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Learning curve: Filner tours Navy base

February 22, 2002|By AARON CLAVERIE, Staff Writer

As part of his continuing effort to learn more about the Imperial Valley, Rep. Bob Filner, D-San Diego, toured Naval Air Facility El Centro on Thursday.

After the tour, he talked about the importance of keeping the base open, the Navy's flight demonstration team the Blue Angels and his upcoming Capitol Hill battle against federal energy regulators.

Leaning against the bed of a pickup parked just outside the facility's main gates, he began by saying, "I'm amazed at the support for this base."

Filner said the sentiment here is a sharp contrast to the attitude of his South Bay San Diego constituents who frequently complain about neighboring military facilities.

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"They complain about the noise of the jets and this and that," he said.

After redistricting takes effect in 2003, Filner's 51st district will contain most of his current South Bay district plus all of the Imperial Valley, including NAF El Centro.

To help Filner get a feel for the facility, Imperial County officials accompanied the congressman on his tour.

Asked about the concerns they raised, Filner said, "I didn't hear anything negative at all."

As for what he learned on his tour, Filner said, "I had no idea how important this base was for our national security. A Navy fighter pilot told me that there isn't one pilot that doesn't come through here."

Pilots can train year-round at NAF El Centro because of the Imperial Valley's weather.

Of the highlights of his tour, Filner said, "I saw the whole base. They're very proud of their housing."

Recently, the base completed construction of new housing for servicemen and women.

"Great houses. Any one of us would live there," he said.

While on the tour, Filner met members of the Blue Angels.

"I'd never been so close to them," he said.

Filner was given a picture of the Angels flying over New York with the World Trade Center prominently visible in the skyline.

He said pilots told him that it was an emotional moment when they gave those same pictures to New Yorkers.

"They (the New Yorkers) were in tears. They really appreciated it," he said.

Talking about the prospect of base closures, Filner said the process has been pushed back a few years but the threat is still real.

Filner said he recently voted against defense spending legislation that contained language keeping the possibility of future base closures alive. That bill passed despite his vote.

The language regarding the base closures was tucked into a large $343.3 billion defense authorization bill which sets the armed services' fiscal budget.

The bill passed with the language included but Filner said he would work alongside Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, in the house and try to keep the base open.

While Hunter voted for the bill, he has fought to keep the base open through four rounds of base closures.

"Now, you'll have two Congressman working for the base," Filner said.

Spokesman Michael Harrison said Hunter voted for the bill because "it increased defense spending that our armed forces desperately need for the war on terrorism."

Keeping NAF open is important for both Filner and Hunter since it has a $25-50 million economic impact on the Valley.

"And that's just in contracts," Filner said.

Talking about boosting that impact even more, Filner said he would ask officials here to offer seminars for local businesses so they could win military contracts.

He said the program has worked well in San Diego.

After talking about the base, Filner discussed his beef with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Lately, Filner has been making waves in Washington, D.C., by calling for an investigation of FERC's role in last year's energy crisis and the Enron debacle.

"I have a new name for FERC — Federal Enron Rubberstamping Commission," he said.

In addition to calling for an investigation of FERC's Enron ties, Filner has protested the commission's recent approval of a natural gas pipeline that could be built on Imperial County land to supply fuel to Mexicali power plants.

Even though the energy from those plants will be sent to his constituents in South Bay, Filner has opposed the plants because of local concern about air quality.

Asked if he felt Enron, the energy crisis and the slam-dunk federal approval of the pipeline is all connected, Filner said, "It's all tied together."

>> Staff Writer Aaron Claverie can be reached at 337-3419 or claverie7@hotmail.com

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