DALLAS (AP) — Politicians have frequently targeted the F-35 fighter jet program as an example of wasteful spending, but when a local congressional candidate derided the planes as "the military equivalent of the Bridge to Nowhere" his opponent blasted the position as an attack on the North Texas residents who depend on the planes for their livelihood.
Domingo Garcia, one of the candidates to represent a new U.S. House seat in Dallas and Fort Worth, has ripped defense contractor Lockheed Martin repeatedly during his campaign. Marc Veasey, his opponent in the July 31 Democratic primary runoff, has criticized Garcia and calls himself a major supporter of the project and Lockheed, which employs about 14,000 people at its Fort Worth plant.
With Congress debating major cuts to military spending, Garcia or Veasey could have to vote on the future of the project. The fight over the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the most expensive procurement program in Defense Department history, is one of the biggest differences between the two men, who largely agree on most other things.
Veasey, a state representative from Fort Worth, and Garcia, a former state representative, lawyer and activist, finished ahead of nine others in the May 29 primary election in the 33rd Congressional District. The district was drawn as a heavily Democratic one and next week's runoff will likely be decisive.
With turnout likely to be low, both men are relying on their political bases. Veasey, 41, represents a Texas House district that partly falls into the new district; Garcia, 54, is considered strongest in west and south Dallas, where he was a city councilman for four years.
Both men also appeal to separate ethnic groups: Veasey is black; Garcia is Latino.
The district is 61 percent Latino and one of two seats designed by legislators in charge of redistricting to give Texas Latinos the chance to select a congressman. Veasey has raised more donations — $712,000 up to June 30 compared to Garcia's $160,000, although Garcia has loaned his campaign $1.2 million of his own funds.
Garcia first made waves in May when he criticized three major employers in the region: Lockheed, American Airlines and GM. He said in a debate that GM's SUVs were "not good for America" and criticized American Airlines management after it filed for bankruptcy. But Garcia's toughest comments were about Lockheed. He has repeatedly compared the F-35 to the "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska that became an infamous example of budget waste.
Lockheed says that the project has overcome its earlier problems and 30 planes have been delivered. On a recent work day, employees climbed in and out of the unfinished, unpainted planes. The F-35 will come in three separate models: an Air Force plane that takes off and lands conventionally; a Marines plane that can land vertically; and a Navy plane that can land on aircraft carriers.
Lockheed spokesman Joe Stout said the company planned to build a total of 30 F-35 planes this year.
"Lockheed Martin doesn't take sides in political debates but we think it's important to note some facts about the F-35 program," Stout said in an email. "The program continues to gain momentum in flight testing and production and has been ahead of its test plan for the past 18 months."
While the goal of the project is to create cost savings in future years, Garcia said the program was a boondoggle that benefits lobbyists and special interests.
"I'm not going to defend that, but I will defend good jobs and good, responsible military spending," Garcia said. "I'm just saying, switch those jobs to jobs that will stay in Fort Worth."
Veasey has hit back, questioning Garcia's temperament and commitment to jobs.
"There have been issues on many defense projects around the country, and whatever they are, they need to be worked out ... but often times, that happens," he said in an interview. "It's not good for the taxpayer. But in the long run, this plane is going to be good for America."
It's hard to say if Garcia is picking up votes with his criticism. Veasey was endorsed by three major unions, including the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers District Lodge 776, which represents about one-quarter of the plant's workers.
"We don't need a candidate like Domingo Garcia in Congress, voting against the best interests and livelihood of the workers in the 33rd Congressional District," local president Paul Black said in a statement.
Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University, said he couldn't see how the fight over the F-35 benefitted Garcia.
"It seems to me that even if you agree with Garcia in his substantive point, it's bad politics," Jillson said. "And it seems as if Marc Veasey may not be so concerned with the substance of the project as he is the politics of this runoff, so he's standing with Lockheed, the F-35 and the people who work on it."