When the Pentagon announced its recommendations for military base closures, Virginia Rep. J. Randy Forbes emerged a big winner.
As a result of base closures elsewhere, Fort Lee, near Petersburg, stands to gain more than 7,300 jobs -- a major economic boost for the district Forbes represents.
"Our plan was well-strategized and well-implemented," Forbes said in a written statement taking credit for the expansion. "Today we reap the benefits."
But if the Chesapeake Republican had gotten his way, the growth at Fort Lee would never have been possible.
Forbes was an early, vocal opponent of the base closure initiative, which would close or restructure more than 800 bases nationwide to save an estimated $5.5 billion a year.
As early as 2001, Forbes helped lead an effort in the House to derail the base closure process by questioning its fairness, costs and timing.
"Until we can develop a fair process that yields what our military requires to maintain readiness and operate efficiently, we should not hastily embark upon another round of closures," Forbes wrote in an opinion piece for USA Today when Congress was first asked to authorize this year's closure round.
Today, with thousands of new local jobs on the line, Forbes says he would not vote to delay or cancel the closure initiative.
"We've come so far now, the best thing we could do is go ahead and wrap it up and get it behind us," Forbes said.
The delicate about-face illustrates the fine line many lawmakers must walk as they navigate the high-pressure politics of military base closures.
Virginia fared relatively well in the Pentagon's recommendations, suffering only a modest loss of jobs statewide while racking up huge gains in some regions, including South Hampton Roads. But the Peninsula would take a hit with the closure of Fort Monroe and the shedding of more than 2,100 jobs from Fort Eustis.
"The cuts Virginia received are painful for some communities," said Sen. John W. Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a steadfast supporter of the base-closure effort. "But overall, we did quite well."
Sen. George Allen, R-Va., has said he would work to try to save Fort Monroe. But like many of his colleagues, he would oppose any effort to delay the closure process, an aide said Tuesday.
For first-term Rep. Thelma Drake, R-Norfolk, the impact on her district -- and perhaps her own political fortunes -- is more complex. While Naval Station Norfolk would gain 2,800 jobs, the closure of Fort Monroe would eliminate more than 3,500 jobs in Hampton, the northern part of her district.
But Drake said she has no qualms about letting the closure process go forward. "We've got to make sure the money we're spending on the military is money well spent," she said. "If there are ways we can consolidate and save money, we have an obligation to look at that."
If Fort Monroe is closed, Drake said, she does not expect to suffer political damage because of the independent nature of the base closing process. Pentagon recommendations must be reviewed by an independent commission. Congress could choose to reject the entire list, but it cannot make changes to it.
"I don't think you'll see people blaming an individual congressperson for a decision the military has made and which the law only gives us an up-or-down vote on," Drake said. "I think the public understands that we'll certainly do everything we can do for the best results for Fort Monroe, but it's not something within my power" to change.
The ability of lawmakers to distance themselves from unpopular decisions is precisely why Congress created an independent commission to assess military bases, said Paul Taibl, director for policy at Business Executives for National Security, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that advocates closing bases.
"The whole reason the commission was set up was to give Congress some cover," Taibl said. "It gives the individual congressman a chance to act independently for his district, but then come together for the good of the nation."
Still, some lawmakers must wrestle with recommendations that could come as a double-edged sword.
Fighting to save Fort Monroe, for example, could mean a greater loss of jobs at Fort Eustis in Newport News, where some Army jobs now at Monroe would be transferred.
Rep. Robert C. "Bobby" Scott, D-Newport News, who represents parts of both Hampton and Newport News, could not be reached for comment Tuesday. But Scott has pledged that he will "specifically not give up on Fort Monroe."
Forbes, meanwhile, makes no apologies for changing his stance on base closures and fighting for new jobs in his district.
"This isn't a ballgame I wanted to play in," he said. "But I played by their rules, and we knocked a home run so far. It would be unfair to say now we should go through the process all over again." *