*** UPDATED BELOW, with comments from Leahy's spokesman ***
Photos and text by Seven Days contributing writer Kevin J. Kelley.
An angry crowd assembled outside Senator Patrick Leahy's Burlington office yesterday on the eve of the election.
No, it wasn't a Tea Party contingent protesting the “socialist” voting record of one of the more progressive U.S. senators. It was a leftist segment of Leahy's constituency that might be expected to agree with him on many issues but is vocally opposed to his efforts to base F-35 stealth fighters at Burlington International Airport.
“I especially find the argument of Senator Leahy that this is good for jobs to be very offensive and not true,” said UVM English professor Nancy Welch.
Old North End resident Peggy Luhrs shouted through a bullhorn that Vermont's congressional representatives “celebrate bringing home the bacon or pork with a murder weapon that would be based in Vermont.”
Many of the 65 or so demonstrators gathered in Courthouse Plaza on Main Street alongside the “democracy puzzle” sculpture were incensed that Leahy had spurned their requests for a personal meeting on the planned F-35 deployment.
“It's outrageous,” declared Paul Fleckenstein, another Old North Ender. “He should be accountable. Who does he think he represents — the defense industry, the National Guard or the majority of Vermonters who are against wars and occupation?”
Leahy press secretary David Carle noted that members of the senator's Burlington staff had met with some of the protestors. Carle added that he would comment later on Tuesday on Leahy's response to the demonstrators' demand for a face-to-face meeting.
One of the protestors protested the protest.
Longtime peace activist Robin Lloyd complained about the “terrible signage” as the anti-warriors made their way up Church Street at twilight, led by a drum and horn troupe. Lloyd noted that no flyers had been prepared as handouts to shoppers.
“We're doing this for ourselves,” she said. “There's no effort to reach out. People don't know why we're marching.”
Burlington International has tentatively been selected by the U.S. Air Force as one of two sites in the country where F-35 jets are to be based later this decade. A final decision will be made following completion of an environmental impact statement that the Air Force says it will publish in January.
Leahy and other supporters of the F-35 say it will benefit Vermont economically, secure the future of the local branch of the Air National Guard and help safeguard the United States.
Opponents argue that basing the plane at BTV will actually result in a loss of local jobs. As the Vermont Air National Guard has acknowledged, maintenance operations for the F-35 would not be carried out in Vermont. The F-16 fighter jet, currently based at BTV, does undergo maintenance here, accounting for a sizable share of the roughly 400 jobs associated with the Air Guard.
The Stop the F-35 Coalition further contends that the plane is designed as an offensive weapon for use in wars of aggression. Several homeowners in the vicinity of BTV also oppose the plane, primarily on the grounds that it will produce intolerable noise and foul the air with benzene emissions.
David Carle, Leahy's spokesman in Washington, said in an email message early Tuesday afternoon that the senator believes “we need to provide Vermont's National Guard, and others who serve, with the best equipment and training possible and that choosing between defense-related jobs and other jobs in Vermont is a false choice.”
Carle also indicated that Leahy has been in touch with the Air Force regarding “legitimate concerns about the potential for excess noise from the F-35 engines.”
Here's Carle's message in its entirety:
There've been good discussions about the possible deployment of the F-35 to the Vermont Air National Guard with several groups and individuals, including with this group. The Air Force's deployment decision requires them to do an Environmental Impact Statement, a process that will include a 60-day public comment period. As a result of comments and letters from Vermonters and meetings between community members and the senator's aides John Tracy and State Director Chuck Ross, Senator Leahy has been in touch with the Air Force to address legitimate concerns about the potential for excess noise from the F-35 engines. The timing of the EIS and the engine noise testing is still uncertain but the senator will continue to monitor developments on these two matters.
The selection of the Vermont Air National Guard as a possible host to the F-35 is a tribute to their excellent performance, and this next-generation aircraft would be good for the Guard, for Vermont and for the nation's security. Senator Leahy believes that we need to provide Vermont's National Guard, and others who serve, with the best equipment and training possible and that choosing between defense related jobs and other jobs in Vermont is a false choice. He has steadily and successfully supported legislation and appropriations to diversify Vermont's economy, like the EB-5 foreign investors program, national organic standards and labeling, and broadband and smart grid appropriations. This work has helped Vermont have the 5th best employment rate in the country. Meanwhile the senator is at the core of a group of senators who have asked the National Commission on Debt Reduction to take a hard look at military spending, not just domestic spending, as they write their report and recommendations.
Today he's focused on this important election. He will begin to assemble his schedule in the days ahead, which will include a return trip to the Capitol to finish the work of Congress.