But 53-year-old Hunter's passion for the armed forces hasn't diminished. Military regalia along with pictures of naval vessels and aircraft turn his office into a veritable military museum, where Hunter extols the virtues of servicemen like a proud curator.
And while his devotion has remained steady, his authority over military policies and spending has grown since he was first elected to Congress in 1980. He has served on every subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, authorizing money to fund military operations and influencing national security policy.
Now he may be appointed to chair the full committee if Republicans maintain control of the House after the November elections.
‘‘That's a highly influential position,'' said Peter Singer, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution, a liberal think tank.
As chair, Hunter would determine hearings and the agenda for the committee, Singer said. The current Republican chair, 75-year-old Rep. Bob Stump, has decided not to seek re-election, and Hunter ranks right behind him in Republican seniority on the committee.
While the party's leadership will have to vote for the new chairman, the GOP leadership supports Hunter and other senior committee members have decided not to run for the position.
‘‘He's as knowledgeable as anyone on the committee about the military,'' said Stump, a fellow veteran who served in World War II. ‘‘He cares about the troops and he'll be a good chairman.''
Valerie Snesko, a staff assistant for Hunter, said personally, Hunter is a great man, too.
‘‘Every day I come to work for him I'm happy,'' she said. ‘‘He loves his family and country. He's one in a million.''
But if Democrats take control of the House, they will appoint one of their own to chair the committee, and Hunter will be relegated to the position of ranking minority member. Even so, Hunter's views on the military will be taken seriously as committee leader of his party.
Hunter says he believes in making sure the military has the basics, ‘‘like good boots, good weapons, plenty of ammo.'' He resists drawing comparisons between himself and the current chair, tellingly stating he admires Stump's ‘‘good, strong streak of stubbornness.''
If Hunter does chair the committee, Naval Air Facility El Centro could have some enhanced protection during the next round of congressionally authorized base closure decisions in 2005. While Hunter will not be the Imperial Valley's congressman starting in 2003, he said he still will defend Valley military interests, specifically NAF El Centro.
‘‘It's been on the chopping block before,'' Hunter said of the base. ‘‘We're going to defend it.''
The Department of Defense has recommended base closures in the past, which occurred in 1988, 1991, 1993 and 1995 with the approval of Congress and the president. According to the Government Accounting Office, the closures saved the DOD $16.7 billion through last September and is expected to save another $6.6 billion annually.
If the El Centro base were closed, Imperial County would suffer greatly, said Carmichael Yepez, public affairs officer for the base. The base's economic impact on the county is $20 million annually, he said, because it hires many local workers. Hunter said the El Centro facility is still needed because there is a huge bombing range nearby and the place has ‘‘the best flying weather in the world.''
Hunter spokesman Michael Harrison said the base is ‘‘a very good fit for both the Navy and Imperial County.''