Former foes Thune, Johnson work together on base closing

Two bitter opponents in the 2002 South Dakota Senate race have joined forces to fight to save Ellsworth Air Force Base from the Pentagon’s chopping block.

It has been three years since Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) beat then-Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.) by 528 votes in a hotly contested race. And it’s been nine months since Thune beat Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), former Senate Minority Leader, campaigning in part on his administration connections to keep South Dakota safe from the Pentagon’s impending base realignment and closure (BRAC) round.
patrick g. ryan
Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.)


But now Thune finds himself allying with Johnson and South Dakota Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth to make the most effective case to keep the B-1 bomber base open. The B-1 fleet is now split between Ellsworth and Dyess Air Force Base in Texas, but the Air Force is planning to consolidate all the planes at Dyess.

BRAC “accelerated the relationship [with Johnson] significantly,” Thune said in a phone interview from South Dakota.

He said that he and Johnson already had several opportunities to team up on the energy and highway bills. Both were conferees on the transportation bill and proclaimed victory together in securing $1.3 billion for South Dakota.

But it took some time before the two warmed up to each other. Thune said he does not recall whether Johnson congratulated him on his victory over Daschle right away but after he was sworn in the two of them began the process of “having meetings between the delegations and try[ing] to figure out how to maximize the ability to help South Dakota.”

It took a while to develop a working relationship because “there were a lot of folks with ties to Senator Daschle,” he added.

However, it was the news that Ellsworth was on the Pentagon’s list that “forced us into a more quick way to figure out [how] to join forces and get the job done,” Thune said.

Johnson did not return a request for an interview by press time.

In Thune’s office, trying to save Ellsworth is a 24/7 task, one Congressional staff member said. “We have been working closely with Johnson’s office and with Congresswoman Herseth’s office,” the staff member said. In this instance, politics has been set aside, the staffer said.

South Dakota has been prepared to fend off the Pentagon’s BRAC rounds for the past 10 years but only this year found itself on the chopping block, said Pat McElgunn, who heads the Ellsworth Task Force, an endeavor funded by the Rapid City Chamber of Commerce, the state and private money. Washington lobbying firms the Rhoads Group and Kutak Rock LLP have been working with the task force in the past decade but have now stepped into high gear.

The independent BRAC Commission will decide Aug. 22 which bases to take off the Pentagon’s initial list before it submits the final list to the president on Sept. 8.

“Right now, we are doing everything we can to get the data in front of the commission so that [it is] able to make the decision,” Thune said. “We have been working diligently with BRAC staff and individual commissioners.”

One piece of data the South Dakota team brought to the attention of the BRAC Commission in recent weeks is that, in its analysis of moving all bombers to Dyess, the Air Force did not factor in a federal lawsuit against the Air Force that led to restrictions on low-level flyovers on the Texan training ranges, thus potentially limiting training.

“We think that is a weighty piece of information that needs to be factored in,” Thune said. “Access to the training ranges was important [to the] decision to move to Dyess.”

Some South Dakotans keep reminding themselves that Thune won on the promise to save the state from BRAC. “We are aware of … how Ellsworth came into the discussion” during the election campaign, McElgunn said. “We understand he is committed and it is the reality of whom we have in Congress.”

If Ellsworth is lost, “there will be issues for everyone,” McElgunn said, adding that “bad memories are long-lasting.”

Republicans, however, don’t think that Ellsworth’s closure would haunt Thune in his bid for reelection in 2010. “The overall question is, did the elected official do everything they could do and are in the best possible position and have the level of influence? In the case of Senator Thune [the answer] is absolutely yes,” a Republican strategist said.

“If the base does not survive, then no one could have saved it,” he said.