Shays calls McMahon ‘clueless’ on how to safeguard defense industry

Groton — Republican U.S. Senate candidate Christopher Shays intensified his attacks on the GOP front-runner in the race Monday, calling Linda McMahon “clueless” about how to safeguard Connecticut’s defense industry from another potential round of military base closures.

Meeting with reporters in between visits to General Dynamics’ Electric Boat shipyard, Shays vowed to oppose  another Base Realignment and Closure Commission, adding that another panel — which could be established in 2015 — almost certainly would target the linchpin of the region’s defense industry, the U.S. Naval Submarine Base along the Thames River.

Shays, who was joined at the event by local officials who helped keep the Groton base off a 2005 federal closure list, bristled at McMahon’s comments last week in a local newspaper in which she wouldn’t rule out supporting another BRAC downsizing effort.

“It just blew me away,” Shays said, while meeting with reporters at the U.S. Submarine Veterans Memorial Club, just north of the EB shipyard. “We know we can’t go through another round” of the federal closure commission, he said, noting that the Groton base already has been targeted three times, including during the most recent BRAC effort. “We can’t afford to lose the incredible base of knowledge of how to build a ship ahead of time and on budget.”

Citing a McMahon interview published last week in The Day of New London, Shays said, “She’s clueless about the process. I don’t know how to say it any clearer than that.”

In that interview, McMahon said she opposes closing the Groton base and would fight to keep it open. But the newspaper also reported that McMahon said a BRAC is one way to find efficiencies in defense spending, and whether she would support another would depend on what cuts were proposed.

But Shays responded Monday that Congress doesn’t know what cuts might be proposed until after it launches a base closure commission. In fact, the process is tremendously risky because once it has been set in motion, it would be very difficult — though not impossible — for any senator or congressman to stop a proposed closure in a home district.

The former 4th District congressman, who trails McMahon both in the polls — and badly in terms of available funding — has intensified his attacks lately on his opponent’s role as owner of Stamford-based World Wrestling Entertainment.

“I think she’s beyond an amateur” when it comes to defense policy, Shays said, adding that McMahon does know how to run a business that promotes “bullying” and “degradation of women.”

“What I am stressing is that I will fight tooth and nail to keep our sub base open here in Connecticut,” McMahon responded Monday. “I believe it is not only central to our national defense, but the economy of Connecticut.”

The McMahon camp also charged Shays’ latest attack is based on a double standard, and that the former congressman voted in 2002 to authorize the 2005 BRAC process and in 2004 to provide the funding needed to launch it.

“The discussion over how to balance spending cuts and protecting our sub base has to begin with a thoughtful look at how we got here: Congress hasn’t passed a budget in three years, there has been no meaningful attempts to cut wasteful spending,” McMahon campaign spokeswoman Erin Isaac said.

She added that McMahon would “proactively protect the base. She won’t wait until it’s on the chopping block to stand up for the base,” and also has a detailed plan to create jobs and balance the federal budget that cuts spending but prioritizes defense.

The only major submarine construction site in the Northeast, Electric Boat remains one of the linchpins of Connecticut’s defense industry, even though it operates at a much smaller capacity that it did before the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s.

At about that same time, the BRAC system began. Through it, Congress has empowered the U.S. Defense Department to recommend military bases for closure.

With the goal of minimizing the political atmosphere surrounding such potential closures, the system also allows the president to appoint an independent commission to conduct a public review and weigh the Pentagon’s recommendations.

Once the BRAC issues a final report, Congress must either accept or reject it as a whole, without making adjustments.

After the Pentagon recommended the Groton base for closure in 2005, Connecticut’s congressional delegation joined with then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s administration and a group of municipal and civic leaders from southeastern Connecticut to oppose that effort. The group, which Shays served on and had been dubbed “Team Connecticut,” persuaded the 2005 BRAC to leave the Groton base off the final closure list.

Shays, who served in Congress from 1987 through 2009 and chaired the National Security Subcommittee on the Government Oversight Committee, noted, “I was at all of the (base closure) meetings.

Shays was joined Monday by three supporters who worked on the 2005 save-the-base effort, including Groton Mayor Heather Somers, former Mayor Jane Dauphinais and former state Sen. Catherine Welles Cook, R-Groton.

Shays “has a wealth of knowledge,” Somers said. “He will work with both sides of the aisle.”

McMahon’s comments in The Day “illustrate her complete ignorance to the process,” Cook said.

Shays not only has a congressional track record that includes connections at the Pentagon, Cook added, but more importantly, he understands that the base, EB and the supporting defense subcontractor industry represent more than 31,000 jobs and close to $4 billion in annual economic activity.

“It would be dangerous for us in Connecticut certainly — and for the nation — to send Mrs. McMahon to the Senate,” Cook said.

“I have the contacts” Shays said. “I know about half the Senate and I have a pretty good reputation.”