Groton — During a daylong visit here Monday, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Christopher Shays vowed to protect the Naval Submarine Base from all closure threats and said his Republican opponent, Linda McMahon, is "clueless" about how to do so.
Shays, a former 4th District congressman who is trailing McMahon in the polls for the Aug. 14 primary, arrived outside Electric Boat at 5:30 a.m. to meet workers as they headed in for the morning, and returned to shake more hands during the afternoon shift change.
"Thanks for your good work!" he said, patting one workman on the back. He then greeted another pair as they walked out the metal turnstiles.
"You guys look too happy," Shays said, smiling.
"It's because we're going in the right direction," quipped Robert Gent, his shift concluded.
In between his visits to the shipyard gate, Shays met with reporters at the nearby U.S. Submarine Veterans Memorial Club and declared that his years of legislative experience, relationships with other lawmakers and contacts within government make him the best Senate candidate for safeguarding the Groton base.
The base narrowly dodged closure when it was targeted in the 2005 Defense Base Realignment and Closure process. The Pentagon has requested two more BRAC rounds, although Congress has not authorized them.
Shays criticized McMahon, the convention-endorsed Republican, for remarks she made last week during her own meet-and-greet outside EB's front gates. Her comments, Shays claimed, demonstrated her incomplete knowledge of how the base closure process works.
"She's clueless about the process," Shays said. "I don't know how to say it any differently than that, and her people are clueless"
During her visit, the professional wrestling magnate told The Day that if elected, whether she would approve a BRAC round would depend on the proposed cuts.
"For her to say that she would support it unless the sub base was on it just blew me away,"Shays said Monday.
He pointed out that under BRAC, lawmakers authorize a round of base closings before they know which bases will be on the list.
Once the process is started, the Pentagon creates a list of suggested "realignments" and closures that is then reviewed by a BRAC commission. Commissioners analyzes the list and allow communities a chance to argue why their base shouldn't be on it.
The commission submits a final report to the president, who can then forward it to Congress or order the commission to do more evaluation. Congress is given 45 days to reject a closure report, or it automatically becomes final.
BRAC was created in the late 1980s to minimize the role of politics in closure decisions.
"She doesn't have the experience or the knowledge to know how to fight this process," Shays said.
Coinciding with Shays' remarks, the McMahon campaign issued a news release that recalled how Shays as congressman voted in 2002 to initiate what became the 2005 BRAC process that ultimately led to the near-closure of the sub base.
Shays also voted for BRAC in 1988 and 1991, which ultimately led to the mid-1990s transfer of New London-based jobs to Newport with what is now the Naval Undersea Warfare Center.
"The congressman is desperate to attack Linda because he voted against Connecticut jobs and protecting the sub base," said Erin Isaac, McMahon's communications director.
In explaining Shays' 2002 vote, his staff said it was unknown at the time that Groton sub base would show up on the BRAC list three years later.
Shays noted that his late 1980s and early 1990s BRAC votes were in a period of military transition at the end of the Cold War. He served in Congress from 1987 through 2008.
"He never once voted against keeping the sub base open," his communications director. Amanda Bergen, said. "This is all part of their effort to distract from her enormous gaffe."
Joining Shays at his midday news conference were three local political leaders: Groton town Mayor Heather Somers, former state Sen. Cathy Cook and Jane Dauphinais, a former Groton town mayor who was district director to Republican Rob Simmons when he represented Connecticut's 2nd Congressional District.
All three women said the sub base would be safer with Shays in the Senate.
"When I read what Mrs. McMahon said about BRAC, which illustrated her complete ignorance to the process, I got even more scared about the possibility that she could become a U.S. senator," said Cook, a member of the "Team Connecticut" effort successfully lobbied to save the base.
Cook continued: "Chris Shays is the only one of the whole group of people running who has the connections at the Pentagon, who has the ability and relationships with legislators in other state delegations to be able to save the sub base should it go on the list."
Shays said he attended many BRAC-related meetings during the 2005 crisis and had a supporting role in the effort that year that got Groton off the closure list.
McMahon and Shays will face each other in the statewide Republican primary Aug. 14.
The endorsed Democrat, Chris Murphy, a 5th District congressman and the Senate race's front runner, is facing former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz in the Democratic primary that day. The candidates are vying to replace Sen. Joe Lieberman, who is retiring.