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Differences Over Vieques Bitterly Divide Democrats


August 5, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

WASHINGTON, Aug. 4 – Prominent Democrats like Hillary Rodham Clinton, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York have helped lead the charge against the Navy's bombing exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. But behind the scenes the national party is bitterly divided over the issue.

Moderate and conservative Democrats nationwide are beginning to complain that the party, under pressure from its vocal liberal wing, has gone too far in trying to stop the training operations.

Their biggest concern, they say, is that the party has left itself vulnerable to charges that it is antimilitary, as Republicans argue that the nation's military readiness will be undermined if the Navy is driven from the island.

The rift in the party worsened after Terry McAuliffe, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, traveled to the island in a gesture of support for its people. "This is a civil rights issue," Mr. McAuliffe said.

A Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Representative Solomon P. Ortiz of Texas, was dismayed. "He may be doing this at the expense of other Democrats," Mr. Ortiz said, adding that the trip caught him by surprise. "We do not want to be seen as antimilitary because we are not."

Representative Gene Taylor, a conservative Democrat from Mississippi, said many Democrats see the Vieques issue as a way to curry favor with Hispanic voters even at the expense of national security. "That's pandering of the worst sort," Mr. Taylor said in an interview, blaming Republicans as well for politicizing the issue. "It's one of the reasons that I've gone out of my way as a Democrat to say that the views expressed by Terry McAuliffe and some of my colleagues are wrong."

While the fight is over the fate of Vieques, it has also exposed once again the fault lines that have long existed among liberal, moderate and conservative Democrats on military matters.

But Democrats siding with the military may be doing so for more than ideological reasons. Many have military bases in their districts and may be wary of attacking the Pentagon on Vieques when the military is undertaking base closings.

The Navy's most vocal critics in the Democratic Party have been Northeast liberals, who have used the issue to attack the Bush administration and to help build support among Hispanic voters.

But the liberals clearly did not expect that they would meet with such resistance, if not hostility, from moderate-to-conservative Democrats in other parts of the country. In many cases, these Democrats represent districts where the military is not only welcome but conducts similar bombing exercises.

In the case of Vieques, the Navy has been reluctant to pull out, arguing that the island gives it the unique ability to conduct naval, aerial and amphibious exercises.

Robert G. Torricelli, the senior senator from New Jersey, who ran the Senate campaigns for the Democrats last year, acknowledged the risks the Vieques debate poses for the party. "Nationally, there is certainly a backlash," Mr. Torricelli said. "It's a very regional issue."

One Democratic strategist questioned the national party's decision to take a stand on Vieques.

"There are a lot of Southern and Midwestern Democrats who are very pro-defense," he said. "I don't think they'd be too happy to see the party taking a position on this."

Several Democrats said in recent interviews that they were sympathetic to concerns that have grown in Puerto Rico in the two years since a civilian security guard was killed in a bombing accident in Vieques.

They also say the Navy has deepened resentment and suspicion toward it by dismissing the concerns raised by its critics. Making matters worse, some protesters arrested for trespassing on Navy property have said they were mistreated by the authorities while staging peaceful protests outside the military camp.

But these same Democrats said that preserving national security ought to be the main priority and that the Navy should not allow itself to be driven from the island.

One sentiment in the party is voiced by Mr. Taylor of Mississippi who says the Navy should not leave under any circumstances because the island is such a crucial training site. He says the Navy ought to go about repairing its image on the island by taking a more civic-minded role there as it does in other places where it has a presence. But other Democrats say that the Navy should leave, though only after another training site is found.

In any case, President Bush announced in May that the Navy would stop its operations on Vieques in May 2003, a decision that has alarmed the Navy's conservative supporters as well as its liberal critics.

Representative Silvestre Reyes, a Texas Democrat who is chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said the debate over Vieques had put him in a very difficult position.

On the one hand, Mr. Reyes said he was frustrated with the Navy's lack of responsiveness and felt sympathy for the people of Vieques.

On the other hand, Mr. Reyes said that he could not support calls for the Navy to leave the island immediately. "We can't afford to send our men and women into harm's way without the proper training," he said.

In contrast to other Democrats, he commended Mr. Bush's proposal, saying it could give the Navy the time it needs to find somewhere else to train.

Senator Max Cleland of Georgia, a centrist Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, also argued that the Navy needs to stay put on the island until it finds a new training site. He expressed frustration with how politicized the Vieques issue has become and brushed aside the Democratic Party chairman's characterization of it as a human rights issue.

"It's a military preparedness issue," Mr. Cleland said.

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