The campaign for California’s 26th Congressional District got a lot more competitive right before Thanksgiving, when State Assemblyman Jeff Gorell, a Camarillo Republican, announced he will be running to deny incumbent Julia Brownley, a Democrat, a second term.
The race could turn on a single issue: The future of the district’s largest employer, Naval Base Ventura County. In remarks to the Ventura County Economic Development Association on Dec. 3, Gorell said that the area faces “no greater challenge” than retaining the roughly 20,000 civilian and military jobs at the base, which sprawls across two complexes along the county shoreline.
Gorell, like most Pentagon watchers, thinks that a new round of Base Realignment and Closure, or BRAC, activity is inevitable as the White House winds down the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and looks for ways to cut costs to pay for new weapons systems.
Over the years, California has been hit hard by base closures, although in some cases — notably the conversion of the former Fort Ord to the CSU Seaside campus — creative solutions have emerged for valuable coastal real estate properties. Gorell, a commissioned Naval reserve officer who completed a tour in Afghanistan while in office, has a strong grasp of what’s at stake for the Naval Base and its employees.
But Brownley has the advantage of representing the party pulling the strings at the Pentagon, and she can count on support from allies like Sen. Dianne Feinstein, whose defense expertise is unchallenged.
When the naval base was threatened with closure more than a decade ago, U.S. Rep. Elton Gallegly crafted a bipartisan solution that involved combining the Point Mugu Naval air station and the Port Hueneme Seabee base to cut overhead costs and create a package of essential missions that were hard for the BRAC board to slice apart. Naval Base Ventura County survived a second round of BRAC although a number of its jobs were shifted to China Lake. California Lutheran University political expert Herb Gooch thinks that with the administration’s foreign policy focused on the Pacific Rim, the BRAC threat to NBVC is likely diminished.
An indication of the base’s future will come later this year when the Federal Aviation Administration names the first round of winners in a spirited national competition for drone test sights. Naval Base Ventura County’s assets, including its offshore missile test range, figure heavily in Ventura County’s application. By the numbers, the importance of NBVC’s current impact cannot be overstated. Its workforce of 20,000 is more than twice as large as the next-largest employer in the region or in Ventura County. Housing markets, retailers and many small companies are buoyed by the Naval Base and the power of its payrolls.
The coming competition between Brownley and Gorell is likely to give the base a bigger profile in the BRAC process. That’s not a bad thing.