries from his parents. “Last night, I had hard-boiled eggs for supper,” he said.
He said the government spends too much, but he opposes defense cuts and slams what he sees as Obama’s intransigence. “He don’t want to do it unless it’s his way. I don’t think that’s the right way to run the country,” he said.
Back in Portsmouth, Alvin Branch, 55, is living in his boyhood home, though he’s not sure how he’s going keep up with the payments. After 19 years of building ventilation ducts that snake through Navy vessels, he was laid off this month by a contractor. The budget standoff stalled planned ship repairs, although Congress approved funds Thursday for work on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln.
“It’s kind of like crippling the country to prove a point,” Branch said of Washington politicians. “They are the employer. . . . They just cut it off. Then they have the power to go make a decision and make it happen again. I just can’t believe that.”