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St. Petersburg Times

Going On Offense For The Defense Industry


June 21, 2004
Copyright © 2004 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.

After tourism and agriculture, it's the largest piece of Florida's economy. And it's one that Gov. Jeb Bush and his advisers are eager to see preserved, if not expanded, in the years ahead.

It is Florida's defense industry, loosely defined as defense companies (and, increasingly, the homeland security business, fueled by a $40-billion federal budget), the space business and nearly two dozen military bases that dot the state from Key West to Pensacola.

Here's the quandary. Budget-conscious federal laws are hunting for more closures and streamlining of U.S. military bases worldwide. But Florida wants more military bases in the state to support and sustain its defense industry and diversify the Sunshine State's economy.

That mandate is clearly spelled out in the "Roadmap to Florida's Future.'' That's the name of the 5-year strategic plan for the state economy delivered to the governor earlier this year by the state's economic development group, Enterprise Florida.

The next round of federal recommendations to shutter military bases, known as base realignment and closures, or BRAC, is tentatively scheduled for 2005. Many states are bracing for cutbacks in their military bases, yet Florida seems almost cocky that its bases, including Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base, will be secure.

Is it the clout of Jeb, whose brother lives in the White House? Is it the 2004 presidential election, when swing-state Florida is unlikely to suffer any significant cutbacks of federal funding? Is it Florida's unique geography, good weather, abundant coastline and swift access to the South Atlantic, Caribbean and Latin America?

Well, yes, yes and yes. "Protecting Florida's military bases from BRAC is a core priority of my administration, and we will do everything within our power to prevent them from being closed or downsized,'' Gov. Bush said in Miami earlier this year.

To improve the odds, Bush gave his blessing to spend $500,000 on a new lobbying team hired this year by the state to tell federal lawmakers: Close their bases, not ours.

Bush and an advisory panel, whose members include Tampa businessman Al Austin and University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft, chose the team of RJ Natter & Associates-Piper Rudnick in March to lead Florida's base-protection campaign. The team beat out four firms, including Tampa's Holland & Knight law firm, which handled the job last year.

Natter is a recently retired Navy admiral. On Sept. 11, 2001, the day al-Qaida terrorists struck on U.S. soil, he was commander of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet in Norfolk, Va. He ordered a multitude of ships out to sea and sent the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy to the New York area.

"We have been attacked like we haven't since Pearl Harbor,'' Natter said at the time.

In 2003, Natter was involved in the decision to relocate some of the Navy's then-unpopular training exercises from Vieques, an island off Puerto Rico, to less controversial bombing ranges in Florida. That move was supported by Gov. Bush as a benefit to Florida military installations and their nearby communities.

No doubt, Natter is qualified to now protect Florida's military bases from BRAC budget cuts. To Bush, Natter and his team must seem almost like family. Lobbying partner Piper Rudnick boasts such players as former U.S. Rep. Dick Armey, R-Texas, the one-time House majority leader who crafted the very legislation that created the BRAC process.

By coincidence, Natter also recently joined the board of directors of a northern Virginia defense company called United Defense Industries. This is a business that, until recently, was closely affiliated with the Carlyle Group, an influential private investment group tied to both the Reagan and Bush administrations, and close friends of the Bush family.

Natter's fellow directors on the United Defense board include Frank C. Carlucci, the chairman emeritus of the Carlyle Group, and secretary of defense during the Reagan administration; United Defense chairman William E. Conway Jr., a Carlyle managing director; and Peter J. Clare, another Carlyle Group executive. Natter is succeeding Allan M. Holt, yet another Carlyle Group managing director, on the United Defense board.

(This project is not to be confused with another northern Virginia company, AES Corp., that recently won fast-track approval from Gov. Bush to build an underwater gas pipeline from the Bahamas to South Florida. AES chairman Richard Darman was federal budget director in the first Bush administration and is a senior adviser to the Carlyle Group.)

No big rules are broken by choosing chums of the large Reagan-Bush fraternity to help represent Florida's interests. There's probably a pragmatic argument that hiring political insiders to defend this state against government budget cuts makes perfect sense.

But in the quest to bolster the Florida economy, it's sure getting cozy around here.

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