NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — As President Barack Obama returned from a Florida golfing trip and Congress was on a Presidents’ Day break last week, Tommy Bassett, a nuclear machinist, was applying for a backup job at Lowe’s.
The carrier USS Abraham Lincoln was supposed to arrive at the massive shipyard here on Valentine’s Day for a multibillion-dollar overhaul that would take years and provide Bassett and some of the other 21,000 shipyard employees with steady work. But the budget deadlock in Washington prompted the Navy to delay the project. For how long, no one seems to know. Whether layoffs are coming — no one seems to know that, either.
Bassett is too anxious to wait to find out. His wife is having their first child in April, and she had to stop working for medical reasons. “If the budget doesn’t come in, they don’t have money for us,” Bassett said. “I haven’t told her yet . . . I didn’t want her to worry.”
It’s just a three-hour drive from Washington to this industrial city on the James River — where President Obama plans to appear Tuesday in his latest effort to get House Republicans to renegotiate across-the-board cuts set to begin Friday — but the distance between the politics of the nation’s capital and their consequences here is profound.
Obama is not seen in Newport News as any sort of savior but rather as the leader of a dysfunctional government that is playing havoc with people’s lives. Residents are bitter and resentful. It’s difficult to have a conversation without getting an earful of expletives. And there is little patience here for serving as political props in Washington’s latest budget drama.
“I don’t think the president ought to come down here,” said Lynn Hester, 55, whose son-in-law is a Navy veteran. “I think the president and the Senate and the Congress have let us down. I think they’ve let down the American people.”
Newport News sits at the heart of Hampton Roads, a region whose economy and identity are based largely on the tens of thousands of military personnel, contractors and veterans who live and work here. SEAL Team 6 is based in the region. Jets from Naval Air Station Oceana regularly buzz along the Virginia Beach coast. The Gallery at Military Circle mall in Norfolk sits just off Military Highway.
Newport News is where the Navy makes aircraft carriers and submarines, and this city of 180,000 feels like a company town, where generations of families have found good-paying jobs making something lasting.
Many fear that prideful past and the community it helped build will fall victim to Washington-style pettiness and irresponsibility. In language about as polite as it gets, many here feel jerked around by their national leaders.
“We’re paying them a whole lot of money … but they’re not doing a damn thing,” said Kenny Marr, a welding foreman who followed his grandfather and father into the shipyard nearly three decades ago. “If they cut here, then all the good they say they’re doing about jobs is going to disappear.”
Marr was drinking a Michelob Light with his brother-in-law David Somers at TJ’s Sports Tavern outside a shipyard entrance. Country hits, NASCAR highlights and “Gangnam Style” played in the background.
“All these other countries are laughing at us now. These [expletives] can’t pass a budget. Is the world split that much 50-50?” asked Somers, a crane operator who came to the shipyard a year ago after being laid off at an oil refinery. “I don’t understand. We got to build these ships” and maintain them, he added, or American power will “sit and rot.”
In the smoky bar, ideological lines get blurred. Somers is a union guy but not an Obama fan. He wants cash to keep flowing to the large military contractor that employs him, but he opposed the auto bailout. He needs Washington but feels manipulated by it.
“They spend our money like a drunk sailor. . . . ‘We’ll give you a little bit of something, a little piece of cheese.’ Dangle that cheese. We’re pawns, that’s what we are,” he said.
But Somers has four kids and ultimately, he said: “I’m willing to accept anything to turn the country around. If it takes me getting laid off, so be it.”
Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., who represents the nearby Chesapeake area and has constituents who work at the Newport News shipyard, introduced legislation Monday to exclude the Defense Department from sequestration and to cut the total savings target by that much.
“When people are afraid of losing their jobs, and they see how poorly this has been handled, it’s easy for them to be mad at everybody,” Forbes said. He’s glad Obama is coming to town, but when the smoke clears and the divisive debate is over, he said, they will realize he is to blame.
Executives from defense behemoth Huntington Ingalls Industries, which runs Newport News Shipbuilding, say they are disappointed by the delays in the massive, carefully staged Lincoln overhaul project, which will end up costing taxpayers even more later. Other contractors in Hampton Roads have already warned of major potential layoffs.
“The way you keep costs down is to have predictability and continuity — the exact opposite of what we have right now,” said Newport News City Manager Neil Morgan, who keeps close tabs on operations at the shipyard, the city’s “powerhouse employer.”
City officials dread the possibility that they could be in limbo for the next six or eight months. “We all hope that’s not what we’re dealing with,” Morgan said.
The uncertainty is another hit as Newport News emerges from years of sagging property values, and the effects are already being felt in a city where boarded-up shops and payday lenders coexist with historic homes and upscale restaurants.
“People are not spending what they used to,” said Ronnie McKellar, a barber and Army veteran who has seen his customer base drop by half since last fall because of military job relocations, contractor layoffs and doubts about the future. “That’s less income for me. You can’t save money if you don’t have money to save. I feel myself going to my savings account.”
The job market beyond the comfortable confines of the military can be brutal.
After grabbing dinner at Hot Dog King, where she has come for 40 years, Lynn Hester talked about her disappointment in Washington while her son-in-law chronicled his year-long struggle to find a permanent job.
“I understand a little bit better what the people during the Great Depression went through trying to find work,” said Jeremy Marks, 34, who had left the Navy after a dozen years. “I decided to get out, like an idiot. I didn’t realize how bad the economy was, because in the military you don’t realize it.”
He put in 200 applications — pizza jobs, forklift jobs, Taco Bell — and faced rejection after rejection before a temp agency finally sent him to a fuel-injector factory that likes to take former service members. They needed someone immediately. He started a week ago.
His wife, Vanessa, will use Marks’s GI Bill education benefit to get a master’s in marriage and family therapy, and she hopes to eventually find a job in one of the region’s Christian counseling services. Vanessa’s mother, who is on disability as she fights cancer, said Marks did a little dance when the job finally came through and she could stop supporting — and hounding — him.
“They should be too embarrassed to show their face,” Hester said. She saves particular skepticism for Democrats, who she said “in general have never looked out for the military.”
Daryl Johnson, a retired Army officer who works as a college math tutor in Newport News, still gets hot thinking about the consequences of an earlier budget fight in the 1970s.
He was stationed at Maryland’s Aberdeen Proving Ground and had to reach into his savings when soldiers didn’t get paid for two pay periods. They were eventually made whole, and Pentagon officials today are planning to furlough civilians first to try to protect service members. But Johnson wants Obama to come to Hampton Roads and take it straight to his colleagues at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
“I put it on Congress, I don’t put it on him,” Johnson said. “They’re messing with the military, and I don’t appreciate it. They’re messing with me. He needs to let people know that when he gets down here.”