First-Family Name May Be Weapon In Carrier Battle

Jeb Bush traveled to Newport News , Va., in 2006 to do more than honor his father at the christening of the George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier. He came with a bold pitch as the governor of Florida — to bring the ship back home with him.

Most of the Bush clan was on hand for the ceremony, and Virginians now fear the weight of the first family could be the difference in a bidding war for the newest nuclear-powered carrier.

Each state wants the right to house the aircraft carrier: Florida at the Mayport Naval Station in Jacksonville; and Virginia at the Naval Station Norfolk, the world’s largest aircraft carrier base.

The decision on where to place the carrier lies with the Chief of Naval Operations and the Secretary of Defense. But this time it could be complicated by a lawsuit threatened by Virginia community leaders, who charge the Navy is dismissing their concerns and speeding along the process.

The stakes are high for both states, with both fearing they could lose at least $1 billion in annual economic activity, scores of jobs and support industries that typically blossom around the massive carrier.

The carrier will be commissioned on Jan. 10, 2009, a mere 10 days before President George W. Bush, the namesake’s other well-known son, leaves the White House.

“I hope the president does not get tied around the fact that his brother is former governor,” said outgoing Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), who as the former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee put the new carrier’s name into law.

But Warner and the state’s other senator, Jim Webb (D), oppose the carrier’s move to Mayport, a naval station not designed to house nuclear carriers. That could require an investment of upwards of $500 million to prepare the station for the Bush carrier, the senators argue.

The Florida delegation argues the cost would be lower, while Virginia’s warns that the cost could escalate.

“It is a very costly thing to put in all the infrastructure to take the big carrier,” Warner told The Hill. “At any one time in Virginia there is only one carrier, maybe at most two for a period, so there is more than adequate infrastructure to take care of it. So why do we have to duplicate it in Florida?”

But Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Warner’s and Webb’s colleague on the Armed Services panel, is convinced that Jacksonville will house the carrier as a measure of national security: dispersing the carrier fleet along the East Coast.

“I know we will get a carrier,” Nelson said in a short interview. “The testimony that we have received over and over and over [is] that you have to disperse the Atlantic fleet for security purposes.”

Having too many carriers in one port could create a strategic target for an enemy of the U.S., much like Pearl Harbor, Mayport supporters argue.

Mayport has also recently been designated the home of the 4th Fleet with responsibility over the southern hemisphere. That designation bolsters not only Mayport’s military role but also its chances of getting a nuclear-powered carrier.

Mayport was home to the conventionally powered John F. Kennedy carrier until it was decommissioned last March. To house a nuclear-powered carrier, the base would need special maintenance facilities, road improvements and dredging.


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